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The Whores' Queen

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In the sixth year of the young Queen Alexandria's reign, Lord Jakob Griffin of the Arkadian Hills – often called Jake by those closest to him – took his eldest daughter to visit Fief Miller, home of one of the lord's bannermen and a lesser lord in his own right. Clarke, heir to the Griffin estates and next in line to her father's title, saw the trip for what it was: an excuse for her father to not only show her more of their land and teach her more about their fiefs, but also to see if Lord Miller's son might make a good match for the heiress. At almost fifteen she knew her father and mother were beginning to seriously look into marriage prospects for her, hoping to find a match that would do their daughter and the Griffin name proud. She herself cared little; while other noble girls her age blushed and grinned at the idea of marriage, Clarke could care less about it. She was far more interested in learning about the four lesser fiefs to her father's land, that of the Jahas, Kanes, Millers and Sydneys, than who might one day soon be her husband. When not listening to the instructors her parents had hired to teach her all she could learn, she preferred riding and racing with her friends, helping them get in and out of mischief, and spending time with her younger sister. Marriage, as far as she was concerned, could wait.

The Miller's estate was a full two days' ride to the east. On the back of her lively piebald mare Patches – a name she had so seriously decided upon when her parents gifted the mare to her at seven – the trip flew by. Her father rode beside her, constantly quizzing her on the plants they passed and the histories her teachers had been filling her head with, grinning at every correct answer she gave. On her other side rode Lord Jakob's squire, Wells Jaha, the only child of Thelonius Jaha, the minor lord of the Jaha estates and Jake's best friend. With only a year between them, Clarke and Wells had grown up together, becoming best friends themselves, and with Jake and Thelonius's relationship it had only made sense that Lord Griffin take him on as squire when Wells expressed an interest in a knighthood. Riding between her father and best friend with a dozen or so men-at-arms traveling around them, Clarke had a hard time doing anything but laugh as they rode through the Arkadian forest.

Reaching the estate, Lord Miller met them at the gate and ushered them inside, all smiles and small bows of his head. Clarke was used to the greeting, had even come to expect it, and returned the motions directed at her with small nods of her own. She and Wells followed her father and Lord Miller into the small castle, looking around as they went. The stone structure wasn't as large as either of their own homes, but the young heiress thought it all seemed well-kept. The few tapestries hanging from the walls were clean, their colors bright and stunning in the mixture of sunlight streaming in from the windows and torches placed evenly along the walls. Servants moved about, some with armfuls of clothing or linens, others with trays or buckets or herding children, but each one of them stopped to bow to the nobles as they passed by. Clarke took it all in, only half-paying attention as she listened to her father already lost in conversation with their host.

Lord Griffin's party remained at the Miller estate for five days, at times holing himself away in Lord Miller's study and at other times walking around the castle. Winter was only a few short months away and he wanted to be sure Lord Miller had everything he would need to pass the cold season. “We support our fiefs,” he would often say to Clarke, the heiress rolling her eyes after hearing it so many times, “and our fiefs support our people. A noble is only as strong as those who follow him. Or her. If our people face hardships, it's our duty to pull them through. Remember that Clarke: your first duty is always to the people who follow you.” He and Lord Miller created lists, went through their winter stores, even visited the local village to make sure the people were doing as well as reported.

Clarke stayed in the thick of everything. If her father needed a list made, chances were she was the one doing the writing. She moved through their stores with quill and paper, keeping count of everything available, and by the time she finished she knew if she never saw another sack of grain again it would be too soon. When the lords traveled to the village she went with them, Patches eager to get out of the stable and get a little extra exercise. Her father had told her this trip would be a learning experience for her, and so it was.

Despite how busy her father kept her, she was seldom alone while at the Miller fief. Lord Miller's son Nathan kept her company at nearly all times. Though her father said he needed the experience as well, Clarke saw right through the excuse; at seventeen, Lord Miller's second son was at just the right age for a marriage arrangement to be made. While typically a first-born son and heir would be the match a father would want to make for his noble daughter, she knew as the someday Lady Griffin her husband would be required to join her at the Griffin estate. Growing up she'd often wondered if her father would reconsider that and arrange a marriage between her and Wells, a likely scenario considering their families' ties, but no such arrangements had ever been made. Now she was thankful for it: she loved Wells but as a brother and best friend, not as a husband and lover.

Whether her father thought she and Nathan would make a good match, he didn't say. Five days came and went and Jake never spoke of marriage, at least not within earshot of Clarke. Despite the way many families did it, she was relatively sure that before a potential match would be made her father would speak to her about it to get her thoughts. He always looked for her insight and opinion in just about everything, so she doubted he would ignore them with something as important as her future marital status. Nathan and his father saw their party off and Clarke waved to them as her father did before turning her focus to the road in front of her. The younger Miller seemed nice, was handsome even, but she wasn't sure she could imagine herself married to him. During their time together she'd quietly put him through tests of her own and found that though he certainly seemed smart, his wit didn't quite match up to her own. Her father often accused her of thinking too quickly for anyone else to keep up with, and she knew if she were to be married she wanted it to be with someone she didn't have to slow down for. Nathan Miller, for all he was nice and handsome, just didn't quite match her. While she knew any number of men would trip over themselves for her hand in marriage, what with her title and blonde-haired-blue-eyed looks, the idea of marriage just didn't work for her if the suitor couldn't keep up. She knew the day was coming when a suitable match would be made whether she thought he was right for her or not and dreaded it, enough that for now she pushed the thoughts from her mind.

The two Griffins spent their first day of travel going over what they had seen at the Miller fief, planning out what goods of their own they could spare to help stock up where they had been lacking and the best places to purchase everything else they'd promised to send. Wells added his own thoughts to the conversation, very much an heir in his own right and learning all the same things Lord Jake taught his daughter, until they stopped to briefly rest the horses. While the horses rested Jake took over training his squire, the two drawing their swords and having a mock battle while Clarke watched on. She'd had a few sword lessons, at ten deciding if Wells was going to learn then so would she, but the training hadn't continued. Her mother decided there were other, more important lessons for a young noblewoman to learn and by twelve her days had become so full she no longer had time to keep her sword skills sharp. If she were being honest she'd admit she never really cared for the weapon, enjoying work with bows more than the heavy sword, but she was too stubborn to say as much out loud. Instead she stuck with the many other lessons in her day, squeezing in bow work when she could and left the sword to Wells and their friends Bellamy and Octavia Blake. Between the Blakes and her father, Wells had all the dueling partners he really needed, so she just didn't say anything and silently slipped the sword she'd been given to Octavia who gladly accepted it.

Once the horses were rested they continued on, cutting out another handful of miles before the sun began to set behind the trees. Knowing it would be foolish to try to keep going in the dark, Jake led them to a small inn he often stayed at when traveling, one Clarke had been to a number of times before. The innkeeper was delighted to see them, telling them he'd been expecting them after their stay a few days earlier, and promised hot baths for the nobles and a warm meal for the entire party. Only a couple of hours later Clarke stripped out of her traveling clothes and changed into her nightgown, yawning by the time she let her body drop into the bed waiting for her. She knew her father was likely still up in his adjoining room, probably going back over any number of the lists they'd made, but she couldn't dig up enough energy to go join him. Her thighs and back ached after a long day in the saddle, her eyes burned, dry and tired, and despite the fire dancing in the hearth in her room there was a slight chill in the air. Laying down she tugged the warm fall blanket under her chin and closed her eyes, ready to let sleep take over so she could rest up for another day of travel.

***

Abigail Griffin, the Lady of the Arkadian Hills, gaped wide-eyed at the man standing in front of her. This man had ridden east with her husband and daughter a week ago and though she had expected them back around this time, she'd never expected this. She could read the exhaustion that bore down on him, so firmly that he practically swayed where he stood. His hair was a mess, windswept and filthy. The pants and shirt he wore, once of good quality, now bore holes where the cloth had burned away, while patches of sooty black stood out along the rest of the fabric. Where those holes were revealed patches of skin, and what skin she could see appeared red and raw and angry. The healer in her wanted to whisk him away immediately to be seen to, but the wife and mother in her remained unmoved, stuck in a state of stupor, terror breaking through in thin veins.

“Say... Say that again,” she demanded, her voice breaking. Her mind had difficulty forming coherent thoughts and those thoughts nearly refused to translate into words. She could see the pity in the man's eyes as he did as she ordered.

Fire. A fire had burned down an inn, the same one that Lord Jakob Griffin and Clarke Griffin had been staying at. As they slept the fire had started, and soon the entire building was engulfed in flames. According to the man-at-arms he'd only made it out because he'd been with the horses in the stables, and as it was he'd barely managed to escape with his life. No occupants inside had been able to get out. He'd heard their screams, but there was nothing he could do to save them.

News of the fire traveled nearly as fast as those flames had in the Arkadian Hills, and soon everyone, from nobles to the poorest street urchin, had heard: Lord Griffin was dead, and so was his eldest daughter. The lesser lords and their families mourned, Lord Griffin having been loved by them all, and even the commoners cried out for the loss. A change in noble rank seldom meant anything good, and the old lord had been kind to them. With a woman who'd only married into the Griffin family in charge, what would this mean for them?

For days Abby locked herself away in her room, her only company her only remaining child. Madelaine – nicknamed Madi by her sister before she could even remember – clutched her mother as the older woman held her close, her grip so tight the little girl could barely catch her breath. More than once she asked her mother when her father and sister would be home, and each time Abby's grip around her only seemed to tighten more. The six-year-old-and-sudden-heir didn't understand, just wanted her sister, and began crying when her mother tried to explain Clarke wouldn't be back.

Arkadia mourned, and in one small room mother and daughter wept, everything about their lives suddenly changed forever.

***

Seven Years Later

Queen Alexandria Woods stopped herself just in time from shifting her weight from one foot to the other. It wouldn't do for any of the dozens of people in the room to know of her boredom, so she instead mentally checked her posture, straightening her spine a hair and letting her shoulders set back. The movements were slight, almost minuscule, but she knew they would help her portray the image of royal interest, even if she was entirely uninterested in the party going on around her. Unfortunately for her, she had about three months of them to get through, and this was only the second. She knew it was a small price to pay for a war won, but at the moment she felt she'd rather be knee-deep in mud on the battle field than dressed in silk and surrounded by all the pomp of a royal celebration.

For four years her people had been at war with the Reapers, the monstrous neighbors far to the south that had killed her father and made her queen at only eleven. For years before that she had fought an entirely different kind of war, trying to unite the thirteen major houses into one solid nation of people, what was now known as the Kongeda Nation. The next three months would be the first true opportunity the thirteen Lords and Ladies and lesser nobility had to come together in peace and truly establish their reconciled nation together. It was a much needed opportunity but one the queen dreaded.

The queen – called Lexa only by the few people she would consider friends – scanned the crowd and internally winced when she caught Titus, her adviser and the man who had practically raised her since her father's death, glancing quickly over the crowded room despite the fact he himself never moved. Though for most this time would be used to steady themselves and come together after a war that had drained them all, Lexa knew Titus had other plans, ones that didn't involve any kind of resting and entirely revolved around the queen.

For years now the adviser had been on her to find a husband, the need to birth an heir and ensure her legacy a top priority of his. As a child queen Lexa fully understood better than most what a country without an heir faced, but she had neglected that one duty, putting it off for as long as she could. Uniting Kongeda had been too important, she'd argued with him at seventeen, to risk it by choosing a husband from only one noble family. Three years later her united nation had been formed which meant she'd finally had the army to fight the Reapers, arguing whenever Titus brought up the subject of marriage and babies that her brother Aden was the heir and that was enough until their enemy was beat. Now the monsters had all but been defeated, only small skirmishes still taking place where Lexa's army had beaten them back and into hiding, and she no longer had any good excuses to put off the subject of marriage. Titus certainly wouldn't listen to how the idea of getting into bed with a man made her skin crawl any time she thought of it, and that's all she had now. As she'd been taught, she would do her duty, find a husband, and secure her line.

Surely though she didn't have to choose that man tonight.

“Bored Your Majesty?” she heard a voice murmur quietly behind her, and she felt the corner of her mouth twitch up into the barest hint of a smile. She would know that voice anywhere and therefore didn't have to turn to know who spoke.

“Not nearly as bored as I'm sure you are,” she replied, keeping her voice down low so only her companion could hear her. It wouldn't do for any of her guests to overhear, but luckily somehow a pocket of space had developed around her momentarily, everyone apparently too occupied by food, dancing, or any of the dozens of others in the room to hang off the queen's shoulders. Moments like these were rare and she treasured them.

Glancing over her shoulder she caught Anya hiding a grin behind her goblet before taking a sip. Unlike the rest of the room the head of her own personal guard drank water; Lexa knew Anya never had more than a single glass of wine at any occasion, and never any when she was on duty. Technically tonight she wasn't, had been invited to the party as the queen's personal guest and a lesser noble in her own right, but Lexa knew Anya still considered it her job to keep the queen safe. Even though the Captain of the Guards had strategically placed Guardsmen throughout the room Anya wore her sword at her waist and her eyes constantly scanned for any signs of trouble. Lexa's safety had been drilled into the older woman since they were young and would always be of the utmost importance to her. At times it had irked the queen, knowing she was always watched when she knew she could take care of herself, but at the same time she understood; with Aden as the only possible heir her life must be protected at all times. If she died the country she had just managed to unite would fall apart, and the results would be a bloodbath as those who believed they could rule fought for the throne. If somebody had to be protecting her at all times, she was at least glad it was her only true friend.

“At least I don't have to kiss the feet of everyone in this room,” Anya told her easily. “All I have to do is stand here and watch you do it.”

To anyone else her words had no affect on the queen, no noticeable change in her expression taking place, but Anya knew her well enough to see the slightest shift of her brow and hid another grin behind her goblet.

“I will not be kissing anyone's feet,” Lexa argued, her tone even though she knew Anya could hear the resentment that laced itself through the words. The smug look remained on her guard's face and she almost rolled her eyes. She didn't of course, but she wanted to.

“Of course you will,” Anya replied, looking nonchalantly around the room as though they might be discussing something as trivial as the weather. “All these pretty lords and ladies will kiss your feet and you'll kiss theirs right back. It's the way of your world, Your Majesty.”

Lexa ticked an eyebrow up, her expression also one of casual interest. At that moment a servant walked over to her, bowing his head respectfully to the queen and holding out a tray of crystal glasses to her. She accepted one of the goblets with a nod and then took a sip from it, the sweet wine a much needed relief. Looking over the rim of the glass to her friend, she asked mildly, “And when will you be kissing my feet, Lady Anya?” The question was a pointed reminder that though she often tried to forget it, Anya herself was one of the pretty lords and ladies in the room.

The remark worked exactly as Lexa had known it would and Anya scowled, not even trying to cover the look up. “I will happily knock you off your feet in the training yard, but you know I'll never be kissing them,” she growled and Lexa's face lit up at the challenge. She loved a good fight more than just about anything, and Anya was one of the few opponents who wouldn't hold back just because of her title. “Tomorrow then,” she agreed with a slight nod, matching the grin that slowly tugged at her guard's expression. “We'll see who knocks who off their feet.” Glancing past Anya she caught Titus watching her and winced, all too familiar with the look he was giving her. “For now though, I have feet to kiss.”

Anya's grin grew again and she held up her goblet in a mock salute. “Good luck, Your Majesty. Hopefully everyone washed thoroughly before coming tonight.” Lexa's nose scrunched up at the image Anya had given her and her guard let out a quiet chuckle, and then the queen pulled herself away, her expression immediately even once again as she turned to the rest of the room. Spotting a group from the Ingrona Plains standing nearby she moved over to them, nodding as they all bowed to their queen.

For hours Lexa circled the room, making sure to talk to everyone present. As the time ticked by more people seemed to appear, but she knew the dozens now would only grow as the spring turned to summer. Currently only seven of the great houses were represented, those who didn't have as far to travel or who had come back to the capitol with the queen at the end of the war rather than go back to their fiefs. The rest would trickle in slowly she knew, so that by mid-to-late summer each house would be accounted for. By then Titus would expect her to choose a husband and likely by the start of fall she would be married. In a year she would be fat with an heir growing inside her; the thought made a shiver crawl up her spine and she doubled down on her efforts of speaking with the lords and ladies around her just so she could try to forget it.

The queen danced with lords and ladies alike, the soft music coming from the strings of the musicians she'd hired for the night wafting gently over the crowd. Others she simply spoke with, covering topics all the way from the recent war to the different types of agriculture the thirteen houses provided for their nation. To sons and a few daughters she spoke of knight's training, some still in their squire years and others newly-made knights. Though she had never gone through the training herself she'd experienced pieces of it and learned far more of it from Anya, enough that she could easily speak to it with those who had. With many of the lords and ladies she mourned the loss of their children, young men and women who had fought in her war and lost their lives. It was really only in those moments she gave her undivided attention, a chord of guilt striking inside her as mothers did their best not to weep and fathers held their shoulders back proudly: their children had died in her fight, her war, and she knew she would continue to mourn the losses for the rest of her life.

She was speaking with General Semet and his wife, lower nobility of the Trikru Forest and a hero who had nearly lost his leg in the final major battle of the war when something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Anya was standing with Indra, the Captain of the Guard, a few feet away and both seemed to be preoccupied with something. Lexa didn't like the scowl she could read on Indra's face or the curiosity on Anya's, so politely she excused herself from her company and made her way over to them.

“What is it?” she asked quietly, looking between the two women. A sense of trouble stirred in her gut, and she almost reached down to her hip where a sword would have been were she not in the middle of a great party. Looking down she noticed that neither of the two women had grasped for their swords so she knew whatever it was couldn't be that threatening, but even so the feeling in her gut churned, making her wish she hadn't just finished a third cup of wine.

“Your Majesty,” Indra said without looking at her, head dipping in a clipped nod. Like Anya she was a trusted friend, or at least friend-like, so Lexa never expected her to show the same level of respect that most others did. To an extent it was always a relief being around Indra, as her gruff respect was easier to deal with than the people who would throw themselves at her feet, always expecting something in return.

“Over there,” Anya told her, nodding to a corner of the room and answering the queen's question. “The woman with Sir Finn; do you recognize her?”

Lexa followed their gazes, finding a small group of young people clustered together by one of the food tables. Her eyes trailed over the group, identifying each of them including her younger brother. Aden, like the others in the group, appeared to be smitten with the young woman speaking if his wide smile was anything to go by. Internally she rolled her eyes at her brother, wondering just how many young women he would fall in love with over the next few months, and then turned her focus on the center of the group.

The woman who had captured her audience's attention so completely stood angled in a way that made it hard for the queen to get a good look at her face, but every now and then she would turn just enough for Lexa to get a peak. The dress she wore was a deep rusty red made out of fabric a few steps below the fine silk of the queen's own dark green gown, but somehow the way she wore it made it seem like the finest material money could buy. Her hair, piled in loose ringlets along her head, was a shade of red the queen wasn't sure she'd ever seen before, the burgundy locks so dark Lexa's fingers itched to run through them to see if they might get lost in it. Her pale skin told the queen she was from the north and that she didn't spend much time in the sun, meaning she was likely a lesser noblewoman who spent most of her time inside her castle's walls. She had to be from a lesser house, because much to the queen's astonishment, she didn't recognize her.

“No,” she answered, knowing her companions would be able to hear the surprise in her voice. “I don't know who she is.”

“Neither do I,” Indra growled, clearly vexed. As the Captain of the Guard, Lexa knew Indra always made it her mission to know every single person who entered the palace, and the fact that this young woman had somehow slipped by her would likely chafe against her pride for some time. Lexa understood how that felt, her own pride rubbed a bit raw by this unknown noblewoman as well. As the queen and host of this party, she had been certain she knew the face and name of every person who would be attending but here this mystery woman was. From the way Sir Finn's hand rested along the small of her back she assumed the two must be betrothed and that just irked her more. As far as she had known the third son of Lord Emerys Collins of the Glowing Forest had been single with no prospective brides. Luckily for her being the third son meant he wasn't on Titus's list of potential husbands, but that she had no knowledge of the girl's name or this union was a slap to her pride.

“Excuse me,” she told the two guards politely before making her way over to the small cluster of nobles. Her eyes didn't leave the mystery woman, taking in even more detail the closer she got. Her brother was now talking, apparently telling some joke, because as she drew closer she heard the woman let out a small laugh, the sound light and almost musical and tugging at something inside Lexa's chest. With her back still to the queen Lexa studied her, wondering just who this woman could be.

Her brother was the first to notice her, eyes glancing over the woman's shoulder, and he bowed his head to her just slightly. The motion caused those beside him to look as well, and quickly they fell into deep bows, knowing exactly how they were expected to greet the queen. Their friends who had had their back to her as she approached turned around and also fell into quick bows, but Lexa ignored all of them and watched as the mystery woman finally turned to face her.

A spark of immediate recognition lit in the woman's blue eyes, and as she bowed Lexa was reminded of the crystal blue water of a shimmering lake. A beauty mark perched itself just over the left side of her lips, drawing the queen's eyes to a full mouth bare of the lip paint many noblewomen wore. A light touch of rouge looked to have been dusted along the woman's cheeks, that or the woman had had one glass too many of wine. A thin silver chain with a blue pendant hung from her neck, and Lexa's eyes followed it as she knew they were supposed to. The cut of her dress bordered on impropriety, showing off enough of her bosom that Lexa wasn't surprised her audience had been so captivated, but for her part she only allowed her gaze to drop down to the revealed skin for a fraction of a second despite the urge to just stare at the wonder. One hand grasped at the skirt of her dress as she fell into a deep curtsy while the other held onto the goblet she'd been drinking from and the queen's gaze fell to them, noting the lack of rings on any of her long fingers. The loose ringlets of hair swayed as she moved, a few falling over her shoulders, and internally the queen knew this must be the most beautiful woman she'd ever met.

She didn't let that knowledge show on her face, instead giving the group a polite nod of her own as she tore her focus from the woman and made herself look at the companions around her.

“Your Majesty,” Finn said, rising from his bow a second before the others did. Other than Aden, he was the highest ranking person of their group. Gesturing around the room with the hand that had been on the woman's back he added, “This is an excellent party you've thrown.” Quickly those around him nodded their agreement, everyone but Aden and the strange woman. She simply watched the queen and Lexa had the strange sensation of being sized up. It wasn't a feeling she was used to.

“I'm glad to know you're all enjoying yourselves,” she replied politely as was expected, ignoring the strangeness of the woman's look. Turning her focus back to her, she met those blue eyes easily, giving the woman an apologetic smile. “I'm ashamed to admit this, but I'm afraid I don't recognize you, Lady...”

“Blake,” the woman replied, returning Lexa's smile, and the queen didn't know if it was the smile or the woman's voice that made her heart suddenly skip a beat. “Clarke Blake, and please Your Majesty, I'm no great lady.”

That bit of information piqued an interest Lexa was trying to pretend she didn't have, wondering how Lord Emerys had allowed his son to become betrothed to a woman not of their rank, but she stuck that bit of curiosity away to go over another time. Instead she heard the band begin a new song and held out her hand to this mystery woman – to Clarke.

“Mistress Blake, could I interest you in a dance?” she asked, giving the woman the polite, charming smile she'd learned to carry practically at birth. “I'm still ashamed to not know a guest at my own party.”

Focused so fully on Clarke, she missed the smug grin that appeared on her brother's face or the way their other companions glanced back and forth at each other.

Clarke curtsied a second time, reaching out and accepting the offered hand. “I would be honored, Your Majesty.”

Lexa led her across the room, the two setting their cups on a server's tray as they walked by. Everyone they approached quickly shifted out of their way, leaving an open path to the dance floor. As Lexa pulled her into her arms, the two easily falling into the dance's steps, she ignored the fact that everyone else was likely stealing glances at the pair if not openly staring. For her part Clarke ignored it too, and that impressed the queen; it had taken her years to get past the staring, but this woman who likely wasn't used to it at all seemed so easily to pretend no one else was around.

“So Mistress Blake, tell me a little about yourself,” Lexa began as they fell into the steps, her eyes never leaving her dance partner's face. She took in every detail from the quirk of her lips to the spark in her eyes, storing the information away. This close she could see the thin white line of an old scar peaking out at her from the woman's hair line just above her left temple and briefly she wondered how she got it. Probably a silly accident from when she was a child, an overzealous act attempted by a brazen girl; she certainly had the look of someone constantly challenging the universe. Lexa's thumb itched to brush over it but instead she held firm to her hand, the appropriate touch for the moment.

“Mistress Blake is too formal for me,” the other woman told her, flashing her a small smile. “I'm just Clarke.” Stepping away and then back to each other as the dance dictated, she asked, “What would Your Majesty like to know?”

“What does your family do?” the queen asked, the palms of her hands tingling where the heat from Clarke's body hit them. She ignored it.

“My father was a merchant in Arkadia,” Clarke answered. “After he died I came to Polis.”

Regret flashed across Lexa's expression before she could stop it. She understood the pain that came with a family member's death and immediately felt guilty for reminding this young woman of her loss.

“I'm sorry,” she told her quietly, hoping for once that her true emotions showed. Normally she forced them back, hid them from the world, but in this moment she wanted the other woman to know how true her words were. Clarke simply nodded, saying nothing before she glanced around the room. Clearly changing the subject she said, “You really have put together quite the party, Your Majesty. The food alone is exquisite; I like that you have something from each of the thirteen nations instead of just what's most popular in Polis.”

That surprised Lexa, and for a moment her brow rose, showing it. As a merchant's daughter, she wouldn't have expected Clarke to know that the food she served tonight came from all across Kongeda, a gesture she'd made as another symbol of how they had all come together. Hiding that momentary shock of surprise, she looked at this woman again, really looked at her, and found an intelligence in her eyes she hadn't expected. Worse, one of Clarke's eyebrows rose, amusement tugging at the corners of her mouth, and Lexa realized she'd been caught. Cheeks heating up momentarily from embarrassment, Lexa silently thanked the gods her complexion didn't allow the blush to show easily, and then dipped her head in a silent apology.

“How do you know about the cuisine of the different nations?” she wanted to know, now more curious about this woman than she had been a moment ago. Before her interest had been simply due to the fact she was a stranger, someone she couldn't name on sight, and – she could silently admit to herself – in her beauty. Now her interest grew further, curious to know more about this mystery woman who seemed to be able to surprise her so easily.

“I traveled for a year or so before coming to Polis,” was Clarke's easy answer. “I admit, I didn't make it to every nation, but enough of them to recognize the variety in the food tonight.”

“Really? And which was your favorite place to visit?” Lexa asked, genuinely curious. As she'd been trying to unite the thirteen houses she'd had to travel to each one, seeing more of the land than she'd ever been able to imagine before.

Clarke's lips curled up into a cheeky smile as Lexa spun her lightly, the two never missing a step in their dance despite their conversation. “I feel like I should say nothing could ever be more beautiful than Trikru since this is your home, but I don't think I can do that.” The cheeky grin slipped away as she seemed to really think about it and then she continued more thoughtfully, “After growing up with trees everywhere I looked, there was something very... intense about seeing the Ingrona Plains. It makes you feel small, you know, just being able to stare at that bare expanse and feel like you can see to the end of the earth.” Her cheeks darkened for a moment, apparently thinking about what she'd just said, and she bowed her head slightly. “Not that you could ever seem small, Your Majesty.”

“No, I know what you mean,” Lexa assured her, gripping the woman's hand a little tighter to reassure her. “I admit I felt the same way when I stared across the same view.”

Their conversation continued as one song flowed into another, and Lexa found herself forgetting about the party around them, at least as much as was possible for the queen. What she'd believed would just be a simple dance so she could identify this woman and mentally box her away as she did everyone else turned into a conversation about different lands and foods and cultures. As they talked she found she genuinely cared what Clarke had to say, even when they argued over what the best way was to prepare snake, a delicacy among the people of the Glowing Forest. Clarke argued the stew it was often made into was best, while Lexa insisted there was no better way to eat it than freshly roasted over the fire.

“So is that how you met Sir Finn?” Lexa asked, once they had agreed to disagree. For the first time since they started dancing she made herself look away from her partner's face and back to the party around them, finding the young nobleman in question watching them, her brother beside him and grinning smugly. Odd, she thought, having expected him to seem more jealous than smug, but didn't think anything more of it as she returned her focus to her companion. “How long have you two been engaged?”

Confusion swept across the other woman's face, her head tilting to the side. “Who told you we were engaged?”

“I just assumed,” she answered, “from the way he was holding you earlier.” Something mischievous flashed across Clarke's face, her lips creeping up into a slow grin, and suddenly the queen felt as though she'd just said something very foolish.

“Sir Finn and I aren't engaged,” Clarke informed her, amusement coloring her tone. “We only recently met and are just... friendly with each other.”

“Oh,” the queen replied dumbly, embarrassed. Glancing back over at Finn she felt anger briefly boil over in her gut before she could quickly tamper it back down. She knew many noblemen would meet a commoner and play with her emotions before leaving her behind, especially when the commoner was as pretty as Clarke. These men would have their fun and then do their duty by their family and marry someone of their rank, leaving the common girl behind brokenhearted, and the idea that Finn might be playing with Clarke in such a way stirred something within her. Never before had she truly cared other than to shake her head at people's foolishness, but now she found herself saying, “I hope Sir Finn treats you well. As the son of a lord, I'm sure he must seem... important.”

“Not as important as the queen,” Clarke replied smoothly as she dipped into another curtsy, the song they were dancing to ending. Despite the way her body moved she maintained eye contact with Lexa, once again surprising the queen, and she thought she saw another flash of something cross those intelligent eyes. “You don't need to worry about me, Your Majesty, I've been taking care of myself for a long time. It might even be Sir Finn who should be careful around me.” Lexa noticed a teasing lilt to the woman's smile and internally thought she might be right: Clarke certainly seemed like someone who could take care of herself. Something about the intensity of her gaze reminded the queen of the lioness she'd once encountered while visiting the Hundred Mile Desert, the same awe and fear sparking in her now as it had then. As quick as it appeared the flash was gone and finally Clarke's head dipped down, adding, “Though if you'll excuse me Your Majesty, I really should be getting back to him.”

Not letting any of her thoughts show, Lexa returned the curtsy with a nod of her head, returning the motion with the barest of bows as was expected. “Of course,” she replied, “I've taken up enough of your time. It was nice to meet you, Clarke Blake.”

“It was an honor to meet you, Your Majesty,” Clarke told her sincerely, giving her another small smile, and then she had turned and was walking away. She made her way back over to Finn, the young man's expression immediately lighting up as he extended his arm to her. She took it and the two made their way back to their corner, and Lexa pretended not to notice or care that his hand moved back to the small of her back the moment they'd stopped.

Walking off the dance floor and about to find another conversation to include herself in, her plans changed when she noticed Anya and Indra watching her, a large smirk on Anya's face and – more surprising than anything else that had happened that night – a smaller smirk on Indra's. Frowning, she made her way over to them, Anya's amusement only seeming to grow the closer she got until the queen was practically glaring at her.

“What?” she all but demanded once they were in front of her, and only years of training kept her from placing her hands on her hips in annoyance.

“Did you have a nice dance, Your Majesty?” Anya asked smoothly, ignoring Lexa's question and just irking the queen more. “You looked like you were having fun.”

Still not understanding their looks, she answered, “It was perfectly fine.” As a second thought, she told them, “Her name is Clarke, by the way. Clarke Blake.”

“So we've heard,” Indra replied, that one corner of her mouth still pulled up in a small smirk that made Lexa's brow furrow. She could not for the life of her figure out what was going on, and for the second time that night she felt like she had done something stupid. It was not a feeling she cared for in the slightest.

Just then Aden moved over to them, a similar smirk tugging at his lips. “So Lexa, did you have fun with Clarke?”

Looking between the three of them, Lexa had to close her eyes and take a deep breath, getting her irritation under control. She wasn't used to being the butt of some unknown joke and she certainly didn't like it. “Okay, what is going on?” she demanded, using the tone that had commanded an army and united thirteen strong houses.

“Please let me tell her,” Aden said to Indra and Anya, practically dancing where he stood in excitement. Only being the heir to the throne kept him from actually doing so, his own title keeping him from acting the part of a normal fourteen-year-old boy with a secret.

“Do it,” Anya agreed with a sharp nod, one that Indra mirrored, and Lexa fought to keep herself from rolling her eyes at them all. Turning to her brother she lifted her eyebrows expectantly, waiting to be brought in on the joke, and he told her absolutely gleefully, “You just danced with a whore.”

Blood rushed to her ears, making them pound and she was sure she must have misheard him.

“Excuse me?” she said, and he nodded over to the corner where Finn and his mystery woman still stood, telling her, “Clarke. She's a whore. You just danced with a whore.”

The bottom dropped out of Lexa's stomach and her eyes closed slowly, for the first time in her life wishing she could entirely disappear from sight. Behind her, she could practically feel the force of Titus's eyes boring into the back of her head.

***

Clarke Griffin, one-time heir to her dead father's title, laid silently in bed, staring up at the dark ceiling above her as the remaining firelight in the hearth across the room danced along the walls.

Beside her the third son of Lord Emerys of the Glowing Forest slept, one arm wrapped possessively around her middle. A thin sheet had been pulled over their naked bodies when Finn had finished and he'd immediately curled against her, claiming her in yet another way. While he'd fallen asleep quickly, no doubt worn out by the night's activities, Clarke remained awake, her mind ticking away as it always did. Her fingers fiddled with the pendant of her necklace, the only thing she still wore and one of the few things she'd brought from one life to the next, and she planned. She could feel something in the air, something not yet attainable but nevertheless drawing nearer and she knew the time was coming. For years now she'd worked for this, worked for the revenge she felt slowly creeping towards her like a scared animal, and once it was within reach she would have it. First she would have her answers, and then she would have her revenge and everything she'd done to obtain it would be worth it.

In a dark room filled with only flickering firelight, a noblewoman who had donned the life of a whore lay still, waiting for her revenge to find her.

It was only a matter of time now.

Chapter Text

Clarke could feel Finn's eyes on her as she slipped from his room, just as easily as she could still feel the force of the kiss he'd pressed against her lips before she made her exit. He'd tried to convince her to stay the morning, offering to buy her a breakfast like she'd never seen before, but she'd politely declined, flashing him the coy smile she'd learned to wear when she'd begun this whole charade. As always it worked to leave him speechless and she'd used the moment to pull on her gown, cinching it back up and covering the skin she knew his eyes were raking over before it could disappear. Before she could get any farther he'd pulled her back to him, holding her tight as he pressed the kiss to her mouth and she'd played her part by returning it with an easy grin. As she pulled back he reached over to the side table and grabbed the small bag of coins sitting on top, dropping it into her hand and telling her they would have to do this again sometime. She just gave him another coy smile and left, knowing without a doubt they would: Finn had the look of a love-struck boy, the same look she'd seen on dozens of faces over the years, and that look always told her she had a new repeat customer on her hands.

Quietly she made her way down the inn's hall, careful not to draw attention to herself. Despite the fact that most guests at any inn often procured company for the night, few innkeepers wanted it known that whores roamed their halls, especially the finer inns like the Fireside Bunker. Many inns even had agreements in place with different whorehouses, specifically providing their guests with nightly entertainment, but each of them had sets of secret stairways or hidden rooms so that they could sneak the whores to and from their guests without anyone being the wiser. Clarke had become intimately familiar with the secret passages in all of the local inns and made her way to the back stairwell of the Bunker now, no guest or worker seeing her slip away.

Opening the door located at the back of the inn behind the stables, Clarke was unsurprised to find someone waiting for her and decided to lazily stretch her arms over her head as she flashed the man a smile.

“Good morning Derrick,” she called as he made his way over to her. “I take it Luna sent you to walk me home?” The man grinned beneath his trimmed beard, telling her, “Of course. She didn't wanna leave you on your own dressed like that.” He nodded to her, his long dark hair pulled into a tight braid and swaying lightly with the movement, and she let out a sigh. Once again dressed in what she wore to the queen's party the night before, she knew she would practically be begging to be robbed and more if she tried to walk the streets alone dressed like this. Of course, by now many of the people in the city had learned she wasn't someone easily messed with, but there were still plenty of others that would need to learn that lesson the hard way before she could be fully confident walking on her own with her chest practically spilling out of her dress. It was easier and would save time with Derrick to escort her, the curved sword strapped to his back an obvious indication he should not be messed with. Seeing no reason to argue she just gave him another smile and then began walking towards the street, the man falling into step beside her.

“So was it a good night?” he asked, trying to strike up a conversation. There were others she knew who would be probing for the dirtier details of her night, but coming from him she knew it was an honest question that had nothing to do with the requirements her job demanded of her.

“It was,” she answered, looking forward and not at him as they made their way down the street. “The palace is beautiful, and the party was certainly interesting.” The queen had been the most interesting thing of all, but she kept that piece of information to herself.

Beside her Derrick snorted, the sound making her glance over at him. “Yeah I bet. Wouldn't trade places with you though; way too many nobles for my liking.”

“Nobles aren't so bad,” she replied with a shrug, “you just have to know how to talk to them. As long as they think you think they hung the stars it's actually pretty easy.” He let out a chuckle but shook his head, his opinion clearly not changing.

The two walked the mile and a half hike through the city, getting out of the way when horses and wagons went by and peering every now and then at some of the stands they passed. A number of the people out and about in the early morning recognized Clarke either from passing or from a night or more with her, and even more people whistled as she walked by. After six years of much of the same she was used to it and winked or whistled back at the ones she knew and shot smiles to those she didn't. Derrick stayed beside her every step of the way, glaring harshly whenever anyone thought to get too close, and the sight of his bulging arms sent them scurrying on their way. Clarke thought it was sweet of him to care enough to scare them off for her, but the weight of the concealed knife she always carried pulled down at the side of her dress. It hadn't always been a part of her charade, but after a time where she'd wished she'd had it and didn't she'd sewn hidden pockets into every one of her gowns, no matter how little fabric was available. She had quickly decided she'd rather a companion find her with it and get angry than get angry and her not have it. As it was it had saved her no less than four times and she had no doubt it would end up saving her again in the future.

Finally up ahead of them was The Rig, one of the town's most well-known whorehouses and Clarke's home. Unlike most whorehouses, The Rig was not just known for its workers but also its mistress. Luna Flou was unlike any other whorehouse master in that she actually cared for the men and women she employed; it was one of the reasons Clarke had ended up here.

Reaching the house's entrance, Clarke saw two people sitting on the bench outside the door, stretching out in the warm morning sun. Waving to Derrick as he continued inside to let Luna know they were back, she stopped by them, looking over the two young women.

Harper's light brown eyes lit up the moment she saw her, flashing Clarke a lazy grin but otherwise not moving from the bench. From the way she sat with her back leaning against the stone of the building, Clarke guessed she'd only recently woken up. She wore a sheer maroon gown that could easily be seen through and nothing beneath it. Her dark blonde hair had been wrapped into a braid that started on one side of her head and then was pinned up and trailed over to the other side, the end of the braid hanging over the opposite shoulder. Her companion's hair was a shade lighter, her eyes an almost honeyed brown. Niylah looked up at Clarke through her long lashes, undoubtedly reading things the young woman would rather remain hidden. She had a feeling that of all her friends at The Rig, Niylah had guessed the most about her, and that often concerned her. Right now though the other whore just looked at her and Clarke looked back, finding nothing that worried her in her expression. The second blonde's hair had a number of tiny braids tangled throughout it, the rest falling over her shoulders, and where Harper wore a gown instead she wore a tan band across her breasts and a matching thin skirt that draped to the ground. After being in the sun on and off over the past few days her skin held a light tan and a dark tattoo peaked out of the band of her skirt at her hip.

“How was your night with the nobles?” Harper asked, amusement dancing along her tone. “How many fell in love with you on sight and offered to whisk you away from this horrible life?” Clarke returned her grin and then sat down heavily between them, playfully fanning herself with her hand.

“I must be losing my touch,” she told them dramatically. “Not one of them asked for my hand or offered to put little lordlings in my belly to get me away from here.” Harper snorted and Niylah smiled, both of them shaking their heads.

“What about the lord whose bed you stayed in last night?” Harper wanted to know, wiggling her eyebrows “Surely he fell in love with you.” Clarke thought about the look Finn had given her before she'd slipped from his room, how he'd tried to get her to stay longer, but shook her head. “Only a fool falls in love with a whore, you know that.”

“There are many fools in the world, Clarke,” Niylah reminded her wisely, a teasing glint in her eye. “And I bet it's the same for nobles as it is for commoners.” Clarke had nothing to say to that and didn't even try to come up with anything, instead choosing to change the subject. “What about the two of you? Did anyone fall in love with either of you overnight?”

“My cunt maybe, but not me,” Harper answered with a scoff. “I had a baker who tried to pound me as thoroughly as he works his bread. He must be better with the dough than he was with me or I'd wonder how he got the coin to pay for it.” Clarke let out a snort, not at all surprised, and then turned to Niylah as she said, “Mistress Tover once again decided to use me to make up for her husband's failings. She isn't in love we me, just frustrated with his small cock. Apparently my fingers make up for it.”

“They are very talented fingers,” Clarke joked, giving the other woman a knowing smile and Niylah returned it with one of her own. The two had been known to fall into each other's bed at times, using the other to let out their frustrations of the day or to tether themselves to something good in this shitty reality they lived in. Clarke knew it was a mistake, could see the way Niylah looked at her in those moments and felt her eyes following her sometimes outside of them, but still she couldn't quite stop herself whenever she found the other woman naked beside her. Even now she felt the guilt stir lazily in her gut at the way Niylah looked at her from beneath her eyelashes and regretted her joke. Trying to ignore the feeling she looked around them, asking, “Where are the others? All working?”

Though The Rig housed dozens of people, Clarke really only considered herself friends with five of them, and Niylah and Harper were two of their gang. When the six weren't working they often spent their time together, a lot of that time around this very bench.

“Jasper's entertaining,” Harper answered, the easiest way of saying someone was with a guest. “Some new guy, probably a servant from one of the noble families. Sounds like he's got the coin for it at least.” A shadow flashed across her face and she traded looks with Niylah before she admitted hesitantly, “And Monty's with Maya and Luna.”

Maya and Monty were both workers as well, and typically the idea of two being together just meant that a guest had enough money to pay for more than one partner at once, but the fact that Luna was with them immediately caught Clarke's attention. She looked between her two friends, now noticing the even expression Niylah clearly forced and the way Harper grit her jaw, and felt what had been guilt turn to fear in her gut. “What happened?” she demanded, all joking and pretenses slipping away. They looked at each other again and then Niylah sighed, shaking her head. “He was with Dax again last night. It didn't go well.”

“Maya says it isn't too bad,” Harper tried to get in, but Clarke was up and pushing her way through the door before she'd even finished speaking.

The Rig was a four story building with multiple rooms on every floor. Those on the first floor were mostly open, large lounges and chairs set out with plush rugs covering the floor. There were two private rooms on the first floor, but Clarke didn't go to any of them, instead hurrying towards the staircase at the back of the house. As she went she passed people fucking in the open, those who couldn't afford private rooms having to take their enjoyment out where anyone who walked past could see. The openness had never seemed to stop them, and as Clarke went she heard loud moans, clearly exaggerated by the workers and entirely real by the men and few women who were paying for them. Up on the second floor there was only one open room, this space also occupied by more than one couple coupling, though as the day wore on Clarke knew it would get much fuller. The rest of the floor was made up of rooms, a few specifically for paying guests and the others the living quarters for some of the workers. The third and fourth floor were all living quarters, and it was the third floor she went to, making her way down the hall and forcefully pushing her way into Luna's own room. If something had happened and Monty had been hurt, she knew this is where he'd be.

She was right. Monty sat on Luna's bed across from the doorway, wincing as Maya pressed a poultice to the skin around his eye. Her father had been a trained healer and Maya had picked up on some of his tricks before he'd kicked her out of his house, making her indispensable at The Rig. The only person who knew more about healing was Clarke herself, which is why she found herself hurrying over to the bed, completely ignoring Luna and Derrick standing on the other side.

“What happened?” she snapped, glaring up at Luna as she sank down beside Monty on the bed. Maya smiled thinly at her and then moved out of her way, giving her space to check their friend over. Gently she pressed her fingers to his chin, turning his face towards her to get a better look. He winced but tried to grin at her, apparently ignoring the split in his bottom lip. The area around his left eye Maya had dabbed with the poultice was an ugly purple, his brow swollen enough so Clarke knew he must be having a hard time seeing. Bruising around his neck told her he'd been choked, and the fact that he barely moved on the bed told her these weren't his only injuries.

“It's not that bad, Clarke,” he tried to tell her, reaching out and patting her arm reassuringly, “I've had worse. Nothing's even broken.”

“That doesn't make this okay, Monty,” she growled back at him, her heart breaking for her friend. It hadn't taken long after meeting him to realize no better person had ever existed, despite the absolute atrocity his life had been. He looked at everything with a positivity that Clarke envied, always ready with a smile to try to cheer up someone's day and nearly always saw the best in people, even after that person had beaten him to a bloody pulp. Glaring up at Luna, she growled, “I told you not to send him back to Dax. I told you!”

Dax was a soldier in the queen's army, a young man who'd recently come back to Polis after fighting against the Reapers. This had been the third time he'd paid for Monty's services, and each time the boy came back bleeding in one way or another. After the second time Clarke had angrily demanded Luna not accept his money again and instead send him on his way, but apparently the order hadn't been followed. As the mistress of The Rig Luna didn't take orders from anyone, and as nothing more than a whore Clarke had known her orders wouldn't be followed, despite her history with the other woman. When it came to whorehouse masters Luna was one of the best, always trying to keep her people as safe as possible while working to also save others, but sometimes even she made mistakes. It was a truth Clarke knew and understood, but at this moment all she could care about was the fact her friend had been hurt and it could have been prevented.

“I know what you said,” Luna snapped back, the usually patient older woman clearly out of that patience for the moment. “I thought making Dax come here instead of sending Monty to him would be enough. Clearly I was wrong. I won't make this mistake again.”

Clarke opened her mouth to say something else and then snapped it shut, knowing now wasn't the time to lose control of her tongue. She could see how upset Luna was, could read the guilt that ate away at her, and knew nothing she could say would make it worse. In the meantime Monty looked more uncomfortable with their fighting than with his injuries, and he had to be the priority right then. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Clarke forced herself to forget about Luna and Dax and instead to only focus on Monty and his injuries.

“Okay Monty, let me take a look at you,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice calm and soothing, the complete opposite from what it had been a minute before. Among her many lessons growing up as Clarke Griffin had been lessons in the art of healing, and now she tried to make sure to remember everything she'd learned about cuts and bruises. The poultice Maya had chosen was a good one for the bruising around his eye and she shot the other girl a smile of approval after looking at it. She used a cloth and bowl of water to gently wipe away the dried blood from his chin and then left to get a paste she kept in a small jar in her room to put on his lip. Once that was applied she used her fingers to press gently against his neck to make sure there was nothing worse than the bruising she could see there before also covering it with the poultice.

Through all of it Monty didn't move, didn't even flinch, and the way he purposefully held himself still told Clarke there was more they had to take care of and the thought of it made white-hot rage erupt in her chest that she somehow managed to keep out of her expression. She knew the others in the room knew the same thing but didn't look at them, looked only at Monty as she asked quietly, “Monty, did he do anything else to you?”

The boy bit his lip, wincing when he put pressure on the damaged skin, and looked away. He remained silent, not answering the question, and that silence was enough to tell her exactly what else had happened. Rage so strong it scared her coursed through Clarke's veins and she had to bite her cheek until it bled to keep herself from screaming.

Despite their profession, despite what each of them did every day, none of them quite knew how to talk about it when a conversation had to turn to the horrors encountered far too often in their work. Out of the corner of her vision Clarke could see tears pooling in Maya's eyes but not falling as she held them back, and Derrick's fists clenched tightly at his side. Her own fury nearly boiled over despite the metallic blood she could taste from where she'd opened her cheek as she looked up at Luna, and she found a hardness in the other woman's face not often there, her rage barely hidden behind her eyes. “Dax will never be welcome here again,” she stated evenly, her voice catching that hardness. Looking at Derrick she told him, “If you ever see him so much as looking at The Rig, feel free to remove his head.” The big man nodded in agreement, likely pleased with that plan, but it didn't satisfy Clarke's fury. She wanted him to pay for what he had done now, not only if he ever came around again. She looked down at her hands on the bed beside her friend, her fingers curling up into tight fists and had to force herself to take a few deep breaths. For now she would accept it, too busy with her own plans of revenge to come up with any for Monty. Besides, knowing the younger boy he wouldn't want her to go looking for trouble just because of him. He looked perfectly relieved at just the idea that Dax wouldn't be allowed near him again, so for now Clarke would have to just let this go.

“Can you all go and give us some privacy?” she asked, looking between the other three in the room. Monty didn't need extra eyes watching him for this next part. Ending on Luna, she told the woman, “Once we're done I'll help Monty back to his room so he can get some rest.”

She nodded immediately, agreeing and telling him, “You won't be working for at least a few days. Take the time to heal.” He flashed a smile at her, wincing again as it pulled against his split lip, and then the three left the room, Maya pulling the door shut behind them.

Clarke finished her examination as quickly and as gently as she could, doing her best to tend to his injuries but knowing time was really all that would heal him. Once done she helped him up from the bed and then walked him down the hallway to his room, thankful that at least he wouldn't need to climb any stairs. The one pro to living and working in a whorehouse was that at least they all had decently nice beds, a necessity since any one of them might entertain a guest in their own room if that guest paid well enough for it. She helped him get into his bed, looking him over one last time in case she missed something. Apparently she wasn't at all subtle because as she did he grinned up at her, tired but clearly amused.

“I'm fine, Clarke,” he assured her once again. “Really, don't worry about me.”

Deciding the best thing she could do for him now was to act positive, she returned the grin with one of her own, jokingly telling him, “Who's going to worry about you if I don't do it?”

His grin broke into a wide yawn but didn't entirely disappear. “I know, you worry about all of us, it's just what you do. But you don't have to.”

“You're my people,” she murmured, the words meaning more to her than he could ever know. Leaning over him slightly, she continued, “That makes it my responsibility to make sure you're safe.”

He reached up, his hand wrapping around the back of her head and pulled her down until their foreheads were just barely touching. The motion felt good, reassuring, as did the smile he gave her. “You worry too much,” he teased, “but I admit, it's good to know you're always here for us.”

“Of course I will be,” she told him, guilt washing quickly over her from the lie. “Where else would I go?” He grinned again, about to say something else when his door burst open, the force used making it bounce off the wall with a loud bang as it swung back. They both jumped, Monty's grip releasing her as he winced from the sudden movement, and they turned to see their friend Jasper standing in the doorway.

“I'll kill him,” he threatened, looking as angry as Clarke felt. He stormed into the room, slamming the door shut behind him, and marched over to his best friend's bed. Monty had been the first person he'd met when he started working at The Rig and the two had become nearly inseparable ever since. Apparently he'd heard what had happened to his friend and gone straight to Monty's room. “I'll kill Dax if I ever see him again!”

Glancing at Jasper out of the corner of her eye, Clarke doubted he would ever be able to kill anyone, especially a soldier like Dax. Still, she understood his fury and desire for revenge and couldn't fault him for it. Monty rolled his eyes, apparently sharing Clarke's thoughts and unafraid to give voice to them. “Dax would kill you 'fore you could get a single hit in.”

“You don't know that,” Jasper said, his pride clearly wounded by his friend's lack of faith in him. “Maybe all this time I shoulda been a soldier and've been wasting my talents in this place.”

Clarke snorted, looking at the skinny young man out of the corner of her eye. At the moment he wore no shirt, just a loose pair of breeches, and it was obvious to anyone who saw him he'd never done any kind of soldier's work before. His parents had grown vegetables in the west until a blight had killed all their crops, and with no income they'd quickly lost everything they had. They came to Polis to try to find work but before they could find any his parents had gotten sick and died. He'd lived on the streets for a couple of years before Luna took him in and after that he'd earned his living the same way they all did. Lying on his back hadn't produced the kind of muscles needed to fight a trained soldier.

“The day you become a soldier will be the same day I become a nobleman,” Monty scoffed, rolling his eyes at his best friend. Jasper crossed his arms and looked away for a second, acting affronted, before shrugging and moving over to the bed. Casually dropping down to the mattress he looked over at Clarke, grinning as he said, “Then you can buy Clarke for the night when the queen has one of her fancy parties.” Fingers laced together, his arms went up and over his head until he could lean back and rest against the palm of his hands. “So what was it like, getting to play with a noble prick? Did he at least know where to put it?”

“It took a little guiding, but it ended up in the right place,” she joked, making him laugh as Monty grinned. She shrugged then, adding, “I guess Finn was nice enough.”

“What was the palace like?” Monty wanted to know, clearly far more interested in the party than the noble she'd spent the night in bed with. She thought for a second and then shrugged. “Big. The party was in this big ballroom with a polished granite floor and tapestries all over the walls. Musicians played on one side of the room so people could dance and there was more food available than we'd see in three months. There were dozens of people there and still plenty of space for more.” She paused for a second, watching the images she painted sink in for them, and then added, “I even got to talk with the prince for a little while.”

She didn't mention dancing with the queen; for some reason she wanted to keep that to herself. It hadn't meant anything and it was obvious from their conversation she'd had no idea what Clarke was, but still something about those few minutes stuck with her and she had no desire to share them with anyone else.

Jasper let out a low whisper, clearly impressed. “Maybe if you keep going back you'll make a good impression and he'll hire you for a night. How many whores can say they slept with the heir to the throne?”

Clarke shook her head. “He's just a kid. Besides, I doubt the queen would let him. There are plenty of other nobles who can have me if they want me.”

Monty let out a light laugh, telling her, “Everyone wants you, Clarke. I bet the nobles start fighting over who gets you for the next party.”

Standing up she stretched, her back cracking in two places as she did so. “I doubt it. Probably I won't be hired by any of them again and that'll be my only party.” She knew even as she said it that wouldn't happen, Finn's love-struck expression flashing in her mind. It was exactly what she needed to happen for her plans to work, but nobody else needed to know how important these parties were to her; better to let everyone think she couldn't care less about them.

“Sure Clarke,” Jasper replied with another roll of his eyes, “whatever you say.” She flashed him a grin and then waved half-heartedly as she turned towards the door. “I have to go change and get to work. Monty I mean it, take it easy, and Jasper let him rest.”

“Yes Mother,” they chorused together, the nickname one their group often used on her. She just shot them another grin and then slipped out of the room, hearing them start talking about what the food must have been like at the party before she closed the door behind her. In the hall she shook her head and closed her eyes, leaning back against the door for a second. To them her stories would just be about food neither could even imagine and pretty nobles dressed up in their finest party clothes, but to her these next few months were about something entirely else. She needed Finn to take her back to as many as possible so she could continue moving her plans forward.

Leaving the two boys behind she made her way up to the top floor and into her own room, closing the door behind her. The moment she was there she began working her way out of her dress, sighing in relief as it sank to the floor around her ankles. She'd forgotten how tight a proper noblewoman's dress was – not that what she'd been wearing was a proper noblewoman's dress, but it was the closest to it she'd worn in years. The one thing she could say about the gowns she wore as a whore was that they were far looser and more comfortable, even if that was solely so that men and women looking for a good time had a better idea of what they were paying for. Stepping out of the dress puddled at her feet she made her way over to the small closet at the side of her room and pulled out a light robe, its fabric far thinner. The one she chose was green and she felt her lips curl up as she realized the color was only a few shades lighter than the queen's eyes but then quickly banished the thought. Quickly she pulled the robe on, tying it closed around her waist and then pulled her hair free from the few ringlets still somehow holding their shape, shaking her head lightly to let them fall free. A few burgundy strands fell over her shoulders as the rest hung just past her shoulder blades and for a second she let her fingers thread through it, brushing through a few little tangles and thinking about just how different dark-haired Clarke Blake was from the light-haired Clarke Griffin. Now wasn't the time to get lost in thoughts though and she knew it so after just a few seconds she cleared her head and turned around, leaving her room to head back down to the first floor and begin a new day's work. Just like every morning and evening her first stop was to the kitchen to help herself to a quick cup of tea, the herbs used to make it ones that prevented pregnancy. All the female workers in the house had to drink it twice a day, and Clarke made absolutely sure never to miss a cup; the last thing she needed was someone's babe in her belly.

All morning and for most of the afternoon she locked everything away, spending her time mindlessly smiling and kissing and fucking. It was a routine Luna had taught her years ago and by now it was all old hat, everything more of a motion than a thought. Men and women came and went and she entertained many of them, always giving them their money's worth while barely paying any attention to what she was doing. Sex barely meant anything to her by now, was nothing more than a series of movements and words that meant the same thing to every person she whispered them to. Her words would boost her partner's confidence or ego or whatever needed boosting but anything they said back was almost completely tuned out. It was all just a matter of autopilot for her and that's the way she liked it.

The afternoon was coming to an end when she pulled her dress back on as her last guest left. Knowing she was done for the rest of the evening she left the private room he had rented leaving it open for the next couple and walked lazily down the hall, barely even noticing the noises coming from behind closed doors or wide open rooms. She was just thinking about going to find some dinner and helping herself to another cup of tear when Lania, another whore, found her.

“Luna's looking for you,” she informed her, hooking her thumb over her shoulder. “Something about a messenger.” The other girl didn't wait for a response instead just walking on, and Clarke changed direction to go find Luna. As she expected the mistress of the house sat at her desk by the entrance, writing something down in the big ledger she always kept up-to-date with the day's work.

“Congratulations,” the older woman told her, barely even looking up from her writing. She reached over and grabbed a piece of paper folded up beside the ledger and handed it over to Clarke. “Looks like you won over the Glowing Forest lordling; he wants you to accompany him at the queen's next party at the end of the week. Same arrangement.”

Clarke accepted the parchment and scanned over it, reading the formal request for her companionship. She wrinkled her nose at the wording, thinking that at least some of the things her friends at The Rig thought about nobles were right, but ignored it. However Sir Finn wanted to word a night where he hired a whore to be his arm candy and then bed warmer didn't matter to her; all that mattered was that so far her plan was working.

Keeping her expression straight she handed the parchment back to Luna, saying lightly, “I'll have to get a new dress if this becomes a regular request of his.” She looked up from the ledger, eyeing her silently before returning her focus back to the book. “Just make sure you know what you're doing,” she warned, her voice so low even Clarke almost missed it. The woman leaving at that exact moment and passing behind her most certainly hadn't heard it, and Clarke waited until she'd walked through the door to reply just as quietly, “I do.” Luna's brow lifted just a fraction but she didn't say anything else and the younger woman took that as her cue to leave. Rather than follow the customer out of The Rig she made her way to the kitchen to help herself to a cup of tea before going to the staircase, climbing up and up and up until she was on the fourth floor again and then not stopping until she was safely in her room with the door closed securely behind her.

She set her mug of tea on the small table beside her bed and then went to her closet, but this time instead of finding something new to wear she knelt down, feeling along the boards of the floor until the pads of her fingers brushed against one board not quite even with the others. Gently she pried it up and placed it to the side before reaching in the newly created space and pulling a small wooden box out of it. The box would have been just big enough to hold a pair of her soft slippers but weighed as though nothing were inside it and she clutched it close to her chest. Leaving the hiding spot exposed she stood back up and moved over to her bed, sitting down and placing the box in front of her. As soon as she was comfortably situated she pulled the top off the box and began pulling out its contents.

Scraps of parchment, most written in her own hand, soon lined her bed. Dozens of pieces laid in front of her, some with only a few words on them while others held entire paragraphs. The largest had two sketches drawn along its surface, faces she saw all the time in her nightmares. The papers held all the answers she'd been able to find so far as well as the many questions she still had no answers to, and for the thousandth time she began to comb through them, hoping like every night that something new would jump out at her. The words fire, inn, and accident danced in front of her eyes on more than one of the many slips, but the one she always came back to was the word she stared at now, her jaw set stubbornly. Murder.

The world believed that Lord Jakob Griffin of the Arkadian Hills and his heir had died in an inn fire, a tragic accident that no one could have seen coming or prevented. Clarke – that very same not-so-dead-heir – was one of the only ones who knew the truth: that fire had been no accident, and it wasn't what had killed her father.

Someone had hired mercenaries to murder her father, and Clarke would never stop until she found out exactly who that person was. When she did, she would make them pay for it.

Chapter Text

Two weeks after their first meeting, Queen Alexandria stood surrounded by noblemen and -women, talk of trade and goods going on all around her, but she barely heard it as she stared at a head of dark red hair entertaining an audience on the other side of the room. She couldn't hear what was being said but it was obvious by the way the five people around Clarke stared at her that whatever it was must be enthralling. That or maybe they just enjoyed the way her dress, a beautiful tan tonight, clung so lovingly to her hips. The sleeves of the dress didn't quite make it to her elbows and Lexa had caught Finn running his fingers lightly along the exposed skin more than once, and for some reason the sight irked her. Perhaps it was because the touch was entirely inappropriate for the social setting as was the way he looked at her, or perhaps because every time he did she could see at least one of the other nobles with them glaring at him, likely desiring to be doing the exact same thing. These gatherings were supposed to be an opportunity for the nobility of the thirteen different houses to talk and build new relationships with one another, and now that plan was so masterfully being derailed by one young woman.

She ignored the voice in the back of her mind that whispered how she wanted to be doing the same thing, about how soft she imagined Clarke's skin would feel under the pads of her fingers.

To Lexa's chagrin, this was now the third party the young woman had attended. Apparently Sir Finn saw nothing wrong with bringing an escort to her palace, and from the way the younger nobility acted they felt the same way as he did. The older nobility was another matter of course, many noblewomen turning their noses up at her once they learned who – or rather what – Clarke was while their husbands pretended to agree. Lexa caught many of them eyeing the young woman as soon as their wives weren't paying attention and had to tamper down her annoyance. At least their sons and daughters had the decency not to treat Clarke as though she were a sickness, though she wondered just how many of them would happily catch her if given the opportunity. After all, she was still the most beautiful woman the queen had ever seen.

For her part, Lexa kept her distance. It wasn't that she didn't approve of Clarke's profession, per se; she understood everyone had to find a way to make a living, and she imagined Clarke must be quite well off with the one she'd chosen. The coin she got from Finn alone would likely be enough to pay all her expenses for at least the next few months. It was the appearances she needed to keep up that kept her away from the dark-haired beauty. As the queen, she could hardly let her people see her interacting with a woman who sold her body for money, despite how necessary it might be. She didn't need the gossip that might start or the lectures she'd get from Titus: he'd already given her one such lecture after her first interaction with the redhead, and it was not something she felt the need to repeat. It was safer and wiser to stay away.

Her brother, it seemed, didn't feel the same way. As she watched, Aden left the conversation he'd been having with the lord of Mount Weather and his son and made his way over to the group around Clarke. She was about to look away, mentally preparing the lecture she would be giving him later, when she stopped in her tracks, her eyes widening as she watched the lord of Mount Weather following him. To her utter shock the conversation around the young woman broke off as the prince approached, and then Aden was clearly introducing her to the lord. Lord Dante Wallace took her hand and brought it to his lips, greeting her as though she were just another noble. Lexa could barely believe what she was seeing, and couldn't decide whether to just let the lord greet her or go over and somehow intervene before he learned what she was. Surely Aden couldn't have told him, and she felt embarrassment flood through her. Sometimes her brother just didn't think things through.

“And what do you say, Your Majesty?” a lesser lord from the Boudalan Mountains asked, forcefully pulling Lexa back into their conversation. She scrambled mentally for a second, trying to remember what they had been talking about while keeping her expression even, before he continued, “Would you say the land we won from the Reapers is best for clearing for farmland, or do we salt and burn it?”

“Any land the Reapers touched has to be laced with disease and death,” another lord, this one from the Ingrona Plains, spat. “I say burn it away, that's the best way to get rid of it.”

Lexa fiddled with her wine glass, listening to the debate and when there was a lull replied, “If our enemy could live off it for so long, I see no reason why we can't. Our nation can always use more farmland.” The debate went back and forth, others chiming in with their own opinions, and Lexa let herself be swept away in it, trying to use it to forget about the conversation taking place across the room.

What must have been a half hour later Lexa had moved on from the land debate and was grabbing a new glass of wine from a passing servant when she saw Lord Dante breaking away from Clarke's group. Curious about the easy smile on his face she remained where she was, watching him as he walked towards her.

“Your Majesty,” he greeted her, giving a small bow before reaching up and grabbing one of the other glasses from the servant's tray. “You've put together a fine party.”

“Thank you,” she told him, returning the bow and compliment with a small nod. “I hope it's not too much after your long travels.” He and the rest of the Mount Weather representatives had only just arrived that afternoon. Part of her hadn't been expecting to see the lord: in his early seventies, he was easily the oldest person in the room and she'd assumed he'd be tired enough to skip the festivities and just retire for the night. Here he was though, looking just as awake as anyone else and smiling pleasantly at her.

“I don't imagine I'll be attending too late like many of these young people, but I had to make an appearance. It's been some time since I've been here.” He looked around, shaking his head as he did so before telling her, “I think the last time I was visiting your father and you had only just begun to walk.”

Conversation about her childhood and parents always made her uncomfortable though she never showed it, so she quickly changed the subject. Raising her glass to her lips, she tipped it towards the group he'd just left before taking a sip and then asked carefully, “Did you have a nice conversation with my brother? And his... friends?” She wasn't sure if any of the youth around Clarke would consider each other friends or if it was simply her presence that brought them together but she could think of no other way to describe the group.

Lord Wallace chuckled before taking a drink from his own wine glass. “The prince was telling me about his sword work before he noticed his friends. He's training as a knight, I heard. Lady Anya has offered to take him on as her squire?” Lexa nodded, telling him, “I don't know if I would say she's excited about it, but he certainly is. Anya has threatened to smack him over the head any time he doesn't listen, prince or not.” The words made her grin momentarily, remembering a brief childhood before she'd become queen when she'd follow the newly-made knight around the castle, earning the same small smacks whenever she too hadn't listened. She often thought it was Anya's never-wavering friendship and loyalty that had gotten her through her first few years of ruling.

“That's good,” Dante replied with a solemn nod but Lexa could see the teasing twinkle in his eyes. “Even us nobles need to get smacked every now and then.” He nodded back to the group he'd just come from, adding, “I believe every one of those young men could use a good smack, mooning over poor Mistress Blake as openly as they are.”

The conversation shift had Lexa inadvertently looking over his shoulder at the group, and once again her eyes went straight to the younger woman. Unfortunately this time Clarke was listening to one of the others around her talk and happened to be looking up at the same time and somehow their gazes connected. The other woman smiled, nodding slightly to the queen and Lexa bit the side of her tongue to keep her own expression controlled, entirely lost with how she was supposed to act when it came to Clarke. Instead of returning the look or gesture she shifted her focus back to the older lord in front of her.

“Yes I noticed Aden introduced you two,” she stated a little hesitantly, still not sure if he knew her station. He'd called her “Mistress Blake” which meant he knew she wasn't any kind of nobility, but did he know anymore than that? “What did you talk about?”

“Oh this and that,” he replied, waving one frail hand in front of him as though brushing the question away. “She asked whether the globe flowers or blue columbine have started opening up yet along our mountains.” Mount Weather was famous for their flowers, the bright yellow of the globe flowers standing out among the striking blue of the columbine, among many others. Despite herself, Lexa was once again impressed with Clarke's knowledge of the different nations. “She had also heard I enjoy painting and offered to take me to the best shop in Polis to find supplies in.” Shifting slightly to look more comfortably back over his shoulder, he smiled at the dark-haired woman before saying, “Really she seems to be quite the young woman.”

Everything he said just added to the mysterious light she saw Clarke in, but at the moment she had to ignore those mysteries. Instead she told him cautiously, “I'm not sure it would be wise to be seen in public with her, my lord. I imagine people would talk, considering her profession.” She still wasn't sure if he knew what she did, but when he raised an eyebrow and gave her a look Lexa had her answer.

“Your Majesty, I doubt anyone would believe I could keep up with a young woman like her in that way,” he said, his voice dry. “Twenty years ago maybe, but not now.” The look dropping away he shrugged, seeming to be entirely unconcerned with the implications. “Besides, she's a smart young woman; I only talked with her for a short time and I can tell that already. In my many years I've found it's good to keep company with smart people.” He made a face then, adding, “Though not in the way I imagine many people use her company for. Mistress Blake would just be a nice friend to have.” Glancing up at Lexa, he lifted his wine glass to his mouth and said from behind it, “She might be a good friend to you too, Your Majesty.”

Against her will her eyes shifted back to the other woman, Clarke now drawn back into the conversation around her. She couldn't decide if she was relieved or disappointed to not catch those blue eyes again.

“It wouldn't be appropriate it,” she informed him, though she wondered if he could hear the uncertainty in her tone. Titus would be furious, the nobility would talk, but still she couldn't help that her feet itched to walk over to the group.

“She's a guest at your party,” Dante argued lightly, rubbing at his chin thoughtfully. “It might be more inappropriate not to speak with her.” Then it was his turn to look past Lexa, spotting something that pulled at his attention. “If you'll excuse me Your Majesty, I haven't yet greeted Lord Emerys.” She nodded and he bowed slightly to her before stepping away and moving towards where the Lord of the Glowing Forest stood by one of the tables set up with piles of food along its surface. He'd barely taken more than a few steps when Lexa found her feet also moving, but in a very different direction and one she wasn't sure she should continue in.

“Your Majesty,” Aden greeted her lightly as she approached the group of young nobles and Clarke, nodding to her as the rest of his party bowed. “Did you have a nice chat with Lord Wallace?”

“I did,” she replied easily, being very careful to spread her focus over the entire group instead of the one person it wanted to be on. “I hope you're all enjoying yourselves over here.” The young lords were quick to assure her they were, a couple nodding almost furiously and any other time it would make her want to laugh how quickly they wanted to please her. At the moment though she was trying not to stare at Clarke out of the corner of her eye, pointedly noticing the young woman was the only one other than Aden that hadn't answered. Keeping her expression even she let herself turn to her, asking politely, “What about you, Mistress Blake? Are you having a good time?”

She thought she saw something in the other woman's expression flash but just like that it was gone and all she was getting was a polite smile. “Of course Your Majesty, I don't know how anyone could not have a good time at one of your parties. The food and music are as lovely as always, as is the company.” She threw the men around her a cheeky grin, one they all seemed to hang on, and it took every bit of control Lexa had spent years building up to keep herself from rolling her eyes or even staring at the ceiling helplessly. Clarke clearly was either a natural born flirt or had had many lessons in its complexity, ones she'd obviously artfully mastered.

Lexa nodded and before she knew it her hand was out between them, offered up to the other woman. “Speaking of the music, would you care to dance? I remember you're an excellent partner.” The last word slipped out before she could catch it and she nearly blushed, thinking about its implications in her line of business, but when Clarke's lips curled up in a slight smirk she managed to keep an entirely straight face. Her hand fell over Lexa's, her palm warm, and she nodded as she accepted. “I would be honored, Your Majesty.”

As she'd done two weeks ago Lexa led her to the dance floor, those who stood between them and it quickly moving out of their way. While they walked inwardly the queen panicked, unsure how this had happened. She hadn't meant to go over and certainly hadn't meant to ask Clarke to dance; what would people say, now that everyone knew what the red-haired woman was? What would they talk about? Lexa had really stepped in it this time, but like any true queen she just moved with her head held high and back perfectly straight, pretending not to see any of the people watching them.

They fell into the steps of the dance, their hands coming together while Lexa's other one rested lightly against Clarke's hip and Clarke's shifted up to her shoulder. The queen couldn't decide which was more distracting, the younger woman's hand in hers or the slight pressure she felt against her shoulder. She did her best to ignore them both.

“To be honest I didn't expect you to come over,” Clarke said suddenly after a minute, breaking the silence that had fallen between them as they danced. Lexa looked down at her, noting silently that they stood almost at the same height, the stylish boots she wore the only thing giving her an inch or two on the younger woman. “Why is that?”

“At the party last week it seemed like you were very carefully avoiding me,” she replied, not looking away and suddenly Lexa felt both embarrassed and a little ashamed. She hadn't thought Clarke had noticed, but apparently she was more observant than the queen had given her credit for. “I assumed you'd learned what I am and decided it would be best to keep your distance. Not that I blame you.”

It surprised Lexa to hear her speak so blatantly, enough that for just a split second she was at a loss for words. “I... Here you are first and foremost my guest. It would be rude of me to keep my distance.” She watched the blue of Clarke's eyes scan across her face, apparently looking for something, and didn't look away until the other woman nodded lightly.

Again they fell into a lapse of silence, only the sound of the music and talk around them breaking through it. Lexa's eyes shifted from her face to her shoulders to the people and things around them, not sure where to look or what to say, until she heard, “You can ask me, if you'd like.” Eyes moving back to her face she found blue still staring up and piercing into her, the look so intense she had to swallow before asking casually, “I'm sorry?”

To her utter shock Clarke rolled her eyes before raising an eyebrow, giving her a look.

“All those questions you have you think would be impolite to ask,” she clarified, her tone even. “You can ask me. I don't mind.”

Lexa hesitated for a moment, chewing thoughtfully on the inside of her lip. “Are you sure? I don't want to pry or make you uncomfortable.” Clarke let out a slight laugh, almost a snort, and then replied, “Your Majesty, I'm a whore; believe me when I say nothing you can ask me now is going to make me uncomfortable.”

The fact that she stated it so blatantly almost made Lexa blush, the heat rising quickly to her cheeks. She held it back as best she could, slipped on the best diplomatic mask she had, before asking carefully, “What made you choose to become...?”

“It was necessity, mostly,” she answered when it was clear the queen wasn't going to finish the question. “It was just the best option for me. The only option, really.” Lexa nodded slowly, wondering how a woman like Clarke could have been backed into a corner where her only option was selling her body for coin, but didn't ask that; despite what she had said, she thought that might in fact make the other woman uncomfortable. Instead she asked, “How long have you been doing... this?”

“Six years,” was the response, and Lexa's diplomatic mask hid her surprise flawlessly as always. “I started when I was sixteen.” The queen didn't know if that was the normal age to get into this particular profession but it sounded young. Rather than say anything she just said, “It doesn't show.” Backtracking quickly as Clarke's other eyebrow rose to join the first, she clarified, “I meant only that I never would have guessed you were in this profession.” Raising the hand settled on her hip, she waved it around lightly, gesturing to the room around them before returning it to the same spot. “You blend in with the nobles around you very well and are very well conversed in topics I wouldn't have expected a commoner to know much about let alone care for.”

Again Lexa thought she saw a flash of something spark in the bright blue watching her, a spark of... something, but just as quickly as it appeared it was gone again.

“I trained for a while at The Breeding House,” she replied, naming a place Lexa had heard about before but only in passing. From what she understood it was some kind of school where young common men and women went to learn how to interact with the nobility and all of its students went on to become escorts for those with higher bloodlines. She'd always thought it sounded foolish, the need to train commoners how to act around nobles who'd only hired them for sex, but Clarke's presence at her parties made her second guess those thoughts. “My mistress Luna Flou hired me to work for her at The Rig after that and I've been there ever since.” She stopped only to adjust her hand in Lexa's as the tempo of the music changed and gave her another little smirk. “I've done quite well in Polis, I admit. There's always young noblemen and -women coming to try to seek favor with the queen and at night many of them want someone to help keep their bed warm.” She winked at her then and Lexa shook her head, utterly bewildered by what she'd just heard. She never would have guessed that her nobles came to see her by day and then turned to Clarke once the sun had set and honestly wasn't sure she would ever be able to look at any of them again without wondering if they'd been one of Clarke's companions. If just a spark of that bewilderment was actually jealousy, she ignored it completely.

“I'm... glad I am able to help your business,” she told her, giving her a hesitant smile. “I had no idea the people coming to see me kept you so busy.” Clarke shared her smile, hers growing as she said, “I guess in a way they come for both of us.”

“Just for very different reasons,” the queen joked, the younger woman's smile infectious. Clarke began to nod but the motion slowed as she looked past Lexa's shoulder, apparently thinking about something. For a moment she stared off as though she weren't really paying attention to the queen in front of her and then mused more quietly, “Are we really that different though? I mean if you think about it, the job descriptions for a whore and a queen really aren't that different.”

Lexa stiffened, not exactly faltering in their dance but certainly no longer paying attention to it, though if she were being honest with herself the steps were just automatic at this point as she'd been focused on the dark-haired woman this whole time. The words were like a slap to the face, a comparison any queen would find fault in, and if she were anyone else Clarke might be about to find herself in very deep trouble. As it was she thought the younger woman should choose her next words very carefully.

Clarke seemed to realize what she'd said at the same time Lexa did, and her eyes widened as though she were surprised. This time the queen knew the red of her cheeks came from a blush and not the rouge dusted over her skin, and she dipped her head. “My apologies Your Majesty. I didn't mean that the way it came out.” After a second Lexa nodded, her head barely moving, and she could practically feel Clarke relax a little against her. There was a short pause as neither said anything else, a silence growing between them, before the other woman said, “Though... I'm not wrong.”

The queen grit her jaw slightly for just a second and then lifted an eyebrow at her. “Explain, please. I'm interested to hear how you think our roles are the same.”

Clarke took a moment to think her words over, Lexa reading the hesitation in her expression, and then she saw the other woman give a little shrug and that hesitation all but disappeared. The change happened so swiftly it took the queen by surprise, and then Clarke was speaking again.

“A whore's job is to satisfy the person who pays for their service. They have little say in how that satisfaction is given, just have to go along with what their companion wants.” She looked up, meeting Lexa's eyes and the queen and to carefully keep her expression from changing as she stared into that piercing blue. “Sometimes I have to take control, other times I have to give it up. If I do my job right, then the person is more likely to come back again and I'll get more of their coin. If they like me they may even tell their friends about me and I'll get more business; dislike me, and I may get less.” She shrugged again, stepping back and dipping in time with the music before moving back into the queen's space and for a second Lexa had a difficult time catching her breath as she felt Clarke's chest briefly pressed against her own.

“Isn't it similar for a queen?” she continued, still not looking away. “Just on a larger scale? I only have to satisfy one, maybe two people at a time: you have to satisfy an entire nation. Your nobles give you support, money, soldiers, but to get all of that you need to make them happy. Us commoners pay your taxes, farm your crops, butcher your livestock; if we're not happy, you don't eat. If enough people aren't happy, you could even have a rebellion on your hands. You have to choose your battles in the same way I have to decide to take or give away control.” She shrugged again, stopping their movements as the song ended, and Lexa found she couldn't make herself look away, thoroughly shocked by everything this woman was saying to her. “Honestly, I think I'd rather be a whore than a queen: at least all I have to give away is my body. You have to give your people every part of you.”

“You are not like anyone I've ever met before,” Lexa muttered, unsettled by Clarke's analysis. It made more sense than she cared to admit, and she didn't like that. For her part the younger woman simply smiled her dazzling smile and it made the queen uneasy the way her heart skipped a beat in her chest. “Of course I'm not Your Majesty, unless there are other whores you've been dancing with.” She raised both of her eyebrows, inviting Lexa in on her joke and then sighed wistfully. “Though as nice as this dance has been, I'm afraid it's distracting both of us from our jobs. I should return to Sir Finn, since he is the one paying me tonight.” She curtsied beautifully, the whisper of her skirts against the floor somehow making it to Lexa's ears, and lowered her head briefly. “Thank you for the honor, Your Majesty: you are a beautiful dancer.”

“Thank you, Mistress Blake,” Lexa replied, returning the curtsy with the custom nod of her head. “You've certainly given me a few things to think about.”

“Clarke,” she reminded the queen as she looked back up, a smirk once again tucked away at the corners of her mouth. “Please.”

“Clarke,” she agreed, feeling her own smile tucked away much in the same fashion, and the two stared at each other for just another second before the younger woman turned and made her way back over to Sir Finn. The queen watched her go, wondering how a girl she'd only just met – and a whore no less – could confuse and astound her more than any of the dozens of nobles in the room around her.

Clarke was certainly a mystery and selfishly she began to hope that she would keep being invited to Lexa's parties so she could continue to try to solve it. Even if that did mean she was in for any number of lectures from Titus, they just might be worth it.

***

Hands gripped at her hips, the fabric of her skirt caught between fingers clearly itching to pull it off. Lips sucked expectantly behind her ear and Clarke let out a husky chuckle, lightly pushing Finn back as the door to his room opened with their weight against it. He moved back just a step, an eager smirk pulling at his lips as he eyed her over. From the glow of the lit hearth she could see the pink tinging his cheeks, the most notable evidence of those last two glasses of wine she knew he probably shouldn't have had. She'd stayed quiet, knowing that his being drunk could only help her tonight.

She closed the door behind them and the moment the latch clicked into place she could feel him at her back, his arms sliding around her middle and pulling her close as his lips returned to the spot behind her ear. She laughed again and turned around in his hold, using one hand to lightly press against his chest and make him take a step back.

“Patience my lord,” she told him, cocking an eyebrow at him and giving him the look she knew he was expecting. His grin grew as his eyes trailed from her face down to her chest, now blatantly staring at her low neckline. “We have all night, what's your rush?”
“I want you,” he said, voice low and words clear despite the obvious signs of alcohol in his system. He reached down and grabbed the hand still pressed against his chest, gently bringing it up to his mouth and leaving wet kisses against her skin before beginning to trail his lips up the inside of her arm. “You've been driving me crazy.”

“That's what you pay me for,” she joked, her voice dipping as she bit her lip at him. As she'd expected his eyes immediately drew to the motion, and she could practically see the tent rising in his breeches. Apparently the wine hadn't been potent enough to affect that. He reached the crook of her elbow where her skin became hidden by cloth and made to pull her closer but she easily extracted herself from his hold, stepping back and looking at him coyly. She shifted to the side of the room where a second door was, the small privy closed off behind it and smirked at him. “While I freshen up, why don't you get comfortable?” She very purposefully looked to the bed, her intentions clear, and his face lit up. Beginning to pull at the buttons of his dark jacket he grinned at her, telling her, “Don't leave me for too long or I'll have to start without you.” She bit her lip again as though the idea appealed to her and he chuckled before shrugging out of the jacket and moving over to the bed.

Clarke headed into the privy, closing the door behind her and almost instantly her expression shifted. The coy grin fell away and instead her mouth curled down, her brow furrowing as she reached down for the little pouch hidden in one pocket of her gown. In the other was her knife, tucked away as ever, within reach should she need it, but for now she left it alone and instead pulled out the small leather sack. Inside she found a small jar, the one she kept on hand for just these occasions, and carefully opened it. Inside was red lip paint, a color she knew enticed any man and many women, and quickly she dipped her pinky finger in until she'd collected a small glob. With the skill she'd mastered years ago she carefully spread it along her lips being extra cautious not to let any of the paint get past them. While most whores' lip paint was used only to draw in customers, hers had an extra little kick to it, one she didn't need to test out on herself. Once she had a nice layer along her lips she wiped what was left on her finger against the inside of the pouch, covered the jar again and dropped it back into the leather bag. Binding it back up tightly she placed it back into her pocket, lightly patting at her skirt once it was inside to make sure it was clearly hidden. Taking a deep breath to prepare herself she forced the smile back to her lips and then turned back around to return to the main room.

Finn had moved to the bed, partially laying while he leaned back against the worn headboard. He'd stripped down to his breeches and under shirt and grinned when he saw her, his focus drawn immediately to her lips. Glancing down, she could easily see how much he appreciated the little added color.

“You look very comfortable, my lord,” she teased, stopping just a couple of feet away from the bed. “I almost hate to interrupt you.”

“Don't,” he replied, quickly shoving himself up and turning so his legs hung over the side of the bed. “Comfort is the last thing I care about right now. Except.” He pushed himself up and closed the space between them, his hands immediately going to the ties at the back of her dress. Clarke could feel his fingers moving behind her as he began to untie them, and closed her eyes when he leaned forward, his lips hovering by her ear. “Maybe you should take this off. It doesn't look that comfortable. Beautiful, but not comfortable.”

The strings came undone and he plucked at them, the fabric immediately loosening against her. The top of the dress fell away, her breasts now fully on display, and the fabric gathered at her waist. At first her initial reaction in this moment of nudity had been to cover herself, arms crossing over her bare breasts, but that had been long ago. Now she just stood still while his hands moved down to her waist, tugging lightly against the dress until it fell the rest of the way to the floor. Now she stood in front of him in only her smallclothes and the slippers she'd worn to the palace and his eyes scanned down her pale skin, drinking it all in. Once he'd gotten his fill of the sight for the moment his lips were on her collarbone, sucking and nipping lightly. She tilted her head back to give him more access and pressed against him, feeling a certain hardness growing as it pressed against her thigh.

“It seems like my lord sees something he likes,” she joked, one hand falling down to cup him lightly through his breeches. She heard him take in a sharp breath against her skin, his hands moving to grip her hips tightly as though to hold her in place.

“Gods, you have no idea,” he muttered, the words thick before he pulled back just enough to look back up at her. There was that love-struck look again, hidden away beneath his lust but still so present, and on some level she almost felt bad for him. Immediately she squashed that thought and tightened her grip against him, making him groan.

“Sir Knight, take me to your bed,” she murmured, moving closer so she could whisper the order in his ear. She knew the change in title would bolster his ego, the evidence of that clear in the palm of her hand and with the way his chest puffed out just a little. With her free hand she reached up and grabbed his chin in her fingers, tilting his face until it was just where she wanted it. Leaning up she quickly pressed their mouths together, a flash of triumph washing through her as he sank into the kiss. The flash remained bottled up inside where he couldn't see it and completely unaware he deepened the kiss, pulling her bottom lip between his own to suck on.

“Whatever you say, Mistress Blake,” he let out with a chuckle the moment their mouths parted and he turned them so that Clarke was closer to the bed. His grip on her hips tightened and then his hands slid down to her thighs, lifting her and tossing her onto the mattress. She smirked at him as she felt her back hit the sheets, not taking her eyes off him as he quickly stripped himself of his shirt and breeches. In his haste his shirt got stuck over his head for just a moment, his excitement and slight drunkenness getting the better of him, but then it was off and thrown to the floor to join her dress. As he undressed she kicked off her slippers but left the last piece of cloth covering her on, knowing he would want to be the one to remove it. Some customers preferred she do it, just strip off all clothing so they could get to what they really wanted faster, but she'd learned Finn liked being the one to undress her. She guessed it made him feel more powerful, drew out the entire act for him, and just let him do as he wished. Technically that was what she was being paid for, and plenty of others expected far more than just the power to undress her.

As soon as he was bare the young lord returned all his focus on her, eyeing her up and down lying on his bed. Clarke returned the look as she knew he wanted, staying still as he climbed onto the mattress to join her. Soon his hands were on her body, fingers pressing against her skin and lips trailing down her neck and chest to close around a dusty pink nipple.

Clarke made the noises she knew he expected, but barely even felt his touch. The entire act had just become a show to her, a performance to put on for her guest and one she was sure she could do in her sleep. His touch lit no fire in her, created no mad desire to be kissed or taken, but she sighed as though it did. When he bothered to look at her face he found what he expected to find, a smile or her lips parted in little gasps but in reality she was silently counting the seconds away. It was only a matter of time before this would all end and she could stop pretending for the moment, and all she had to do was wait for it. He stripped her of her smallclothes, spreading her legs for her, and where at one point she would have fought against the action now she just let it happen, more than used to it. Before long he had tired of padding his fingers over her skin and must have felt his own need swelling up, as he quickly climbed on top of her and lined himself up with her opening. He filled her quickly, a sharp breath that was more automatic reaction to the movement than anything else escaping her lips, but he grinned as though it were a sign of her returned desire. Without wasting anymore time he began pumping away and Clarke made her gasps grow with the force of his thrusts.

For a few minutes his thrusts remained steady, a little uneven in his movements, but only a short moment after he had begun to speed up as though he were reaching his end those thrusts suddenly began to slow. His hips continued to move for a few long, drawn out seconds, and Clarke watched as his head fell forward before snapping back up, as though he were fighting to stay awake. Her hands went up to his shoulders, arms locked straight as her palms pressed against them, so that when his head finally fell against his chest and didn't rise back up his weight wouldn't come crashing down on her. Carefully she turned them, struggling a moment with his weight, and then let him drop to his side on the bed, fully unconscious. She waited a moment to make sure he wouldn't wake back up and then pulled away from him, his hard cock easily slipping out of her. Sitting up and swinging her legs over the opposite side of the bed, she grabbed a corner of the bed sheet and brought it to her mouth, quickly wiping away any of the red paint still on her lips. The drug she mixed into it would knock her out just as easily as it knocked him out: she'd learned that from one unfortunate misuse of it a couple of years ago.

Without any further distractions she stood up from the bed, quickly making her way over to one corner of the room. This was the corner where Finn's bags lived for the duration of his stay at the inn, and she quickly grabbed one and took it over to the hearth. There she sat down in front of the fire, using the light to see better as she began to dig through the bag, wondering what she would find.

Between Luna and the whores at The Rig, she'd been given a fine education of how to survive in this new world, just as fine as the one she'd had in her old world. Where before it had been histories of the great houses and how to keep five fiefs running, now it was how to dig up secrets and gather information. Secrets made the world go round she'd quickly learned, and the keeper of secrets gained all the power, especially when the secrets involved those in higher positions. Having a secret on the baker who lived down the street meant the occasional free meal; having a secret over a lord meant having anything one wanted. By going through their bags after knocking them out, she'd already learned of one lord who was drawn to the dice and owed massive gambling debts, as well as a young noblewoman who planned to run away and get married to her secret lover.

Gambling debts and secret lovers weren't what she was looking for, though. What Clarke always hoped to find were two names.

Bennet and Jenson.

She'd finally learned the identity of the two mercenaries just over a year ago. It had taken years of tracking dead ends and unlikely leads, but finally she'd learned the names of the two men who had changed her life forever. She still didn't know who their master was, who had designed her father's death, but she had theories.

One: It had to be a noble, hence her intense focus on the upper class. Killing her father and herself would have been an expensive job, too expensive for any commoner to be able to afford. Besides, killing a lord or any other member of nobility was always about power, and only other lords could have possibly benefited from her father's death.

Two: Whoever had hired these two men had either known she and her father would be at that inn on that particular day or had hired them to stalk them and take them out whenever the opportunity presented itself. That meant he or she either knew them well enough to know when and where they would be traveling or they had the boldness to have them followed with the possibility they would be spotted. She didn't like either option, since one meant she likely knew whoever this was and the other meant they took risky chances that wouldn't bode well for her if they ever found out she was alive.

Three: Her father hadn't been the only one in that fire; as far as she knew no one else had made it out alive. That meant this person didn't care who else got hurt along the way, just so long as their target had been eliminated. If they did ever find out Clarke was still alive, they would do whatever, hurt whoever, it took to finish their plan. It was that fear that had kept her from going home after the fire, that had made her walk away from her mother and sister and everyone in Arkadia, the fear that more of the people she loved would wind up dead if she returned.

Quietly Clarke opened the bag, peering inside the opening. At first all she saw were clothes, these ones more for riding or walking around the city than for attending royal parties. Carefully she pulled them all out, shaking out each pair of breeches and shirt, combing through any pockets she found for scraps of paper. However unlikely, it was always possible she would find some clue to get her closer to her goal. She highly doubted Finn had anything to do with her father's death but his father was another story. The Glowing Forest was one of the houses closer to the Arkadian Hills, close enough that they had already done trade even before the queen's alliance came into existence. She knew her father had even been considering reaching out to Lord Emerys to discuss a possible marriage opportunity between his heir and one of the lord's younger sons. Maybe Emerys had decided to expand on his land and thought the best way to do that would be to remove Arkadia's lord and heir and send their people into a turmoil. If that were the case Finn might very well lead her to Bennet and Jenson: sons often called on the same contacts as their fathers for their own problems and the young knight might have a problem Clarke didn't yet know about.

At the very least she had to look, unable to pass this opportunity up. She might find something, and if she didn't at least she could feel better about letting Finn touch her once she knew it wasn't likely his family had destroyed her own.

The only scrap of paper she found in his riding clothes was another request to be sent to The Rig to procure her services again the next week. She thought he was getting a little impatient, having the note all written up before she'd even left after this encounter, but in his defense it was probably a good thing: the way the second son of Lord Damos Hyll, a lesser lord from the Boudalan Mountains, had been watching her tonight, she had a feeling he wouldn't be the only one asking for her services.

Folding the clothes and then setting them aside, she continued going through the bag, checking every pocket and corner. When nothing else turned up in that one she repacked it, careful to return everything as it had been before she'd disturbed it. Luna had taught her that little trick, telling her horror stories of thieves who hadn't hidden their presence well enough and had been caught by those they'd been trying to steal from. The stories of their gruesome ends had instilled a need for thoroughness in her she hadn't ever felt before.

With that bag back in order she returned it to the pile, grabbing the next one and bringing it over to the fire to start again. This bag was larger and held many of Finn's nicer clothes, the ones he would wear whenever in the queen's presence. As she looked through them she couldn't help but think about the queen and their conversation earlier that night. She still didn't know what had possessed her to compare her to a whore, her mouth just running away with her. That should concern her: Clarke never said anything without thinking it through and mulling it over, but for some reason with the queen she felt comfortable enough to just start talking. To an extent it did concern her, but mostly due to the fact it didn't. The comfort she felt with the older woman came out of nowhere and had blind-sided her, something she didn't like at all. Silently she swore to herself she'd be more careful, more on guard with the most powerful woman in the nation, and got back to her searching.

This bag held nothing for her, and soon she was packing the fancy clothes back as they had been and returning it to its corner.

The third bag held knickknacks, items Finn clearly hadn't wanted to spend the summer without. Three books were tucked away at the bottom of the bag and she slowly flipped through every page, glancing over the writing to see if it could be of any use. One felt familiar as she skimmed through it, and on closer examination she realized it was a copy of a book she used to own as well, a history on the different houses of the land. She basically had it memorized by the time she was fourteen and shook her head at thinking he'd needed to bring it with him, a young man in his early twenties. The other two were full of heroic ballads and poems, tales of princesses being swept away by their true loves and heroes slaying the dragons. She wasn't surprised to find he was a romantic, the lovesick looks he gave her every now and then already having hinted at it. Though nice enough, she wasn't particularly impressed. Sir Finn may play at being a knight, but it was only in title. From what she'd learned he hadn't fought in the Queen's War, somehow managing to stay out of it, and she suspected he enjoyed his title more for the attention it gave him than for the duty bound to it. She'd met knights before, true knights, and he wasn't one however much he pretended at it.

The final two bags held nothing else of substance, no hidden notes or secret documents that would lead her straight to her revenge. Clarke knew it was foolish to ever think she'd be so lucky, but nevertheless she couldn't help but feel just a little disappointed. One of these days she would get there, find those last pieces of the puzzle that would finally give her the full picture, but clearly it wouldn't be tonight. Just as carefully as before she packed everything back up as it had been and then returned the bags to their places, and then she just stood by the fire for a few minutes, staring into the dying flames.

Someday I'll find you, she thought as the fire danced before her, the reach of the flames waxing and waning as they ate away at the wood beneath them. And when I do I'll make you pay for what you did. I'll make you pay for all of it.

Finally she tore her gaze away from the fire and turned back to the room. Finn still lay on the bed where she left him, his chest now pressed against the mattress, and she made her way back over to the bed, crawling onto it to lay beside him. She would be there when he woke up and would smile at him, give him that little smirk, and he'd forget this had happened. He'd think they kept going until they were too tired to continue and that the wine was why he couldn't remember. He wouldn't say anything other than how great they were, how great she was, and she would just smile all the more. It always played out the same way and she had no doubt it would be any different with him.

One arm curled beneath her head, a pillow in its own right. She stared at the young lord, watching his face as he slept. His chest rose and fell easily, any dreams he was having obviously peaceful. She envied that. With her free hand she reached out and gently swept the long hair from his eyes, tucking it back behind his ear so she could see him better.

“If things had gone differently we might be married,” she murmured quietly, her voice breaking the quiet of the room. “By now we would have at least two children, little lords or ladies always under feet. I think your favorite thing would be trying to make me smile. We would be here as the young Lord and Lady Griffin with my mother and father. Maybe the queen and I would actually become friends. I might even have grown to love you.”

She didn't fear his hearing her; as deeply asleep as he was, nothing of what she'd said would get through. He would wake up in the morning believing – just as the rest of the world did – that Clarke Griffin was dead, and that the woman beside him was nothing more than a simple, beautiful whore.

Sometimes it was a lie even she believed.

Chapter Text

Harper worked her tongue ceaselessly against Clarke's clit as her fingers thrust into her and her head snapped back against the plush cushions she laid on in response. Their current companion knelt behind Harper, furiously pounding his cock into her, grunting from his efforts. With Harper's head buried between her legs it was really only Clarke's face he could clearly see so she over exaggerated everything, from her gasps and groans to the grip she held on her friend's hair. He seemed to be loving every second of it, a smirk on his face even as his jaw hung open. The man kept glancing from Clarke's face to his cock slipping in and out of Harper, obviously very proud of himself for having two whores at once. While they'd undressed him and each other he'd bragged about winning some big bet and how there was no better way to spend it than to treat himself to two pretty cunts.

“Aw fuck,” he grunted as his grip on Harper's hips tightened. “Fuck, take my cock. Take it, fuckin' whore.”

When Clarke glanced down her body Harper looked up at the same time. The other woman rolled her eyes, hidden from their guest, and Clarke had to fight away her grin so he wouldn't see it. She looked back towards the man when one arm moved at the corner of her vision and then his hand came down against Harper's ass with a sharp smack. The action made her jump, clearly not expecting it, but he didn't appear to notice. If he did he didn't care, his hips never slowing down in their movements.

He continued going until he'd gotten himself off and then pushed away from them with a satisfied grin, dressing and leaving with a strut. He'd never even given them his name.

Harper glared after him as she grabbed her robe from where it had fallen to the floor and thrust her arms through the sleeves. Standing up she rubbed at the spot he'd hit her, still glaring. “Tiny-cocked fucker.” Clarke let the smile she'd been holding back take over, her lips curling up easily as she followed her friend up. Grabbing her robe as well but not bothering to put it on yet she shifted her weight to lean lightly against the other woman, telling her, “Now that isn't a very nice thing to say about a paying customer. Even if he did have a tiny cock.”

“Yeah well that hurt,” Harper muttered angrily, still glaring as though it would somehow help take the sting from her bottom. Clarke let out a light chuckle and shook her head. “Your ass has been slapped harder than that before.” A glint appeared in her eye and she leaned more heavily against her, her hip jutting out slightly to the side and bumping against Harper's. “I've slapped it harder than that.”

That comment wiped the glare from her friend's expression, a joking smile taking over as she looked over to the other woman. Fluttering her eyelashes suggestively she replied, “Well yeah, but it's always so nice when you do it.” She gave Clarke a flirtatious wink that just made her shake her head again and when Harper turned and gave her a look over her shoulder she laughed and gave her ass a light tap. “I won't even make you pay for that,” she joked, leaning over and pressing a light, teasing kiss to the other woman's cheek. She then gave her a light shove, the teasing tone still audible as she added, “Now go get cleaned up, Luna probably has others waiting for us.” Harper fluttered her eyelashes once more, winked, and then left the room, pulling her robe closed around her.

Clarke didn't bother going to wash up since it had only been Harper touching her. She slipped into her robe, a light blue that trailed a little behind her on the floor when she walked, and left the room, turning in the opposite direction than her friend had gone. Making her way down through the second and first floors of The Rig she made sure to swing her hips any time she passed a customer even if another whore were already leading them to a room to be serviced. They could always come back, and maybe they'd remember the young woman with the blue eyes and mysterious red hair who smiled so prettily at them before.

As usual she found Luna sitting at her desk, eyeing over the three men and one woman waiting to be seen to, likely thinking about who to pair them with. Clarke looked at them all from beneath her eyelashes, letting them all think she was interested in what she saw and the men all puffed up at the look. She stopped at the woman, purposefully looking her up and down, and she blushed. She seemed rather young, maybe not even as old as Clarke, and she fiddled with her skirt. Clarke doubted she had ever even been in a whorehouse before and would stutter about how she knew she shouldn't be there as she was led to one of the rooms. She would probably be moaning before her dress even hit the floor.

“Luna,” she greeted her mistress, making sure her voice was extra husky for the four waiting guests. She made a show of looking away from them and then leaning against the desk, her robe getting caught in a way that tugged it open a little, just enough so the side of her breast was on display. Acting like she didn't even notice she looked at the woman behind the desk, telling her, “I'm available again, if you have anyone new for me.” Out of the corner of her eye she could see the girl's blush deepen, her cheeks and neck now a dark pink.

Her mistress didn't play into her little show. Instead she held up a scrap of paper between two fingers and held it out to her. “A repeat customer has asked for you,” she just said, her eyes meeting Clarke's. “Your little friend is waiting for you at the Dropship, the usual room. Murphy dropped this off grumbling about how he isn't a messenger boy anymore.”

All at once her act fell away, no longer even bothering to pretend to be interested in any of the people behind her. She stood up straighter and grabbed the paper from Luna, unfolding it and quickly scanning over the writing. She would know that handwriting anywhere, and without so much as glancing back at her mistress or the guests waiting and clearly disappointed in her departure without them she hurried back up through the building and into her room. Quickly she threw off her robe and slipped into a real dress, though not one of the nice ones she wore when she was with Finn or other lords. This one was a simple brown wool gown with a neckline far more appropriate than most of her others. She pulled on her sturdy leather boots and then left the room, pulling the door shut behind her. Just as quickly she made her way back through the building, none of the normal distractions found in a whorehouse slowing her down. When a drunkard grabbed her arm as she passed him, grinning lustily at her as he looked her over she just grabbed his fingers and pried them off of her, bending them far enough back to be painful before letting go. He was drunk enough he probably wouldn't remember the minor discomfort later anyway.

Clarke walked the mile to the Dropship, another inn whores often frequented, though this one not solely for business. The owners, a man named John Murphy and his wife Emori, were well-liked by the lower class citizens of Polis. The Dropship had a reputation for good food, nice rooms, and there was almost always at least one game of dice taking place in their common room. They over-charged the wealthy that stayed there and under-charged the poor, often dishing out free meals to the street scum who hadn't otherwise eaten in a week. Murphy hated anyone thinking he was a good guy, the snarky young man glaring at anyone who dared to call him any such thing to his face, but playful and sly Emori balanced him out. They were only a few years older than Clarke and two of the few people she actually trusted, though not with any of her secrets. As it was they knew more about her than she liked, but since they never asked about her secret rendezvous with the person she was headed to see now she let that itch go.

Walking in the front door, Clarke was bombarded by noise. Just over a dozen guests sat at the long wooden tables set up in the common room, some eating whatever Emori had made for lunch that day while others just drank from the tankards in front of them. A group in the corner sat huddled around a set of dice, loud cheers and groans erupting from them with every roll. She ignored it all, walking straight through the room and over to the counter she could see Murphy standing behind. He glared at her as she approached.

“I haven't been a messenger for almost ten years now,” he growled at her, “but your special friend comes back and I get to go back to delivering pieces of paper. What the hell's that about, Blake?”

She put on her best, most charming smile, crossing her arms over the counter and resting her chin on them so she could look up through her eyelashes at him. “You know how tired he gets from all his traveling. The only thing he has any energy for when he comes back is me.” She shot him a wink and bit her lip and he just grimaced. “Yeah well next time he comes back tell 'im he can hire his own messenger to fetch you.”

A hand clapped her shoulder and Clarke looked over, finding Emori standing next to her, a tray tucked between her hip and other arm. The scar on her cheek she'd received during a drunken brawl between two guests five years ago only added to her looks, making her both dangerous and attractive. “Don't let him groan at you,” she informed the younger woman, shooting a grin at her husband, “he just likes to complain.” His glare shifted to his wife and he stuck his jaw out stubbornly before deciding to go check on the dice game in the corner, pointedly ignoring them. Clarke grinned as he left, telling Emori, “His groaning is at least a change from the groaning I usually have to listen to.” She sighed dramatically and waved her hand slightly in the air. “But I guess a whore's work's never done. My special friend has traveled so far to see me, I better not keep him waiting any longer. He really hates to be kept waiting.”

“I don't mind waitin' for ya, sweetheart,” one of the men around the dice table called, leaning back on the bench and giving her a grin. “Feels like I already been waitin' forever to get to see that sweet cunt'a yers again.” He winked at her and Clarke laughed before raising an eyebrow at him.

“And you won't see it again until you've got the coin to pay for it, Cole,” she replied, pretending to lift her nose up at him. As though she'd thought about it a bit further she seemed to give in a little, adding, “But when you do, you know where I live.” She shot him a wink and his grin grew before he turned and slapped his neighbor hard on the back. “Hand over them dice, I got coin to win!”

Emori shook her head at the interaction, the corners of her mouth turning up, and then hooked a thumb over her shoulder towards the door to the staircase. “Your guest is in the usual room. Probably want to get going.” Clarke gave her a smile and then left the room, lifting her skirt a little to keep from tripping as she began climbing up the stairs.

The Dropship was a small inn with only three floors, just a handful of rooms on each. She stopped at the second and then went all the way down the hall, stopping at the last door on the right. This room was spaced a little further away from the others, either purposefully so its occupants could have a little extra privacy or by fault in the building's design, she didn't know which. Either way that little extra bit of privacy was what this specific companion of hers always wanted, and now she lightly knocked on the door before letting herself in. She shut the door behind her and made sure to lock it before stepping away and finally actually looking around the room.

Wells had been sitting on the bed pressed up against the wall and cleaning his sword, but the moment he saw her he let the sword fall to the mattress and stood up. He fell into a deep bow, his right hand curling into a fist and pressing over his heart. “My lady.”

The rush of emotions she felt whenever she saw him always caught her off guard, even when she tried to prepare herself for it. For the briefest of seconds her throat burned and she felt tears well up in the corners of her eyes, but she quickly pushed both aside. There was no calming the sudden mad beating of her heart though she could ignore it, nor could she stop the pang of guilt she felt whenever she first saw him again from springing through her. Having him with her again was both a blessing and an agony, a dichotomy that ate away at her as her eyes swept over him.

It had been just over five months since the last time she'd seen him, and now she could see the way that time had chipped away at him. She thought maybe he'd put on more muscle but if he had he still managed to lose some weight in his face. His cheeks looked thinner, more sallow than she could remember. His hair had grown, what was usually a close trim having grown past his ears. She would cut it for him before he left again: she knew how much he preferred it short. His shoulders were still just as broad as she remembered them, just as strong as they had been when she had forced him to help her carry the weight of her revenge and grief with her. Though his sword lay on the mattress behind him she could see the dagger at his belt and knew he had another hidden in his left boot, prepared as always for anything, just as her father had taught him. Now he stood in front of her, bowing to a lady who was a whore and she let out a sigh.

“Wells come on, we've been over this,” she reminded him, crossing her arms loosely over her chest. “I'm not a noblewoman anymore, not a lady. You don't have to always greet me with a bow and definitely not with that title. I'm a whore now: you don't bow to a whore.”

He looked up at that word, his brow furrowing and anger flashing briefly across his eyes. “You are Lady Clarke Griffin of the Arkadian Hills,” he said and she grit her jaw, “just because no one else knows that doesn't mean I won't treat you like it.”

“Wells,” she warned, giving him a look but he just met it and they stared at each other in a battle of wills. It was the same argument they'd had on and off for the past six years, ever since Clarke decided to take on the whore persona. He'd fought her on it, harder than he'd ever fought her on anything before, but in the end he'd had to give in. That didn't stop him from treating her like a noblewoman though; in fact she swore it made him more determined to treat her like one than ever. The few times they had ever been seen together by others she acted the whore and he remained silent, just glaring at anyone who looked at him, but when they were locked away from the world he treated her with all the respect her blood was due. She hated it, the reminder of her old life also a reminder of what he'd had to give up for her, but nothing she could say would get him to stop. Now she looked away, eyes closing as she tried to push those thoughts back. They weren't helpful, and the only things she cared about now were those that would help them get her revenge.

“What did you find?” she asked, deciding to just get down to business. She looked back at him to find he was still staring at her, and silently she wished it didn't unnerve her. By now she was used to people staring, watching her just about wherever she went, but those people only saw Clarke Blake, the character she wanted them to see. Wells saw past the persona, was the only one who knew just how fake it was, and now she felt raw and open in front of him. She could hide everything from the world but nothing from him, and as much as she had missed him the vulnerability she could feel oozing out from behind the mask she always wore made her feel a kind of nakedness far more personal than what she was used to.

“Them,” he answered, and just like that the uncertainty she'd felt a moment ago disappeared entirely. “I found them. Jenson and Bennet.”

What?” Clarke demanded, involuntarily taking a step towards him. She was sure she couldn't have heard him right. “What did you say?”

“I found Jenson and Bennet,” he repeated, a hint of a smile tugging at his mouth but not quite sticking. He didn't smile that much anymore; it was really too bad because he had such a nice smile, but Clarke was too preoccupied at the moment to think on that any further. He gestured to the bed and she crossed the room, taking the seat he offered knowing he wouldn't sit until she did, and then he continued.

“A little more than two months ago I picked up their trail,” he told her, “in the Broadlands.” He sat on the edge of the bed and turned to face her and Clarke watched him closely as he spoke, hanging on his words. “I heard a blacksmith talking about a couple of mercenaries who'd just been through there bragging about being on a noble's payroll. I showed him your pictures and he confirmed it was them.” Back when this had all started she'd made two copies of the sketches, keeping one for herself and giving the other to him. They'd pulled them out many times over the years hoping someone would recognize their faces, and while they'd managed to get a few tips off of them this was easily their biggest break. “I missed them there but found others who'd heard they were heading towards Azgeda so I followed their trail. I finally caught up with them about three weeks ago and have been tailing them ever since.”

“Where are they now?” she wanted to know, her tone harsher than she meant it to be. As he told her his story her pulse began to race, the end of this hell finally slowly coming into sight, and her hands clenched into tight fists. Her fingernails bit into her palms and for a second an image flashed in her mind of her hands wrapping around their necks and squeezing until their faces turned blue. Suffocation would be too quick though, a mercy killing she had no plan to give them. As soon as she got what she wanted out of them she would make them bleed for what they'd done to her father.

“They're staying at an inn in a small village about a two days' ride from here,” he informed her and she grit her jaw tightly. “You just left them?” she demanded, anger coursing through her. They were so close, so close, but what if they got away? What if they disappeared again and they had to wait another seven years before they found them again? Clarke was sure she'd go mad by then.

He gave her a look, clearly insulted though he did better than most at hiding it.

“Of course not,” he replied, “I paid a friend I met a silver piece to keep his eye on them, though he doesn't know why. He's getting another if he knows exactly where they are when I return.” Clarke's look barely changed, clearly still not sure and he rolled his eyes, the first motion that reminded her of the boy she'd grown up with she'd seen yet. “The friend is a street kid with a little sister,” he continued, “you know he's going to do whatever it takes to get that second silver piece. Remember what Bellamy was like when your father first took him and Octavia in?”

Unlike the two of them, Bellamy and Octavia hadn't been born into wealth. They'd been born common and when Bellamy was just twelve and Octavia six their mother had died, leaving them homeless and without a family. She still wondered what exactly about them had caused her father to take them in one day when he was traveling through the village outside the Griffin estate, but she'd been glad he had: they quickly became good friends with eight-year-old Clarke, the siblings she didn't yet have. Less than a year later Madi had been born but nothing had changed between the three of them, other than arguing at times over who got to hold the new baby.

She missed those days, missed her friends, but couldn't think about that right now.

“Okay fine,” she gave in, seeing his point, “what are you planning to do when you go back?”

“Follow them again,” he answered, his lips pursing into a straight line. “It looks like their next stop is Polis.”

Plans started tumbling around in Clarke's head, the words too perfect. The gods had made her wait for seven years but now they were giving her a gift, sending her enemies right to her. Polis was the right place for them to be, their noble master likely waiting for them here with whatever their next job was, but she hadn't dared to hope it would all work out so easily. Now it looked like everything was finally beginning to pay off. She almost fell to her knees right then and there in prayer to thank the gods for their generosity but she didn't, her mind too busy working over what she could do with this information. She'd visit a temple to give her thanks before heading back to The Rig.

“They'll come to Polis and I'll be waiting for them,” she murmured softly, a deadly tinge to the words. “I'll be ready.”

We'll be ready,” he agreed and she could feel his eyes on her. At some point she'd shifted, no longer seeing the room and what was around her while she plotted, but now her focus returned. Turning to him she nodded. “We will.” He gave her a small smile, some of the tension leaving his shoulders, and for the first time since they sat down she really looked at him. Sitting closer to him now she could definitely see that he had lost weight, and his eyes looked tired although he tried not to show it. “Have you eaten?” she asked and he grimaced.

“You know I don't eat well when I travel,” he replied, leaning a little more fully back until he was resting against the headboard. She did know that, and considering it had saved her life once she should be thankful for it, but instead it only made her feel guiltier. Almost all he had done for the past seven years was travel, all solely for her, which meant even when he had money to spare he probably hadn't spent it on any hearty meal.

She stood up, brushing her wrinkled skirt out as she did.

“I'll go see if Emori has any stew made,” she said, flashing him a slight smile. “You're usually able to keep that down. I'll try to wheedle some bread from her too.”

The moment she was on her feet his relaxed body stiffened again, quickly pushing himself up after her. “My lady, let me,” he tried, attempting to step around her towards the door, “you shouldn't have to wait on me.”

Before he could get around her she shifted, mirroring his movements.

“Wells,” she began, the same irritation prickling at the back of her neck as he tried to play this game again. “Enough. We've been over this. I'm not your lady anymore, I'm just a-” She cut herself off as he glared, his jaw coming together in an audible snap. Instead of saying what she had planned to she changed it, continuing with, “You're the higher rank now, okay? As far as the world knows, I'm here to serve you, however you need.” He grimaced at that but the glare lessened at least which was something. “So please, just sit back down and let me go get you some food. It would look strange if you were the one to do it. Besides, it's the least I can do after everything you've done for me.” He stood there for a minute thinking it over, probably trying to see if he could come up with any good argument but then sighed and shook his head. Holding up his hands in surrender he gave her a look, eyes wide and almost playful and it tugged at her heart. “Alright, you win. I'll sit.” He did just that, lowering himself back to the mattress and then leaned back against the headboard again. Glancing over at her his lips tugged up into a small smile. “Thanks.”

“I should be thanking you,” she told him earnestly. Again she felt a burning sensation rise up the back of her throat and this time she wasn't entirely able to push it away. “You did it Wells; you found them.”

“Bennet and Jenson,” he agreed, giving a slight nod, “I found them. We still need to figure out who their master is.”

“Oh I intend to,” Clarke promised, a look flashing across her face that made Wells internally shudder though he didn't let it show. He'd watched his best friend harden after her father was killed, watched how everything that had happened between then and now had changed her, and he'd be lying if he said he wasn't a little afraid of her. He would do anything for her still, kill for her and die for her, but somewhere in the back of his mind he could feel the tiniest sliver of pity for these two men they had finally found.

They had no idea the danger they would be in the moment they stepped into Polis. They were walking right into the lion's den, and Clarke looked hungry.

***

The ringing clash of steel striking against steel echoed through the courtyard, and to Lexa it was more beautiful than any music. Even just watching others fighting was enough to get her heart pumping quickly and sharpen her senses to their finest point. Her own sword hung heavily at her hip and her palm itched to draw it, to feel the firm grip settle effortlessly in her hold but instead she stayed where she was, simply watching. She leaned against the granite rise that separated the outer walkways from the large open bailey and looked back and forth between the various clusters of people in front of her.

Furthest away from her she found a small group of knights standing with bows in their hands and quivers of arrows being passed back and forth among them. As she watched one of them tipped his head back and let out a loud laugh, the group clearly joking around with each other, before he set his sights on the targets standing yards away. He loosed and then three others followed and Lexa's gaze followed the path of the four arrows, watching them embed themselves in the targets at different points. She was too far away to be able to get much detail, but from their reactions they were all pleased with their aim.

Away from the knights Indra was in the middle of leading a dozen members of the Guard through drills, her sharp eyes always on the lookout for any mistakes. She took them through exercises to help build up their upper body strength and then made them run the interior of the bailey, leading the way. When she'd decided they'd done enough laps she let them stop but only long enough to draw their swords. Calling out two names she had them meet in the middle of the circle the others formed and then they were fighting, swords crashing together as she watched on and barked corrections before calling out the names of the next two to duel. Lexa knew this would continue until they'd each fought, and likely more than once. Indra never let her people walk away from training until they were gasping for breath and drenched in sweat. The queen made sure to join them at least once a week to keep her own skills sharp and body prepared and knew exactly how tired they would all be once they were allowed to stop.

The two people she spent the majority of her time watching were Anya and Aden, working only a few yards in front of her. They both had their training swords drawn and Aden had been trying to disarm the knight for some time now and had yet to have any success. Focus shifting back to them Lexa felt her lips curl up into a grin: Aden's shirt was drenched in sweat and he had hair matted to his forehead while Anya stood almost casually, not a single indication of exertion anywhere in her stance. She knew that knowledge was probably the cause of her brother's small scowl and lightly bit her tongue to hold in a laugh. Aden really hadn't known what he was getting himself into when he said he wanted to be Anya's squire.

“Come on Your Highness, you're not chopping wood,” she heard Anya tease lightly, “you'll have to be smoother than that.” Aden shifted his footing and struck again, the motion this time indeed smoother. Even so Anya easily caught it with her own blade and pushed back, sweeping Aden's attack to the side. He tried to move with the new direction and use their locked swords to his advantage, stepping in quick to try to ram his shoulder into her chest and knock her off balance but she was too fast for the attempt, as Lexa had known she would be. The knight side-stepped the attack and then slammed her fist into his unprotected side and the queen winced, fully aware of how hard Anya's knuckles were. Aden flinched but to his credit didn't let the hit slow him down. Immediately he tried to step back to put a little more space between them again so he could get his bearings straight but apparently Anya had decided to stop playing with her food. She followed him as he tried to go back, her sword striking from one side and then the other and it was all Aden could do to try to keep up with it. He managed to catch the attacks with his blade but only just.

“You'll have to be faster than that, Your Highness,” Anya told him, her breath barely ragged. “Speed can be just as deadly as strength.” As though to prove her point her sword came down in a flurry of attacks until suddenly Aden's sword seemed to somehow just pop from his grip and fly through the air, landing in a cloud of dust on the ground. The point of her sword came to a rest about an inch away from his throat, just resting in the air between them. Lexa heard her brother let out a big sigh before holding up his hands, telling her begrudgingly, “I yield.”

Just like that Anya's sword was hanging again down by her side, her wrist spinning lazily as she stretched it. “You're getting better,” she said, lifting an eyebrow at the prince. “A week ago I would have had you disarmed sooner.”

“You were going easy on me,” he replied, his tone not accusatory but rather matter of fact. She shrugged her shoulders once. “At some point I won't have to.” She lifted her sword arm up, the tip of her training sword now pointing at the queen still watching them. “She had to train with me for years before I could stop going easy on her.”

“And now I go easy on her,” Lexa replied coolly, knowing that Anya would see the glint of mischief she allowed to flit across her expression. At the training yards she could allow herself to be a little more playful than usual, relax a little more than she could at any other time. Here she was dressed just as everyone before her was, in just a comfortable pair of breeches and a simple tunic and for just a second she could almost forget the rank difference between them. “I have to: she's getting a little slow in her old age.”

The words made Anya's eyes narrow and then she was pointing to the training sword still lying in the dirt. “Pick that up, and we'll see who's getting slow. You've spent so much time sitting on your throne and throwing parties lately, I bet it will just take me minutes to beat you.” One corner of Lexa's mouth curled up and then she ducked her head into a small nod, pushing up against the stone she'd been leaning against and making her way into the open bailey. As she walked she unstrapped her real sword from her side, handing it to her brother before she picked up the training sword from the ground. The weapon was blunt but of a good weight, meant to help its user get used to sword work but not injure their opponent. She tested it in her grip for a second to get used to the strange weapon and then raised it in a mock salute. Anya did the same, a small but feral smile forming along her lips and Lexa knew her expression likely matched it. Her heart sang in her chest as she settled into position, her body knowing exactly what it was supposed to do after years of training.

Anya sprang forward first, her strike like an angry snake. Lexa caught her blade with her own, the force of her friend's blow enough to cause the sword to vibrate in her hand. She used the strength she'd built up in her shoulders and arms to push Anya and the blade back, stepping into the push to begin her own attack. Hers came from the right, a high strike that would have caught in the crook of Anya's neck if she hadn't stopped it, but as she'd expected she did and then it was Anya pushing her blade away.

They traded blows for long minutes, the scraping of their swords and soft thudding of their boots on the dirt the only sounds they made. When she had been young Lexa had hated the sharp scratching sound swords made when they came in contact with each other but now it just made her adrenaline rush all the greater. Her father had started training her when she'd barely been big enough to lift a sword, and then Anya had continued the training after he died. Her sword was her most prized possession, a gift the older woman had given her on her eighteenth birthday, and she kept it with her as often as possible.

Lexa stepped to the side to avoid an attack and immediately knew she'd fallen into some trap Anya had been laying by the way her lips curled up into a proud smirk. The knight lifted her sword but this time not in an attack, and Lexa swore out loud as she slammed her eyes shut, the afternoon sun glinting off Anya's blade and blinding her. Her opponent had been slowly getting her into this position so she could have this upper hand and the queen hadn't seen it coming. Silently she called herself an idiot and opened her eyes again, keeping them in a squint so as not to get blinded again. Only her fast reflexes helped her dodge Anya's new attack, the knight using her advantage to close the distance between them while Lexa's eyes were shut. The queen's sword caught Anya's on her downward sweep and the muscles in her arms screamed their protest.

“You walked right into that one, Your Majesty,” Anya teased and Lexa grit her teeth, knowing it was true. She didn't say anything though, just stole herself before heaving against her blade and pushing the other woman back as hard as she could. Someone else might have lost their footing from the push but Anya merely stepped quickly away.

Now Lexa could feel sweat beading along the side of her face. Her shirt felt a little damp, not soaked through like Aden's had been but certainly not entirely dry anymore. Luckily for her Anya looked to be in about the same state, her lips now parted slightly as her chest heaved from exertion. Their battle was coming to an end and they both knew it, it was now all a matter of waiting to see who made the first mistake.

Lexa was about to attack again, hoping she could get under Anya's sword and past her defense long enough to disarm her, when her opponent's posture entirely changed. Her dark eyes shifted momentarily to look over the queen's shoulder and then she stood up straight, letting her sword drop to her side, the sparring match apparently over without any winner. Lexa frowned knowing her friend wouldn't often just give up like that and turned to see what had caught her attention. Seeing who now stood where she'd been earlier she let out an internal sigh before also straightening up, her shoulders settling back into place.

“Titus,” she greeted, making sure to keep any trace of her disappointment out of her voice. If he was here it meant there were queenly duties she had to attend to; she was done sparring for the day.

“Your Majesty,” he said with his usual bow, head lowering as he bent over from the waist. “The doors will be opening in an hour to admit the week's audiences,” he informed her. “Also, your aunt's delegation has just arrived. She is expecting you to greet her before they get settled into their rooms. I've had the servants begin to take their bags but she's waiting for you in the Great Hall.”

Lexa just managed to hold in a wince. She'd been dreading her aunt's arrival and here it had come at the worst possible time. Her clothing at the moment was comfortable and great for sparring but would surely not impress the older noblewoman. Neither would she like it if Lexa kept her waiting while she changed into the more formal clothes she would wear while sitting in for the audiences. Once a week the doors to to the palace were opened and commoners were granted an audience with her to tell her their troubles and solve their problems. Some days it was interesting and others she was nothing but bored sitting up on her throne and listening to people prattle on about their problems but she always tried to give them her undivided attention. Now however her aunt would expect that attention equally undivided, and wouldn't be happy to hear she wouldn't be getting it for more than a few minutes.

Well she's already going to be unhappy, she thought, keeping those thoughts from her expression, Nothing I can do about that now.

“Tell my aunt I will be right with her,” she told Titus. As she spoke Aden moved over to her, handing her sword back and she traded it with the training weapon she still held. Nodding her thanks to him, she continued, “I must change for the audiences and then I will see her.”

Making her wait would anger her, but it would be better than having her stare down her nose at Lexa's clothing. Besides, it never hurt to remind her aunt who the queen was in their family.

Duchess Nia Glace had been the king's younger sister, but she acted as though she thought she should have been born first. A haughty woman full of her own self-worth, she had never been particularly close with her niece. When her father died Nia had even tried to take the crown, claiming a nation shouldn't be run by a child. She'd said she would only act as the stand-in queen until Lexa was of an age to be able to do her duty, but Lexa had no doubt that if Nia had gotten her hands on the crown she would have found some way to keep it. It was only Titus's quick thinking and faster acting that had prevented that from happening, having the eleven-year-old's coronation only days after news of her father's death had reached Polis and not giving the older woman time to make her claim. Though her aunt never said anything about it, Lexa knew she silently raged over her missed opportunity.

“Yes Your Majesty,” Titus replied, bowing again and the queen thought maybe she saw a hint of approval at the corners of his mouth. The adviser was always so serious it was hard to tell sometimes, but she thought maybe he liked the idea of keeping the duchess waiting. He turned and left then, most likely to follow through with her orders and Lexa sighed as she strapped her sword back to her waist. Glancing over out of the corner of her eyes, she saw Aden and told him, “You'd better change too, Aden. Aunt Nia will expect to see you as well.” She could see him holding in a sigh but he just nodded before thanking Anya and heading out of the courtyard.

As Lexa finished strapping her sword to her waist, one of the guards broke away from Indra's group, the rest of them all seeming to just be standing around now. Indra must have been giving them a break or they were done for the day, so Lexa didn't think anything of it as Lincoln Birch, the Second in Command, made his way over to her. He was a tall man with dark skin, a shaved head and some very impressively muscled arms. He would look intimidating if not for his kind eyes and the smile often tucked away at the corners of his mouth. Between the Guards' Captain and her Second, physically Lincoln was more intimidating but Lexa doubted there was a single member of the Guard who wouldn't call Indra the more terrifying of the two. At the moment she could see Lincoln's smile in the little curl of his lips as he held out a water skin to her.

“Impressive foot work as always, Your Majesty,” he told her as she accepted the skin with a thankful nod, “I think you would have had her if Titus hadn't interrupted.”

“Traitor,” Anya called jokingly as another guard approached her with his own water skin. “When she leaves you can take her place and I'll knock you on your ass.”

“I know better than to spar with you,” he replied, looking so serious Lexa knew it was a joke. Besides Indra he was the member of the Guard she knew the most and had learned how to read his expressions and tone of voice. She also knew how well he fought, and wouldn't immediately call him out in a duel against her best friend. After all, there was a reason he was Indra's Second.

As Anya tried to antagonize the big man into drawing his sword against her, Lexa tuned them out. She knew she was just putting off seeing her aunt but she allowed herself to take a few precious seconds to swallow a couple long gulps of water, only now realizing how thirsty she was. Even a match against Anya without a true end took a lot out of her. While she drank she let herself observe those around her, quietly eavesdropping on what conversations she could hear. She tuned out Lincoln and her friend, instead listening to three members of the Guard standing only a short ways away.

“So the duchess is here now,” one of them was saying, a young man she recognized named Glen. “Think her son'll get into the fight over the whore?”

The question made Lexa's calm expression furrow briefly into a glare before she could stop it, both at the term and at the idea of her cousin with Clarke. Since their second dance and the younger woman's concerning comparison between them Clarke had been to every party, but no longer just with Finn. Lexa had seen her on the arm with no less than three younger sons, each one's ego bigger than the last. It irked her knowing what would be happening later those nights but she no longer kept her distance from the dark-haired woman. Clarke was too interesting, made her think about things in ways no one ever had before, to keep her distance from. Now she made sure to speak with her for a few minutes at each party, and they were always her favorite moments. Titus hated it and she caught some of the other nobles giving her strange looks whenever she walked away from those conversations, but as far as she was concerned they were worth it.

“... Hell, wish I could hire her for a night,” another of the Guards was saying when Lexa tuned back into their conversation and she allowed herself to glance over to them for a second. The speaker was a man named Tristan, and she didn't like the smirk he was giving his friends. “You see her with those nobles acting like one of them but you know as soon as her back hits the mattress she probably turns into the dirtiest common whore you can find. No wonder Finn and those others keep fighting over her. Imagine how she falls apart when they rip those dresses off her...”

If Lexa had cared to, she could have warned him but at the moment a tiny ball of rage had settled in her chest and she felt spiteful so she remained quiet. He and his friends were too focused on their conversation to notice Indra approaching from behind them, and Lexa watched in satisfaction as she surprised them all. Her right foot shot out in a hook the queen couldn't help but be a little envious of, tangling around Tristan's ankles and with a hard shove she sent him sprawling to the ground. Before the tall man could even attempt at pushing himself up her boot pressed against the middle of his back, and from the way he winced Lexa guessed Indra used a good portion of her weight behind it.

My Guards couldn't give a rat's ass about what nobles are doing with whores at a party they're supposed to be working,” she snapped, her heel obviously digging into the small of his back. The glare she shot at the back of his head was enough to make the hardest fighter wet his breeches, and Lexa wasn't surprised to see Tristan's companions take a step away from him. “I could care less if a distraction got you killed but if anything happened to Her Majesty because you were busy fawning over a pretty girl I'd have you skinned alive. Now get up: time for me to test you on your swordsmanship personally.” Her foot finally removed itself from his back and Tristan pulled himself up, his face red with embarrassment. Lexa had no doubt in a minute he'd be even more embarrassed and wished she could stay and watch. As it was she had already wasted enough time and if she didn't want to have to sit through a lecture from her aunt and Titus she knew she needed to go.

Handing Lincoln back his water skin she thanked him, nodded to Anya, and then left the courtyard at a slight jog. It wasn't exactly the most queenly way to get around, but at the moment she knew she needed to worry more about the time than appearances. Everyone she passed as she made her way through the palace seemed to understand that, everyone just quickly nodding or bowing to her and getting out of her way.

Once in her room she quickly stripped out of her breeches and tunic, trying to decide the best thing to change into. Her aunt would probably expect a gown but getting into any of her dresses was a job in itself and required help she would have to call for. Deciding against it instead she pulled on one of her nicest pair of hose and then a long silk tunic that hung nearly to her knees. The tunic was a dark forest green trimmed in a deep bronze, the colors of her house. She buckled her sword around her waist over it and then carefully smoothed out the material, making sure not a single wrinkle could be seen. Her hair was loose behind her back, little braids woven throughout it, and while it was a little wild after her bout with Anya it would have to do. Taking a deep breath as her spine naturally piled one vertebrae on top of the other and her shoulders shifted back, she let her title wash over her. With her head held high she exited her room, every inch of her Queen Alexandria Woods of the Kongeda.

Queen Alexandria is exactly what Duchess Nia Glace saw as she entered the Great Hall, and though she couldn't see it Lexa could sense her aunt's annoyance. She curtsied as Lexa approached, not a single centimeter more than was appropriate, and those around her did the same. Her son, Duke Roan Glace, bowed regally beside her, the ends of his long hair brushing against his shoulders from the movement. Aden was already with them now dressed similarly to Lexa, and though he bowed too she thought she saw him trying to hide a grin.

“Your Majesty,” Nia greeted, her tone cool and controlled, “so good of you to greet us.”

“Of course Aunt,” Lexa replied in a matching tone, “You're my guests and family, how could I do anything else?” When Nia stood up from her curtsy she turned her head just a fraction, and Lexa knew what she was waiting for. Quickly she stepped forward, dropping a light kiss to first one of the duchess's cheeks and then the other. Finishing she turned to Roan as she stepped back, saying simply, “Cousin.”

“Your Majesty,” he said, “it's good to see you well. It's been a while since the Royal Battle.”

She almost flinched but just managed to hold it in; he spoke of the last battle she'd fought in during the war. For almost a year after bringing her people together and declaring war on the Reapers she'd managed to be in the thick of everything, helping her generals strategize and shift their troops around. She even managed to get a little fighting in though seldom in the thick of the war. The Royal Battle had been an accident, a time where she and two squads of soldiers had been ambushed by the enemy, each of them having to fight heavily for their lives. A company finally came to their rescue but only after she'd lost eight men, and none of the original two squads walked away uninjured including herself. After that the generals and Titus had all but ordered her back to the safety of Polis, an order she knew she had to follow despite how much she hated it. Their nation needed its queen, Titus had lectured her; soldiers, knights, even generals could be replaced but she could not. With her arm in a sling she'd returned to the capitol, inwardly fuming that she had started a war she wouldn't be allowed to finish. Every moment good men and women were dying in her fight, and all she could do was sit back and listen to the reports.

Roan, unlike her, fought for the duration of the war. He was one of the first knights to volunteer for it, fought in a number of battles, and had even been a part of the company who had saved her. He was for all intents and purposes a war hero, the war hero Lexa had wanted to be, and the knowledge he had been able to fight while she had to sit back and wait for news chafed at her pride.

She didn't let any of that show though, simply held out her arm for him to clasp. “It has been; it's good to see you well also. I hope you were able to rest up some before your trip to our capitol.” He nodded, but his mother spoke for him. “Roan doesn't tire easily. He's always been the strong one in the family.”

Lexa pretended not to notice the subtle dig as she stepped back, keeping a carefully even expression on her face. She heard people moving around behind her, no doubt getting the hall ready to admit the audiences, and smiled politely at her aunt.

“Aunt Nia, Cousin, I'm afraid I can't talk much longer but Aden and I would be honored if you would join us for dinner tonight. We can catch up then.” Nia's lips pursed, clearly unhappy at being dismissed. “But Alexandria, we just got here. I'm sure you can spare your family a little more of your time.” She tried to keep her tone light and even but Lexa could hear the bite to her words, and very much noticed how she was addressed.

Nevertheless she didn't let Nia's tone get to her, simply nodded her head in an apologetic bow, exactly the kind of motion a queen might give to a subordinate.

“I'm sorry Aunt, but unfortunately you arrived just before I grant audiences to the people of Polis,” she informed her, her voice actually managing to sound apologetic but serious at the same time. “These people have been waiting hours if not days to speak with me; why don't you rest, and we can talk tonight? I'm sure you're tired after your travels.”

A little flash of anger passed briefly across the duchess's face but then it was gone as quickly as it appeared and an easy smile had replaced it. “I think we'll attend the audiences, actually,” she decided, putting her hand on her son's shoulder. “I imagine some of your other noble guests will be there as well, so it will give us a chance to get reacquainted.”

As if she'd somehow summoned them, Lord Costa and his two sons walked in at that moment, and Lexa could see others approaching from down the hall.

“Of course,” she just said, giving her aunt a polite nod. “Now if you'll excuse me.” Rather than say anything they both just nodded in return and then Lexa was making her way around them and moving towards the throne sitting up the steps on the other side of the room. Aden fell into step beside her, likely to take his spot in the smaller throne just behind and to the left of hers. He waited until they were making their way up the steps to say quietly, “Bet you wish you could be back out in the courtyard fighting Anya. You look like you could let off some steam.” To anyone else she knew she appeared completely calm, unmoved, but her brother knew her better than anyone other than maybe Anya and Titus. She waited until she reached the top of the stairs, her throne just in front of her before she let her hand drop casually to the pommel of her sword. “You have no idea,” she admitted in almost an inaudible murmur before turning and regally sitting just as yet more nobles came streaming into the room.

Time to put on a show.

Chapter Text

“Maybe in the fall you could visit Stone Hall,” Ryder Mason, eldest son of the Lord and Lady of the Boudalan Mountains, suggested. “There's nothing quite like the changing of the seasons in the east.”

“Agreed,” Myers Collins, Lord Emerys's eldest son agreed before lifting an eyebrow. “But if you're coming to the east, you really should visit the Glowing Forest instead, Your Majesty; the colors of the trees are like nothing you've ever seen before.” Illen, less than a year younger than his brother, nodded in agreement.

Lexa felt surrounded but didn't let it show. Instead she nodded politely, telling them all smoothly, “It was towards the end of fall the last time I visited your houses: I remember all of your lands being beautiful.”

Apparently some of the older sons had gotten tired of her seeking them out and had decided to come to her now instead. She wondered if their parents or Titus had anything to do with it, but she hid her unhappiness behind polite smiles and her wine glass. The servants seemed to have realized they should never let it empty, as every time in the past two hours she'd taken the last sip from the crystal someone with a tray had made their way over to her, bowing and offering a new drink. She always accepted, sure she wouldn't be able to get through this evening without it. Soon she would have to stop or at least seriously slow down or risk losing her iron-clad control of her tongue, but for now the wine kept her going.

The three sons were not the only ones with her at the moment. Penn Summers, the first son of Lord Costa Summers of the Ingrona Plains, stood with them, as well as Sterling Reed, the first born of a lesser lord from the Great Lakes. Rounding off the group was Cage Wallace, the only child of Lord Dante Wallace. He stood a little more easily than the others, watching them politely fight for her attention with badly concealed contempt. It was clear to the queen he thought he was somehow above it all, and yet here he was, surrounding her just like the other five noble sons.

Never in her life had Lexa wanted to run and hide away, but at this moment she would have given just about anything to be able to do just that.

“Excuse me,” she tried, breaking through the debate Myers and Ryder were currently having over whether the mountains or deep forests were more beautiful in the fall, “but I haven't eaten yet and I see some roast duck the servants just brought out that is making my mouth water.” She began to step around Illen, the one most directly in her path to the tables, but he turned as she did, saying, “That sounds delicious, I think I'll join you.” The others were all quick to agree and Lexa found herself leading their group over to the food, trying her best to hide her annoyance. As she went she looked around, trying to find another way out, and found Anya just a short ways away, watching her. Her lips were curled into a sly smirk, obviously amused by Lexa's pain, and the queen had to fight against every fiber of her being to keep herself from sticking her tongue out at her.

Their conversations continued after they'd each helped themselves to something from the tables and Lexa tried to pay attention to what was being said but instead found herself studying each of the young men. Sterling was the youngest of them, not even eighteen yet, and the queen thought it strange he believed he would even have a chance at her hand considering he came from a lesser house. Ryder stood at least half a foot taller than her and was built as though he'd spent every day of his life climbing the mountains he so easily talked about. Like their younger brother, Myers and Illen had brown floppy hair, though Myers's was long enough to pull back into a ponytail and Illen wore his slicked back. Penn stood almost as tall as Ryder but wasn't built quite as strong, his muscles more subtle than the other man's. Cage was smaller, almost more delicate than Penn or Ryder but he constantly wore a smirk that exuded a confidence in himself that could match up against anyone in the room.

Each had their own good looks and charm, but all of it was wasted on the queen. She could care less about their muscles or boastful grins or what their hair looked like; all she wanted was to get away from them. Lexa scanned the room around them, looking for any kind of distraction and found it in the last person she would have expected.

“Lord Myers, Lord Illen,” she began, interrupting an argument between the younger brother and Penn. They all went quiet and looked to her as she gestured to a figure at the other end of the tables. “Is your brother upset about something?” It certainly looked it: Finn had his head down, glaring into a plate of food and even with the distance between them Lexa thought she saw the outline of white knuckles from how tightly he held his goblet.

Myers shook his head while Illen scoffed, the two glancing over to their younger brother. “It's nothing to worry about, Your Majesty,” Illen told her, rolling his eyes at the younger lord. “He's just mad Clarke isn't here with him tonight.”

“She hasn't been to one of these with him for the past couple weeks,” Myers added, smirking. “I guess she's gotten popular with his peers.”

Penn's brow furrowed before he shook his head. “It isn't right,” he began, “bringing a woman like her to a place like this. A party like this is not meant for someone of her status.”

Lexa looked down into her wine, hiding her irritation at the words so he and the others wouldn't see them. A number of remarks came to mind but she bit her tongue to hold them all back. She could get away with talking with Clarke and treating her like the guest she was but she wasn't entirely sure she could as easily get away with defending her among the higher ranking nobles. Many of them still made it clear they thought her presence a slight to themselves and to her even as their siblings or younger sons and daughters seemed to flock around her. Clarke had a natural way of drawing people to her even if they weren't paying her, and Lexa couldn't help but envy it. In the same vein though her profession also pushed others away, and the queen had watched her walk that thin line of idolization and repulsion, nothing but impressed with the way she handled herself.

“'Someone of her status,'” Cage repeated mockingly as he took a drink from his own wine glass. “You can call her what she is, Penn.” He gestured to Myers and Illen, continuing, “Sir Finn brought a whore into the palace and now we just can't seem to get rid of her. Though it's pretty clear she's moved on from your little brother and onto a far more amusing customer.”

Lexa bristled at his tone and gripped her wine glass tighter, fighting the urge to reach for the nearest knife and plunge it into his neck. The last bit piqued her interest though despite herself. So far that night she'd only seen Clarke in passing, each too busy being surrounded by likely suitors, and the few times Lexa had looked over at her it hadn't been clear which young lord she was with. Since she'd had a different escort the last few weeks it was hard to guess who it might be, not that she particularly cared which lucky lord's bed she would fall into later that night – or at least she told herself she didn't.

As though to prove a point Cage nodded towards one corner of the room and despite herself Lexa followed the motion, looking past people standing between them and another group until she noticed familiar dark hair. Tonight Clarke's gown was a deep green that made the queen bite the inside of her cheek and her hair hung in loose curls over her shoulders. Lexa could see she wore the same silver necklace she'd had the first night they met, the small blue pendant drawing attention as always to a neckline the queen tried not to focus on. Four young men hung around her as did three young women, and for a second Lexa watched to see which of the men would close the space between them to rest a hand on her back or slip her arm through his. None of them did however, and Lexa frowned when instead one of the young women moved over, grinning as Clarke laughed lightly at something she'd said. The dark-haired woman reached out, lightly wrapping her arms around the other woman's, and Lexa couldn't quite understand what she was seeing.

“Hm,” Penn huffed disapprovingly, “Now she's not just corrupting the young lords but the ladies too.”

“Please,” Cage said with a laugh, “she barely qualifies as a lady.”

“Excuse me,” Lexa stated, putting her plate down on the table behind her, having only picked at her food. Myers and Illen made as though to follow her again but this time she gave them a small scowl, the look all they needed to know their company was no longer welcome. At the look they all stepped back and Lexa finally felt like she could breathe again as she left them behind. She didn't care if Titus or their parents would disapprove of her leaving their company for the company she sought, she couldn't take being around them for a second longer.

Clarke was the first of her group to notice her approach, and Lexa's heart skipped a beat when the other woman automatically smiled upon seeing her. She dipped into a perfect curtsy in a motion so fluid even the queen wasn't sure she would have been able to pull it off, her eyes only leaving Lexa's for a brief moment before they met again.

“Your Majesty,” she greeted, and the rest of the group fell into bows or curtsies just a beat behind her. “I was hoping you would make your way over to us soon.”

“Of course,” Lexa replied, returning her smile with one of her own, and she was no longer surprised to find that the smile came so much more naturally than usual. “You know I like to greet all my guests.” Forcefully she tore her eyes away from Clarke long enough to nod to the rest of the group around her.

“You're too kind, Your Majesty,” the second daughter to a lesser lord of the Shallow Valleys told her, dipping her head. “You honor us,” the son of one of Lord Emerys's bannermen added.

She nodded to them in response but looked back at Clarke, noticing how close she still stood to Monroe. Something about their proximity with each other tugged at something inside her and before she entirely knew what she was doing she was asking the younger woman, “Can I get you a drink, Mistress Blake?” She noticed the corners of her lips quirk up, clearly about to say something but Lexa guessed what it was and corrected herself before she could. “I'm sorry, Clarke.” Her tongue clicked on the -k, over pronouncing it a bit, but she found that she liked how it sounded.

Clarke's smile grew and her brow lifted for a split second, as though she understood what Lexa was doing. “I would love one, Your Majesty,” she answered and then turned, reaching out and lightly touching Monroe's arm. “I'll be right back, my lady.” To Lexa's utter shock she then stepped forward and pressed a quick kiss to the other woman's cheek before pulling away. For her part Monroe just smiled, telling her, “I'll be here.” Clarke returned her smile and then turned back to Lexa, lifting her eyebrows again and the queen reined in her shock so she could lead them away from the group.

“You're with-” she began as they walked away, keeping her voice down just enough to not draw any more attention to them as they made their way over to the side of the room where a servant held a tray full of glasses. “I mean, you're Lady Monroe's guest tonight?”

“I am,” Clarke confirmed with an easy nod and then thanked the man holding the tray as she took one of the glasses. Raising it up, she looked down at the dark red liquid and then up at the queen through her eyelashes. “Is that a problem?”

“No,” Lexa replied maybe a little too quickly. She grit her jaw, trying to get a hold of herself. She didn't know why the knowledge of Clarke with another woman made her feel so jittery and decided to chalk it up to too many glasses of wine. “It just surprised me, is all.”

“I have quite a few women who enjoy my company,” the dark-haired woman informed her, taking a long sip of the wine. “Monroe is certainly not the first.”

For some reason whenever the queen had pictured Clarke with someone – not that she'd pictured her with someone – the someone had always been male. She supposed it made sense that someone in her profession would have companions of the same sex, but she had just never considered it before. In reality Lexa knew there were many women who enjoyed other women's company just as there were many men who enjoyed other men's, but it wasn't something she often thought about. Such a thing wasn't as common among the nobility where bloodlines must be passed on and heirs birthed. She almost envied Clarke her freedom but then immediately pushed that thought away; despite Clarke's shocking comparison between the two of them, she knew she had far more freedom than the younger woman.

Even so she found herself asking, “Do you enjoy it?” She internally flinched, worried about how that would sound, and rephrased the question. “Is it very different, I mean? Having to share your company with a woman rather than a man?”

She noticed Clarke looking at her curiously and made sure not to let anything other than mild curiosity show on her expression, and then the other woman appeared to be thinking about it, weighing her answer as she so often did. “To answer your first question, yes I enjoy it,” she replied after a moment. “I enjoy my time with men too, but yes, it is different.”

“How so?” Lexa wanted to know and almost blushed from the look Clarke gave her, the other woman's lips curling up into a small grin. “Well there's the physical differences, obviously, but emotionally it's different as well.” The grin fell away and again she seemed to be thinking the answer over before she gave it. “Typically a man will pay for a whore so he can boost his ego or it's purely physical. When a woman buys our services usually there's more to it than that. They need someone to hold or to hold them, or simply to be there so they can be reminded they aren't alone.” She shrugged then, one corner of her mouth tugging back up. “Though of course, there are always those women who are simply looking for the physical rush a whore gives them the same as any man.”

Lexa raised her eyebrows and then glanced back over to where Clarke's group still stood, someone else having to entertain them now that the red-haired woman was gone. “And what kind of woman is Lady Monroe?” She shouldn't ask – she shouldn't care – but the question was out and now she couldn't pull it back in. She stood easily, trying to act like she didn't care, and wondered if Clarke bought it at all. For some reason she doubted she did.

Luckily the question made Clarke laugh. “Lady Monroe is the kind of woman who has fun reminding men that women are easily their equals and putting them in their place. Why else would she be a famed knight at only nineteen?”

It made sense: Monroe had fought fiercely in the war, certainly managing to make a name for herself. Coming from a family that just teetered on the edge of nobility, that meant something. Clarke took another sip from her wine and then added, “I believe she hired me tonight simply to remind the young men here that they can't always have what they want.”

That made Lexa crack a smile. “If that's the case, then I think her point was well received. It looks like many young men are jealous it isn't their arm you're on tonight. Sir Finn looks particularly disheartened.”

Clarke just shrugged, apparently uncaring towards any of the young men's woes. “Finn will move past it, just like the rest of them.” The queen gave her a look, tilting her head slightly to the side before saying hesitantly, “It seems as though he has grown very... fond of you. Maybe even fallen for you a little.” The younger woman let out a slight scoff, the sound almost getting stuck in her chest. “Only a fool falls in love with a whore, Your Majesty. Finn may be a little naïve but I don't think he's a fool.”

By that definition he might be, Lexa thought but didn't say. Instead she just nodded and then stepped back over to the servant with the tray of glasses still standing nearby, more needing something to do with her hands than needing a drink. Standing so close to Clarke without the two dancing together made her want to reach out, to tuck the loose curl of hair hanging at the side of her face behind her ear, so instead she let her fingers wrap around the stem of the glass.

“What about you, Your Majesty?” she asked suddenly and Lexa looked up, brow lifting in a silent question. Clarke nodded towards the other side of the room where Myers and Illen now stood talking with a few others. “I noticed you were getting quite the interesting attention earlier; see anything you like?”

The question was highly inappropriate, especially coming from someone so far beneath her standing, but Lexa found she didn't mind. Talking to Clarke still felt easy, perhaps a little too easy, and she found herself answering despite the inappropriateness.

“The lords I was talking with are all very nice men,” she answered carefully. “All who come from very nice families.”

“That's good Your Majesty, but not what I asked,” Clarke replied, once again eyeing her over her wine glass and Lexa suddenly felt as though she were being stripped naked before her. “Finn's told me a little about his brothers so I know they're nice, but nice isn't always interesting.”

Lexa stared into her wine glass, knowing what she should say. She should say how handsome they all were, how Penn had a nice jawline and Ryder had impressive muscles and the others had such nice hair; she'd heard countless other women talk about such things on the men they found attractive, but the words wouldn't come out. Sure, all that information was true but it meant nothing to Lexa, didn't interest her as Clarke was looking for.

After a long moment of silence, the other woman's words in the air between them and Lexa unable to think of anything to say, Clarke seemed to take pity on her. Her expression shifted from curiosity to understanding, an understanding Lexa didn't want her to have since she didn't even have it herself, and she stared over her glass as though she were no longer seeing anything. “You know what I love most about women?” she asked suddenly, and Lexa couldn't help but glance over at her. Clarke didn't look over to meet her eyes, instead kept staring in front of her and said, “Just how very opposite from men they are. Men are usually hard on the outside and then soft on the inside. I mean, have you ever had to deal with something as fragile as a man's ego?” She shook her head and rolled her eyes, and Lexa cracked a smile. “But women, they're the other way around. Women are soft on the outside but hard on the inside. There's nothing like touching a woman and then learning about all the battles she's fought, the hardships she's overcome. There's a special kind of beauty to a woman's strength, don't you think?”

“Yes,” Lexa agreed quietly, her voice barely more than a whisper, “it is beautiful. A beautiful thing.” Only then did Clarke finally break off her stare and glance over, meeting the queen's eyes. For a moment they shared a look, a silent understanding passing between them and Lexa felt a new kind of warmth flood her chest. It filled her more quickly than any wine ever had, and she worried it might be far more addictive than any wine ever could be.

“Alexandria,” a voice suddenly snapped sharply, breaking through the silence that had spread between them and Lexa almost jumped before she flinched. Making sure she wore her best neutral expression she turned, lifting an eyebrow to her aunt.

“Aunt Nia,” she greeted evenly and then gestured towards Clarke. “Duchess Nia Glace of the Ice Nation, may I introduce you to Mistress Clarke Blake?”

“No you may not,” Nia snapped, her cold eyes flashing before she looked down her nose at the dark-haired woman. “You should know better than to be associating with the likes of her.” She spat out the last word as though Clarke were a filthy rag she didn't want to go near and Lexa felt a spike of rage shoot through her.

For her part though, Clarke didn't seem to be at all offended. She simply curtsied once again, the motion as perfect as ever, and lowered her head just the perfect amount to be respectful but not cowed. “Your Majesty,” she just said, directing her words to Lexa, “I should really be getting back to my companions. Thank you again for your generosity with your time; I don't deserve it.” She then turned that perfect curtsy on Nia, adding respectfully, “Your Grace.” Without waiting for either of them to dismiss her she stood back up and turned, making her way calmly back towards her group.

“That was rude,” Lexa murmured dangerously after Clarke had walked away, just managing to hold her temper in check. Her aunt ate away at her patience on the best of days, but after what had just transpired she managed to hold onto some semblance of her manners by only her fingertips.

“That was shameful,” her aunt corrected her in almost the same tone, her eyes still bright with anger. “What are you doing speaking with someone like her? She shouldn't even be here! It's a dishonor to all your guests that she's even allowed through the doors!”

“She herself is a guest,” Lexa informed her, trying desperately hard to keep her voice down so they wouldn't cause a scene. As it was enough people were watching them, likely reading their expressions and body language and knowing that this wasn't a friendly encounter. “Just because she doesn't have the same titles as everyone else here doesn't mean I should just dismiss her.”

“She is a whore,” Nia growled through clenched teeth. “You are a queen; act like it.”

Lexa grit her teeth so hard her gums ached and then raised her head, her chin sticking out stubbornly as she looked down her nose at her aunt. “You're right,” she said, her tone even but no less hard, “I am the queen. Now excuse me Your Grace, I have more guests to speak with.” She walked away, no doubt leaving her aunt fuming behind her.

***

The younger lords and ladies flocked back around Clarke the moment she fell back into the circle, various pairs of eyes constantly shifting towards her, flicking across her face and down to her chest and then back up again. She ignored it and just smiled sweetly as the young lords told stories to impress her and the young ladies hung off their every word, laughing lightly when there was nothing funny or exclaiming when they thought it necessary to build up the story. Every now and then she would notice one or more of the ladies shift, clearly trying to hold themselves as she did and she almost shook her head every time. Maybe they thought her exotic, thought her life far more fun than the lessons they had to have in their fiefs or maybe they were just jealous of the attention so many of the young lords gave her; she didn't know and she didn't care, thinking it foolish any of them wanted to be anything like her. If they knew the truth, knew of everything she'd gone through to become the woman they saw standing in front of them, they'd run back to their homes and never leave as she often wished she could do.

Lady Monroe was different from them though, and Clarke had known she would like her after only a few minutes in her company. She'd actually met her at The Rig, something none of the men who had hired her for these parties had done, already smiling a lop-sided smile before they'd even walked away. Conversation flowed easily between them, Monroe actually having some interesting things to say and not solely trying to talk herself up with every chance she got. She'd already told Clarke a few stories about the war and the battles she'd fought, as well as taught her a couple of the songs the soldiers had sung around the fire late at night in their camps. In return she'd taught Monroe some of the bawdier tavern songs she knew, and by the time they'd reached the palace they'd both been laughing. The stories and conversation hadn't ended once they were inside, though they were interrupted often by others' stories. Now when a young nobleman tried to impress the women around him with some gallant tale the two would make eye contact, expressions barely changing except for a slight quirk at the corners of their mouths. Monroe seemed happy to play that game as well, always matching the young man with a story of her own, and Clarke was all at once amused and impressed by her stories and how the men around them deflated a little every time she told one.

Those stories continued as the evening progressed, other young men and a few women coming and going from their group and Clarke made sure to always play her part. She flirted lightly with the men, batting her eyelashes and giving them sly smiles but always pressed against Monroe, either by way of holding her arm or touching her shoulder. As a whore she had to find that fine balance of always trying to entice and obtain new customers while giving her attention to the person paying her at the time. Monroe was easy to work with, entirely fine with her flirting, and Clarke wished that every customer could be so easy. With most of them she had to be careful not to flirt too much or risk upsetting them or making them jealous. Across the room she could see just how jealous Finn was, and he wasn't even her responsibility for the night. She thought maybe it was a good thing that others had started purchasing her services so she could easily break it off with him. He'd clearly gotten attached, and that was the last thing she needed to deal with.

After a while Clarke noticed Monroe eyeing the cakes and pies that had just been brought out from the kitchens, beautiful creations that looked as amazing as she knew they would taste. Letting her lips curl up into an easy smile she reached over, pressing her fingers lightly to her wrist.

“Why don't I go get us a plate of those lovely desserts, my lady? Is there one you'd prefer?” Monroe returned her smile with a grin, telling her, “You don't have to do that Clarke, I can get it.” The dark-haired woman batted her eyelashes, making a show of flirting with her. “I insist, my lady.”

“Okay, sure,” she agreed with a shrug and then looked over the table again. “It all looks great, so anything will be good.” Clarke gave her a little nod and then looked over their group, eyeing them from beneath her eyelashes. “Don't tell anything too entertaining while I'm gone.” A couple of them laughed while the others assured her they wouldn't and then she pealed away from the group and made her way over to the tables. There she grabbed a plate and helped herself to a slice of some sort of berry pie and a piece of white cake decorated beautifully with spun frosting. She had to hand it to the queen, she employed some very talented cooks.

She was making her way back to her group when a bit of conversation caught her attention, and before she knew it she'd stopped to listen in.

“...will think better of it after I raise the taxes on them!” Lord Quint, one of the lesser lords of the Trikru was busy saying. He stood with Lord Costa of the Ingrona Plains, the Lord Thames and Lady Julia of the Shallow Valleys and Lord Dante of Mount Weather. Costa and Thames were busy nodding their heads as he continued while the other two listened on politely. “They need to remember who they owe their loyalty to. Being stingy on their crops won't get them so far when I come in and decide to take what they owe instead of buying it and then make them pay me. Remind them who holds the power.”

Normally Clarke kept her distance from the older nobility, especially those of higher standing like Thames, Costa and Dante. Quint's words made it impossible for her to just walk away though, a fire igniting in her chest and making her pulse pick up. It was almost a welcome feeling, this genuine reaction a relief after so many weeks of doing nothing but putting on shows, and it grew inside her until it began to trickle down her limbs. The anger settled firmly in her gut when she heard Thames agree, “Commoners forget they're nothing without us. Too stupid to govern themselves, too busy fighting amongst themselves to build anything that would last; without us they would fall apart. I say whip them back into shape however is necessary.”

“Excuse me my lords,” Clarke called out, stepping towards their group. They all turned to her, each clearly surprised to see her there though some of them got over it quicker than others. She thought she even saw Dante flash her a small, brief smile, but she couldn't focus on it, too busy looking back and forth between Quint and Thames. “I couldn't help overhearing. Did I understand you correctly? You think commoners are nothing without their lords?”

Quint and Thames looked down their noses at her, clearly unimpressed with her choice to speak to them directly. Lady Julia went so far as to grimace, hiding her face behind her wine glass and doing her very best to pretend Clarke wasn't there. Costa lifted an eyebrow, his expression otherwise unreadable, and Dante's didn't change.

“Of course,” Quint answered, sneering at her, “and they should remember that.”

The inflection of his voice made it clear he considered her nothing, that she should remember who she was talking to, but it didn't stop her. Instead the fire in her gut blossomed, flaring out into her limbs until the tips of her fingers tingled and she took a step forward, moving closer to their group.

“Forgive me for speaking plainly, my lord, but I think you have that backwards,” she told him, keeping her voice as lighthearted as she could while a beast raged inside her chest. She nodded towards the glass he held, asking him, “Who do you think made that wine you're drinking? And the amazing food you've been eating all night, who made that? Forgive me, but I can't imagine you working in a kitchen and getting flour all over your nice clothes.” Her focus shifted over to the lady whose lips were pursed tightly and she added, “And speaking of them, who do you think made that beautiful gown you're wearing, Lady Julia? Did you sew every stitch into place? No?” She shook her head, forcing her lips to curl up into a sweet smile while all she wanted to do was throw the plate she still held in their faces. “It seems to me you fine people are able to live quite nicely off the hard work us commoners do every day.”

“Be careful,” Lord Costa warned, his tone low, and Clarke couldn't tell if it was any kind of friendly warning or not, “you begin to push too far.” Dante shifted beside him, tilting his head slightly to the side and then said easily, “I don't know, I think Clarke makes an excellent point. It's easy for us to speak of all we do for our people, but we also need to remember all they do for us.”

“All they do?” Quint spat, not taking his eyes off Clarke and she didn't look away from him, refusing to back down even if she still forced an expression of mild interest. “All they do is give us headaches complaining while they try to hoard what they owe us, and we're supposed to accept that? Put up with it? No. It's our responsibility to put them back in their place, remind them we're the ones who hold the power.” He sneered at Clarke, telling her, “We nobles have something called pride and we live by it.” He eyed her up and down, the sneer growing, and added, “A woman like you clearly wouldn't know what that's like.”

For the first time in seven years Clarke almost slipped, almost told him that a Griffin held more pride in their pinky than a lesser lord from the Trikru did in their entire body, but she held it in. She could feel her hands shaking, one clasping around the plate she held in a death grip as the other curled into a fist at her side. She lost all semblance of her calm, for once let her mask entirely slip away, and knew her fury must be flashing across her face. By the way Lady Julia and Lord Costa shifted back, it was a sight to see. Rather than shrivel into herself like Quint obviously thought his words would make her do, she closed the space between them until the plate was only inches away from his gut.

“You think that's what a noble's supposed to do?” she nearly whispered, a cold fury in her voice. “You really think commoners are just mice, workers you can order and push around?” Suddenly she turned on Thames, the lord's eyes widening a little with her fury directed at him. “You said all commoners do is fight? But it wasn't until the queen managed to unite the Kongeda that all the small civil wars stopped among the great houses. How many generations back did those wars go? How many people died because you and your ancestors just couldn't agree on where the borders between your land and the families around you began and ended?” His jaw closed in an audible snap, glaring his own anger at her but clearly he had no response to that.

She was turning back to Quint to continue when she heard movement behind their group. Lady Julia curtsied lightly and Thames, Costa and Dante all bowed, but neither she nor Quint looked away from each other. She didn't have to look to know exactly who had joined them, but didn't flinch when she heard the queen ask, “My lords, my lady. Mistress Blake. Is everything alright over here?”

“We're just debating the struggle between the upper class and lower, Your Majesty,” Dante answered for them, actually sounding interested in the conversation and not like he was witnessing some big scene beginning to take place in the middle of the Great Hall. “Mistress Blake is giving us a refreshing look through her point of view.”

Quint's nose scrunched up into yet another ugly sneer. “She's giving us a whore's point of view. Hardly worth our time.”

“At least I live off of money I actually earn,” she snapped, stepping even closer. Quint was a large man, intimidating under normal circumstances, but Clarke was far too furious to notice. Everything he'd said about a noble's interaction with their people was the exact opposite from what her father had taught her, what she believed in more than anything in the world, and she refused to back down from this fight. “Everything I have is something I earned, something I worked for. I didn't have to rely on a family name or title to get it. I don't have to beggar families out of their life's savings to feel important.”

“And we all know exactly how you earn it,” Quint jeered, leaning down so his face was only a few inches away from hers. “You just lie on your back and spread your legs for anyone with two copper pieces. I'm sure you work very hard for that.”

“Lord Quint,” she heard the queen warn, and at the back of her mind she noticed the anger, could see the way she stood stiffly out of the corner of her eye, but Clarke was far too focused on the man in front of her to think about that. “I'd rather be a common whore than a noble who thinks raising the tax will somehow make me powerful. You want to feel big, but I deal with men like you every day and I can tell you, there's no one smaller.”

Behind her she heard someone guffaw, a new voice she wasn't used to, and turned just enough to see a woman beside the queen, her hand resting easily on the sword at her hip. She recognized Lady Anya but had never spoken with her, and clearly she found her words amusing. Lady Julia had been taking a nervous sip of her wine as she'd spoken and had inhaled the liquid accidentally at the insult. Her husband now pounded lightly against her back as she coughed, spluttering both from the wine and Clarke's words.

“Mistress Blake,” she heard the queen say, her anger now turned on her, and she finally managed to force herself to look away from Quint. As she did she noticed he'd turned a lovely shade of pink and had to fight against a smirk. Looking over she met the queen's gaze and immediately noticed the brightness of those flashing green eyes. “I am aware you are not accustomed to these kinds of gatherings, but this is not how we settle debates in the palace. Lord Quint was wrong to say the things he did,” her piercing gaze flickered over to him momentarily and they all knew he'd be getting his own lecture shortly, “but you are speaking about matters you don't understand. There is a lot of complexity that goes into decisions like raising taxes, complexity I wouldn't expect you to understand.”

For a moment Quint's blush of embarrassment had managed to tamper her fury down, but now it soared right back up, rushing through her all the faster. For the first time she looked at the woman standing in front of her and truly saw the queen. Idiot, she thought to herself, You've known that all along. Before when they talked though it had felt natural, right, like she were talking to an uptight friend almost, but now all she saw was Queen Alexandria Woods of the Kongeda.

She fell into a perfect curtsy, not dipping so much as an inch deeper than propriety demanded.

“My apologies, Your Majesty,” she said, doing her best to keep her tone even. She knew everyone around her could hear the fury lacing her voice anyway and didn't really care. When she looked back up she looked over the older woman's shoulder, refusing to meet her eyes again. “I thought as the only person in this room who actually pays taxes I might know something about them, but if you say I'm wrong then I must be wrong.” She could see the shock and anger flash momentarily across the woman's expression, heard the shifting feet of the people around her but didn't back down. This woman might be the queen but that didn't mean Clarke would just shut up and fall to the floor like everyone else did around her. She was wrong, and she wanted her to know she thought so. Before the queen could think of anything to say in response she dipped into another curtsy. “My apologies again Your Majesty, but I'm supposed to be getting Lady Monroe dessert. I wouldn't want to shirk on my duties.” Without another word she stepped around the other woman, leaving her and the rest of the nobles behind her, likely with their jaws hanging open and eyes wide.

She handed over the plate as soon as she made it back to her group, everyone there staring at her, clearly having watched her interaction with first the older nobles and then the queen. She didn't stay though, couldn't stand the thought of being in this room for one second longer, and continued right past them as soon as she'd handed off the plate. Later on she'd probably have to make the brush off up to Monroe, probably have to whisper in her ear and kiss her shoulders or neck until her noble's pride had been soothed, but it would be worth it. Right now she just needed to be away. Hopefully after she'd made it up to her Monroe would be up for a rough fucking: either giving or receiving, Clark needed to pound this anger out of her.

She stormed down a hallway lit with torches, both of her hands now curled into tight fists. In her head she raged, calling all of them idiots and herself the biggest idiot of all. She needed this, needed to stay on these people's good side if she wanted to be sure to get her revenge, and after that spectacle she might have ruined it. Parents might crack down on their children harder, ordering them to stay away from her. Worse, the queen might decide she was more trouble than her company was worth, and might decide she would no longer be allowed to attend any party even if the older nobles didn't order their children to stay away.

“Stupid,” she hissed quietly, stopping in her tracks suddenly. The anger that had been coiling inside her for the past few minutes finally exploded and one fist lashed out, striking hard against the stone wall. The pain from the impact helped clear her mind just a little but more anger continued to boil beneath her skin.

“I wondered when you'd lose it,” she heard behind her, and she whirled around to find a large man approaching her. He wore the green and bronze uniform of the Palace Guard and had one hand resting lightly on the pommel of his sword. From the flickering light of the torches she could see he had dark skin, a shaved head, and his lips were curled up into a small but friendly smile. She'd seen him at many of the parties, standing back along the wall, but hadn't spoken with him. “You did well; I expected this to happen a couple of weeks ago.”

“I'm sorry?” she asked, not sure at all what he was talking about. He continued towards her until there was only a foot or two of space between them and then reached out, one hand hanging between them. He gestured to her hand, telling her, “Let me take a look.” She hesitated for a moment and then gave him her left hand and he carefully turned it over, looking over her knuckles. A couple were bleeding lightly and she knew they were bruising even before he gently poked at them.

“Not bad,” he murmured, “nothing broken, at least.” He dropped her hand with a smile, looking back up at her. Nodding back towards the room they'd both just come from, he continued, “Nobles. They can be hard to be around for people not used to them. I expected something like this to happen weeks ago. You lasted a lot longer than I would have, in your shoes.”

“I've been trained,” she told him, studying him carefully. He didn't look like he suspected anything, but it wouldn't do if he started wondering why she found them so easy to be around. “I know how to handle them.”

He nodded but said, “Even so, no kind of training can really prepare you for them, especially so many in one room. Most of them are alright, but Quint is the kind of man who thinks the world should revolve around him.”

“I know men who think that who are the lowest of the street filth,” she replied and he shrugged, admitting she was right. “Still, it's worse when they think that and have the money and power to back it up.” This time she shrugged, giving in. He grinned, crossing his arms over his chest and looked down at her. “Lexa's usually alright despite her high station, but even she can act like a noble sometimes.”

Clarke frowned. “Lexa?” He nodded, gesturing back towards the room again and said, “The queen. Most of the time she acts as sensible as you or me, but sometimes she's as noble-minded as any of them.”

It occurred to Clarke that this man must be on close terms with the queen if he called her by a nickname. It was something she'd never heard before, and she looked at him more closely. There was a double layer of bronze trimming along his tunic, telling her he was the Second in Command of the Guard. Clearly he wasn't a noble with the way he was talking, but his posture was perfect, back straight and shoulders proud and he had the stance of someone sure of his own skills. Most interesting were his kind eyes, his smile making it all the way to them and she realized not only was he handsome but genuinely sweet. That was a rare trait to come by.

“I hope this doesn't sound rude, but why did you follow me?” she wanted to know, curious. He thought about it for a moment and then shrugged. “I guess I just wanted you to know you have a friend, if you come to the next one of these. Someone who has also earned everything he's made and doesn't judge you for how you make your living.” She stood there for a moment after that, a little shocked, and then murmured quietly, “Thank you.” His smile just grew and he nodded, and somehow she knew she'd just managed to make a friend without even meaning to.

Footsteps coming down the hall broke through the moment and Clarke stiffened when she heard them stop followed by a curious, “Lincoln?” She knew that voice and so did he, the man giving her another smile before he turned around and straightened even further. “Your Majesty.”

The brunette stood for a moment looking back and forth between the two of them and Clarke met the look, the anger that had been dying down under the confusion of this man's appearance growing again. She should curtsy, she knew, should bow or show some kind of respect, but her knees locked and her back remained straight. For his part Lincoln didn't bow either, but his posture was professional, not angry.

“What are you doing out here?” she wanted to know, gaze falling back on Lincoln and the big man nodded towards Clarke. “Just making sure Mistress Blake is okay, Your Majesty.” The answer made her look back to the younger woman, and Clarke's chin stuck out stubbornly. “You can go now, Lincoln.”

“Your Majesty,” he said, this time with a bow, and when he'd straightened back up he looked over to Clarke. “I hope to see you again soon, Mistress Blake.” He flashed her a smile and if she hadn't been so distracted and angry she would have returned it, and then he was making his way back down the hall and towards the party.

For a moment after he left the hall was silent, neither of them saying anything. The queen was the one who finally broke it, telling her, “I apologize for the things Quint said to you; he shouldn't have spoken to you like that.”

“Are you sorry he called me a whore, or about everything he said about commoners?” she wanted to know, still too angry to leave well enough alone. She may have already dug her own grave, but apparently she'd decided it needed to be dug even deeper. “Because I'm not ashamed of what I am, Your Majesty. I'm a whore: I have sex with people for money. I smile pretty and bat my eyelashes and people pay me for making them feel good about themselves.”

Something like discomfort flashed across the queen's face but her tone remained even as she said, “Of course there's nothing wrong with that. You do what you have to.” Clarke nodded. “You're right, I do. I put on pretty dresses and come to your palace because your nobles pay me to. I can play at being noble, but none of you could ever play at being common. You and your lords and ladies rule over us, but not one of you have any idea what life is like for us.”

At that the other woman's head tilted up before she shook it lightly. “Of course we know,” she replied, sounding genuinely surprised, “it's our duty to know that.”

“No you don't,” Clarke insisted evenly, her mouth drawn into a thin line and brow furrowed. She hadn't known, until her world had burned down around her. “How could you possibly know? Have you ever even walked through Polis?”

“Of course,” the queen said and Clarke shook her head. “No, I mean have you ever walked through Polis? Not ridden your horse down the main street with guards surrounding you on all sides. Have your boots walked through the mud? Have you stepped in horse shit and worse in any of the back streets?” Subconsciously she took a step towards the queen, both drawn to her and trying to make her understand. “Have you ever seen a group of street kids running through a crowd and watched to see which ones would manage to pick the pockets of the people around them successfully, knowing only the ones who did were going to eat that night? Do you know the names of the bakers with the best bread or the names of the ones with the worst that people who can barely spare a copper piece have to go to and still get something full of mold? You can't tell me which inns are the best and which are the worst, or which ones always have a dice game going on in their common room. You can't name any of the widows who are left trying to work and raise their children at the same time because their husbands never came back from your war.” At that one she saw the older woman visibly flinch and she backed off a little, suddenly tired and feeling years older than she actually was. “I'm sorry Your Majesty, but you more than anyone have absolutely no idea what it's like to be a commoner, no matter what you say. You just can't; it isn't possible.”

The silence drew out between them, the queen clearly not knowing what to say to that and Clarke too tired to say anything else. She wanted this woman to understand, to see why nobles like Quint were a problem, but besides the obvious she knew she couldn't. Those who were born with more would always think they understood those who weren't, and they would always be wrong. She had had to go from more to nothing to learn that. Now they stood in this hallway, someone with everything staring at someone with only a vague plan, and Clarke had never felt more alone in her life simply because she wanted this other person to see, to get it even though she knew she couldn't. They stared at each other and the silence grew between them until another set of footsteps interrupted it.

“Clarke?” someone asked, and slowly her focused shifted past the queen's shoulder to Monroe, half-illuminated in the torchlight. Monroe recognized who she was with a beat later. “Your Majesty. I'm sorry, am I interrupting?”

“No,” Clarke replied, looking back at the queen. She was still staring at her, her brow drawn just slightly as though she were studying her, trying to read past everything she could see and find more. Clarke wouldn't let her do that, couldn't let anyone do that, and found herself curtsying to her. “I apologize for what I said to you, Your Majesty. You've been nothing but kind to me; I shouldn't have treated that kindness with such disrespect.” She waited, her head down and dipped in her curtsy, until she heard the queen shift.

“No,” she said, voice lower than usual and a little hesitant. “No, there's no need to apologize, Clarke. I'm... There's no need to apologize.” She dipped her head a little further and then looked up, forcing on a smile. The queen met it with a straight face, expression calm, but behind it Clarke thought she saw more of that curiosity boiling. She didn't say anything about it though, just turned around and began making her way back towards the party. As she passed the other woman she nodded, saying simply, “Lady Monroe.” Monroe bowed to her but she kept going and then she'd disappeared behind the corner and Clarke couldn't decide if she could now breathe easier or if it was more difficult to take in a breath.

She didn't have time to worry about that. As soon as the queen had disappeared Monroe moved over towards her, frowning. “Are you alright?” she wanted to know, scanning her face quickly. Clarke's forced smile grew and she nodded, telling her, “Yes, of course. I'm sorry my lady, I shouldn't have run off on you like that. I'm afraid I haven't been very good company tonight.”

To her surprise, Monroe just grinned, her brow rising. “Are you kidding? You basically just told Quint to shove his head up his ass; that's something I've been wanting to say to him for weeks now. This is the best night I've had in a while.”

Clarke's smile shifted, turning a little more genuine by the second. Maybe it was because only two generations of her family had been higher ranked, her grandfather a well-known fur trader back in his day, but Monroe seemed entirely all too pleased with what had just happened. Clarke stepped over to her, wrapping her arm around hers, and lifted an eyebrow at her. “Would you care to make this night even better? I think I've had enough of this party if you have.” Monroe's eyebrow cocked back at her and then she stepped back, pulling away from the other woman just enough so that she could reach down and take her hand. She brought it to her lips, leaving a light kiss along its back and met Clarke's eyes, a playful look tugging at her expression. “Mistress Blake, that party is nothing compared to getting to spend time in your company. Lead the way, and I'll gladly follow.”

To Clarke's surprise she actually laughed, the sound foreign to her own ears. “Alright then my lady, if you'll follow me.” Her hand went back to Monroe's arm and the two continued down the hall, headed towards the exit.

Later she would think back to this night, think back on her fight with Quint and her talk with the queen and she would probably call herself every manner of stupid for letting it all go so far, but for now she had a job to do. At the very least she didn't doubt Monroe would make what remained of their night together at least a little fun.

Chapter Text

...You have absolutely no idea what it's like to be a commoner. You just can't; it isn't possible.

Even after three days Lexa couldn't get the words out of her head. Worse, she couldn't get Clarke's expression out of her head. The anger coming off the younger woman in the center of the Great Hall had been intense, certainly not something the queen was used to having directed so openly at her, but far worse than that was the look Clarke had given her later. Even in the dim torchlight Lexa had seen those blue eyes scanning her face, searching for something, but the fact that she hadn't found it had been obvious. All at once her expression had fallen, disappointed and resigned, before the queen had watched something else wash over it. Lexa knew a mask when she saw one, had been wearing her own every day of her life since even before she became a child-queen, and Clarke's had been perfect. In the flicker of the torchlight everything the other woman had been feeling had been hidden away until all that was left was emptiness, a blank slate. It chilled Lexa to think that someone else in the world wore that mask just as easily as she did.

Ever since it was all she'd been able to think about.

Unfortunately for her, her status didn't leave much time for thinking about a sad young woman disappointed with her queen, and this moment was no exception. She'd been moving on auto-pilot, trusting her body to know how to counter her opponent, but when her opponent was the Captain of the Guards anything short of one hundred percent focus wasn't enough. All of a sudden one wrist was grabbed in an iron-strong grip and the arm was wrenched up behind her. She could feel a body made of hard muscles and little mercy pressing against her back and moved to rip herself away but froze when the sharp blade of her opponent's dagger hovered mere centimeters from the soft skin of her neck. They both held entirely still for a moment until Indra stepped back, releasing her grip and re-sheathing her dagger in her belt.

“Sloppy,” she grumbled, flashing a hard look up at the queen. “I haven't beaten you so easily in years. You aren't focused.”

“I have a lot on my mind,” Lexa replied, fighting down her embarrassment. Not only had she just lost, Indra was right: she's been entirely sloppy and let her guard down, giving her opponent an easy advantage. The hard woman just looked at her with no sympathy, pointing to the dagger the brunette still held. “When you have that in your hand, nothing else should be on your mind. I don't care who you are or how many people want your attention, when you're holding a weapon the only thing you should care about is the opponent coming at you with their own.”

She knew that and had to fight against the heat rising to her cheeks. It was one of the first lessons Anya had taught her when she was young and one that Indra had only reinforced when she'd started training with the Guard. The moment she stepped out into the courtyard and drew her knife her thoughts of Clarke should have disappeared, but instead they had distracted her enough to allow her opponent to get a knife to her throat. Sloppy indeed.

Indra turned around, eyeing over the others around them, and Lexa tried not to think about how not only had she lost, but it had been in front of a dozen others. “You're done for the day, Your Majesty,” the Captain informed her, barely even glancing back over to the queen. “I can't take a chance of you getting hurt out here because you can't focus.” Lexa's jaw clenched but she knew the older woman was right and held her head a little higher to try to hold onto some semblance of her pride as she walked to the edge of the courtyard, ignoring the couple of people who glanced at her as she passed them.

A servant stood at the edge of the courtyard and quickly held out a water skin to her, bowing his head. She really didn't think she deserved it after that sad excuse of a fight but accepted it with a nod, her embarrassment having made her throat dry more than the fight had. After a few long sips she returned it to him and then looked over the people training, feeling untethered. Normally training grounded her, made her feel more stable than any other part of her day, but ever since that night with Clarke and her accusation nothing seemed to be able to make her focus. She was lost and floating and just didn't understand why.

A figure stepped away from the others on the training field and Lexa's attention went to him, her eyes narrowing. Lincoln's sweaty tunic stuck to him before he pealed it off and threw it to the ground, and then he was accepting a water skin from another servant and pouring some of it over his head before taking a long gulp.

“Lincoln,” she called, a thought forming. Somehow she managed to keep her gait calm as she headed over to him, her hands moving to clasp behind her back. The big man looked over at her with an eyebrow quirked up and then smiled, shifting towards her. As she got closer she took in the sight of his chiseled chest, strong shoulders, and kind smile; if his looks didn't impress her, could any man's?

“Your Majesty,” he greeted her with that same smile when she stopped near him, and then held out the water skin to her. She shook her head and he shrugged before taking another big swallow. As he drank he nodded back towards the courtyard and once he was done said, “Don't worry about what happened: we all get distracted sometimes. And Indra's impossible to beat even on your best day.”

“Distractions get you killed,” she replied automatically, Anya's words coming out of her mouth. She shook her head then, trying to clear her mind, and then looked back up at him. “What were you and C– Mistress Blake talking about the other night?”

The change in topic threw him off, and it was clear from the way he frowned, the handsome smile suddenly disappearing. “Just what I told you. I was just making sure she was okay.”

“That was it?” she pried, studying him with the same intensity she used to study maps on the battlefield during her brief period of war life. “You just asked if she was alright and that was it?”

He seemed to be studying her back, clearly confused. “No. I told her I was impressed it took her so long to lose her calm. And I wanted her to know she had a friend, if she comes back to the palace.”

The idea Clarke might not come back, that Lexa might never see the mysterious woman again made her stomach drop but she tried to ignore it. Instead she focused on his other words, brow furrowing before she asked, “What do you mean you were impressed? You expected that... incident?”

At that the man's frown disappeared, his lips once again curling up into a small smile. “Of course. There aren't many commoners who can be around so many nobles for so long without losing their heads. It's impressive she held out so long.” That sounded far too similar to what Clarke had said and it unnerved her. “What do you mean? You're around nobles all the time and you've never gotten into an argument with one.”

Lincoln let out a humorless laugh, the smile now almost sarcastic as he held up the water skin. “Your Majesty, unless the palace was under attack few nobles are even going to notice I'm there. I'm just a soldier, I don't draw attention to myself. They can ignore me and I can do my job, that's all it'll be.” He paused to take a drink and roll his shoulders, needing to stretch his muscles after the work he'd done minutes ago. “Mistress Blake draws attention to herself; it's the whole point of her profession. The nobles can't ignore her or pretend she's not there. She has to talk to them, even if it's just the ones who pretend to like her, and is supposed to smile when they tell her to her face how worthless they think she is.”

“She's not-” Lexa began, and then thought better about what she'd been about to say. “If it's so difficult for her, why does she come?” she asked instead, fingernails biting lightly into the skin of one wrist. She wanted Clarke to come back to the palace, wanted to see her again even though she knew she shouldn't, but she didn't want her uncomfortable. Lincoln lifted an eyebrow, as though the answer were clear, and she carefully gave nothing away in her expression.

“Isn't it obvious, Your Majesty?” he said. “In one night she can make more here than she probably does in a month otherwise. For a few hours all she has to do is smile and try not to let anything the people around her say get to her, and then just entertain whatever lord or lady is paying her a little more after and she's that much richer. Nobody in their right mind would pass that up, and nothing I've witnessed tells me Mistress Blake's anything but sane.”

Lexa had known that, though she'd also believed Clarke actually enjoyed her time at the palace, at least to some extent. If being around these people of higher class really was such a challenge for her as Lincoln suggested, she was an even better actress than the queen had believed. For a second she wondered if she'd always been acting whenever the two of them talked, or if anything she had said or any of her smiles had been genuine. She hoped so, but maybe that hope was sorely misplaced. Maybe the only true emotion she'd witnessed in Clarke had been that flicker of disappointment. The thought made Lexa's stomach drop even further and something in her chest squeeze.

None of her thoughts crossed her expression. Instead she made sure to remain calm, unaffected as she continued to look at Lincoln. “It seems to me like at least the younger nobility has enjoyed her presence in the palace. Are you telling me that even with them it's all just an act? She just... smiles and pretends to be enjoying herself?”

At that Lincoln gave her a look, something almost like pity briefly lighting in his dark eyes and Lexa's own widened a little at seeing it. “Your Majesty, commoners want to be around nobles about as much as nobles want to be around commoners. Some of us do it because we have to, but usually it isn't by choice. Nobles look down their noses at us, even the ones pretending they don't, and we complain about them and everyone hopes they won't have to spend time with the other.”

“'We?'” Lexa repeated, surprised at the inclusion. She'd never thought of him as separate, not really, he was just a member of the Guard and something like a friend. In fact she'd much rather spend time with him than with many of the people closer to her rank, but clearly he'd drawn a dramatic line between them. He looked away then as he stood up a little straighter, unable to meet her eyes anymore and she felt a tiny ball of anger form in the pit of her stomach. “Speak, Lincoln. And speak plainly.”

He let out an almost silent sigh, eyes closing for a second, and when they opened again he turned to face her. “We, Your Majesty. I am as common as Mistress Blake is. I hear people like Lord Quint talking about raising taxes on his people and know it'll starve half of them, and all I can do is stand silently and wait until my shift is over to go get a much needed drink, maybe with some of those very people who'll soon be starving.”

“You've never said anything about it,” she accused him, her brow turning down. If she'd known, maybe she could have done something about it. He met her look blankly, so similarly to the mask she'd seen on Clarke that night that it made her grit her teeth. “You're a noble, Your Majesty,” he reminded her, his voice a little softer. “One of the good ones, sure, but you're the queen: that makes you more noble than any of them.”

Though he spoke softly, for the first time in her life her title sounded like an insult. Up until now it had always been directed at her with reverence, maybe even jealousy. People wanted her title: her own aunt constantly looked at her like she knew she could be the better queen. Young men flocked around her trying to win her over and young women desperately tried to befriend her; their parents hung on her every word. Everyone wanted to know the queen and to be in her good graces, but now suddenly that wasn't true. Lincoln looked at her almost as though he were sorry for her, something entirely strange. It had seemed like Clarke had been studying her, had been trying to read past the title and been disappointed by what she'd found, resigned knowing that this woman was really just the queen everyone called her. The knowledge made Lexa's skin crawl, made her want to shed it, and suddenly she found herself turning and walking away from Lincoln, unable to meet his eyes anymore.

She hurried out of the courtyard and into the palace, her mind whirling with Lincoln and Clarke's words. Sure, she'd always known there was a divide between the classes, but not to this extent. She'd always assumed that commoners respected the upper class who ruled over them, but now those beliefs were being seriously challenged. The idea that Lincoln, Indra, even Clarke, felt like they had to keep things from her because of her title made her fingernails dig into her wrist so hard she feared they might pierce the skin.

“You're lucky you were fighting Indra and not me,” she heard someone say behind her, and in the back of her mind she once again scolded herself. Anya had snuck up on her probably without even trying, and if she were an enemy the queen would be dead now. She needed to focus. “I would have made a show of knocking you on your ass to remind you to pay attention. What are you so distracted by that you couldn't pay attention to the woman with a knife coming at you?”

“What do you think about commoners?” she blurted out, wincing as soon as she heard the words. Even so she glanced over as her friend stepped up beside her, seeing the confusion crossing Anya's face.

“What do you mean what do I think about them?” she asked, tone gruff. “What everyone thinks about them, I guess. We need them and they need us.” Looking at the queen from the corner of her eye, she asked, “Is this about Quint and your friend Clarke the other night?”

Lexa tried to ignore the brief flood of warmth that spread through her chest at the idea of Clarke being her friend. She nodded once, a little hesitantly, and Anya shrugged. “Quint's an idiot, we all know that. He gives his rank a bad name. Blake was right about what she said, though I doubt it'll work well for her how publicly she said it.”

“She doesn't think I understand,” the queen muttered, staring in front of her now. Once again the expression on Clarke's face appeared in her mind, and she had to blink to try to wash it away. “She said it's impossible I could.”

“You don't understand what?” her friend asked, eyeing her suspiciously. Lexa knew she was letting more than the usual emotion show, but this was Anya, the woman who had practically helped raise her after her father's death. “What it's like for her. To be a commoner.”

Beside her the other woman scoffed and finally the queen turned back to her.

“Of course you don't understand,” Anya told her, not holding back her words. “How could a queen know what it's like to be common?”

“But we're all just people,” Lexa insisted, and the look Anya shot her at that made her frown. “That's just about all you have in common with her, Lexa,” she replied. “You can't know what life is like for her anymore than she can know what life is like for you. Nobles and commoners will never be able to actually understand each other. That's just the way of the world.”

“I don't like it,” the queen growled, and Anya just let out a single laugh. “Too bad, kid. You can't change the way of the world.”

Why not? Lexa wanted to ask, but at that moment she noticed Titus moving towards them. She let the conversation drop, fully knowing he would only look down his nose on it. Though almost a father-figure to her, she was fully aware what he would think about her concerning herself over something Clarke had said. She straightened her back and met his eye and he dropped into an easy bow. “Your Majesty, a word if you have a moment. I'd like to go over what you'll be saying at tomorrow's council meeting, and then Lord Thames would like to talk to you about how the trade routes will be affected come winter.”

She nodded and followed him, Anya now just a step behind her. Her adviser talked as they walked and she nodded along with him, pretending to pay attention, but really her mind was reeling.

Because really, why couldn't she change the world? Hadn't she already done the impossible in her short thirteen years as queen? She had been the one to unite the thirteen houses after generations of civil wars had left their nation broken; she had been the one to build an army strong enough to defeat the Reapers until all that remained of their people was a broken band of rebels who were even now being hunted down; no one else had ever been able to do either of those things before. Her father had talked about it, had even been trying to do it when he died, but she was the one who'd been successful. She'd already done what others called impossible, so why not this too?

As Titus talked and Anya followed she began to think, the shadows of a plan pooling together in her mind.

***

Even as she knocked on the door in front of her, Clarke knew this was a bad idea. This was the last thing she should be allowing herself to do, yet here she was. After only a few seconds the door opened and there was Niylah, her honey-brown eyes already seeming to know what she wanted.

“Are you working tonight?” she asked, and the other woman shook her head, opening the door a little wider.

It was all the invitation Clarke required.

She pushed herself into the room, her hands going directly to the crook of the other woman's elbows and yanking her close. Their lips came together in a clash of teeth and tongue and the monster that had been howling in Clarke's chest for days quieted, if only for a moment. She lightly pushed Niylah back into the room, kicking the door shut behind her, and led her over to the bed without once letting up on her attack. The other woman's hands grasped at her back, fingers digging into the fabric of the thin robe she wore while Clarke tore at her own, and she let the pressure from the hold drive away the swirl of emotions she'd been feeling until the only one that remained was lust. Without worrying about the older woman she shoved her down to the bed and then climbed on top of her, quickly shedding herself of her robe.

Monroe had been nice and her touch had managed to ward off the fury she'd felt after that last gathering at the palace, but it hadn't lasted. Almost as soon as the young knight had left that fury had come back, ramming into her chest and digging its roots into her skin and nothing Clarke had done over the last three days had been enough to drive it away entirely. She'd fucked and been fucked by any number of guests but their touch did nothing for her, barely even distracted her from the fire that burned under her skin. When she wasn't working she'd done her best to forget by drinking or holing herself away in her room to yet again go over the clues she and Wells had gathered, but none of it had worked. Quint's ugly sneer remained burned into her mind as did his words, and she'd ended up stabbing her pillow the night before when they yet again played on repeat in her head. Worse than his utter disregard towards the people he was supposed to protect though was the thought of the queen's expression, her shock when Clarke had told her the truth. She clearly had genuinely believed she understood but the younger woman knew it wasn't true, knew it could never be true, and for some reason that knowledge had wormed its way into her gut and just wouldn't leave her alone.

“Clarke,” Niylah mumbled when the younger woman's teeth closed around the skin of her shoulder, and she shook her head. “Shut up,” she managed to say against the blonde's skin and she felt Niylah nod, felt her fingers dig more roughly down her back. Somewhere deep inside Clarke felt guilty, hated herself for what she was doing, but Niylah's touch managed to quiet the monsters and at the moment that's all she could care about.

The two came together roughly in Niylah's bed, an act Clarke wished she could say she wasn't used to. She nipped at the older woman's skin and the blonde's hands gripped tightly at her own and they both fell apart long before either so much as considered trying to make the other come undone. In Niylah's bed Clarke let the hurricane of emotions swarming through her take control as she always did and Niylah just accepted them. Long fingers tugged sharply at the dark-haired woman's nipples, twisting and pinching them and Clarke hissed, letting the small sting of pain grow over everything else. Before long she was sliding down the other woman's body and leaving small red marks behind with her mouth until she was firmly nestled between Niylah's legs. Without any warning she attacked, using the sudden gasp Niylah let out to fuel her on, and then her lips were closed around her clit while two fingers pumped mercilessly into the other woman. Hands moved to her head and then fingers were tugging sharply against her hair and Clarke closed her eyes, letting herself get lost in this moment. She didn't let up until Niylah's body shuddered beneath her and still didn't stop, the monster in her chest needing this to continue. The grip on her hair tightened to the point of pain and she growled but let Niylah pull her away, and then the other woman was roughly turning them in the bed and Clarke had to fight for breath as her weight pressed down on her. Just when she was about to get it under control two of Niylah's fingers entered her roughly and she lost it again, her hands now scrambling at the other woman's back. She could feel the blonde staring down at her as she relentlessly pounded into her but Clarke just closed her eyes, not wanting to see anything and only wanting to feel. If she looked she would see the emotion Niylah wasn't quite able to hide away and the guilt would grow before she was ready to let it. Her nails bit lightly into the other woman's back and she gasped when her thumb began to draw incessant circles over her clit, harsh and demanding and soon she came undone beneath its demand, her back arching as her muscles clamped forcefully around Niylah's fingers.

Clarke refused to open her eyes as the other woman moved, her fingers slipping out of her so she could lie on the bed beside her. The monster had barely waited for her orgasm to subside before settling back into her chest, sneering at her for thinking it could be driven away for long. Her fury came back to her just as strongly as her orgasm had washed over her, but now the guilt she'd known she would feel accompanied it. One arm came up to drape over her eyes, clearly trying to hide even knowing she couldn't, and she just laid there and felt Niylah watching her. Fingers moved up to play lightly with the ends of her hair and she just laid still.

“It's getting lighter,” she finally heard, the words breaking through the uncomfortable silence between them. “I'll talk to my supplier about getting more dye for you.”

“Thanks,” she just said and then waited another second before turning over and pushing herself up. She sat for a second on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor and felt tears well up in the corner of her eyes. Part of it came from her anger with Quint, part from her realization that the queen was nothing more than her title no matter how much she wanted it to be different, but a larger part came from her own inability to stay away from Niylah when she knew their trysts meant a very different thing to the older woman. She stood up and moved over to where she'd dropped her robe, and as she bent down to get it looked behind her. The other woman was still watching her, lying fully relaxed and naked on her bed, but Clarke could see the spark of emotion in her eyes she'd been dreading. Biting her lip so hard it began to bleed she pulled her robe on and refused to look back again. Quickly she made her way across the room to the door, stopping only when she'd reached it. With her hand on the knob she leaned forward until her forehead rested on the cool wood and closed her eyes. “I'm sorry,” she mumbled, knowing Niylah would hear it.

“I know,” was the reply she got, the other woman's voice far too understanding, and Clarke left quickly, wishing she could somehow shut her guilt away as easily as she shut Niylah's understanding out.

She didn't go back to her room, not wanting to be left alone with her thoughts. Instead she made her way through the house, passing closed doors where she could hear other whores entertaining and open rooms where she could see it. The noises just made her think about what she'd just let happen and she picked up her pace, the guilt turning to stone in her gut. Luna glanced up at her when she passed her desk but neither said anything, though the look in her eyes made Clarke wonder if she knew what she had just done. The mistress of The Rig was far too perceptive, always seemed to know what her people were thinking without having to be told, and the young whore walked more quickly, wanting to be away from that knowing gaze.

Stepping outside, Clarke wasn't sure if it was the fresh air that made her suddenly feel like she could breathe a little better or just being away from Luna and Niylah. Considering The Rig was placed in the heart of a busy city, she doubted it was the fresh air. Laughter caught her attention and she turned, a more genuine smile than she'd had in days growing along her lips when she saw who was loitering around the bench outside. Monty and Harper were sitting and grinning up at Jasper and Maya, the three of them clearly laughing at some story Jasper had just told. He held a water skin in one hand, but with the way he had an armed draped casually over Maya's shoulders as he leaned against her she doubted its contents was actually water.

Maya was the first to see her, and the smile she gave the dark-haired woman made her own grow. “Clarke!” she called and the other three turned, all giving her their own smiles. She made her way over to them and sat down beside Monty as the two on the bench made room for her. Before she was even sitting Jasper was holding out the water skin for her.

“Drink?” he asked with a grin and she cocked an eyebrow at him before accepting it. She sniffed the opening and then shook her head, grinning as she took a big sip of the ale inside. It was stronger than she was expecting and she took another look at the skin. “Where'd you get this?” she wanted to know, handing it over to Monty at Jasper's gesture to pass it around.

“The Ark,” he answered, referring to the tavern just down the street. “Monty 'n me helped Myles distill this new batch so he gave us a couple skins for free. Sounds like it's selling pretty well so far.”

“I see why,” she told him, watching Monty pass the skin over to Harper after taking his own swig. “It's good.”

“It was all Monty, really,” Jasper said with a grin, nodding to his best friend. “He's got a real talent for making alcohol.”

“Sounds like you're in the wrong business,” Harper joked, nudging Monty's shoulder. She downed a gulp of the ale and then passed it on to Maya. “You could leave us and get into business with Myles, help him run The Ark. You could even keep your clothes on there.”

In the relative dark Clarke thought she saw Monty's cheeks turn pink as he ducked his head, lips curling up into a smile. “I wouldn't know how to run a tavern,” he told them, and then his smile grew just a little larger. “Besides, why would I want to leave you guys?”

“You could figure it out,” Maya informed him, shooting him a little grin as she passed the ale to Jasper. “I'm pretty sure you're smart enough to figure anything out.”

“Definitely the smartest one here,” Harper agreed with a nod and another shove, and Monty just shook his head. “Naw, I'm not that smart,” he tried, glancing around the group. “I just got lucky with the ale, that's all.”

“I don't know, I think they're right Monty,” Clarke told him, leaning back against the building and giving him a look, one corner of the mouth turning up. “I know a lot of people, but you're definitely one of the smartest I've ever met.” It was true: despite the fact that when she first met him Monty couldn't read, he absorbed knowledge like no one she'd ever met before. She taught him how to read and the basic mathematics her own teachers had taught her, and soon he was figuring problems out even she didn't know the answers to. She wished he could meet her friend Raven, the only other person she knew whose brain seemed to work as fast. Raven was the daughter to one of the kitchen servants at her home in Arkadia but the two had practically grown up together, which meant she'd tagged along to a lot of Clarke's lessons. By the time she was eleven Raven was stumping the mathematics teacher Clarke's parents had hired, thoroughly entertaining the two girls. It wasn't a subject she'd ever really cared for but Raven soaked it all up, and Clarke had a feeling it was something she and Monty would be able to talk about for hours.

Monty blushed some more and quickly changed the subject, always uncomfortable at being the center of attention. Jasper took over for him, in this way the other boy's opposite, and soon he was back to cracking jokes and telling stories, the rest of them laughing or rolling their eyes at his antics. His free arm waved wildly in the air for emphasis while his other remained over Maya's shoulders, and the longer they were out there the less Clarke believed it was just for support. He was always more than happy to take a big swallow of the ale whenever the skin was passed to him, but the way he kept shifting a little bit closer to her didn't get by Clarke and she had to hide a grin behind the water skin when he passed it down to her.

She lost track of time out there, her friends managing to distract her from the thoughts that had been racing around her head at least for a little while. People passed by them, calling out to them or whistling at one or more, and depending who it was they either ignored it or returned the calls. Polis always seemed to come alive as the day ended and night began, especially in the area around The Rig. More people flocked into the nearby taverns or smirked at them as they headed into the house, the whores working in for a long night with a lot of guests to entertain. Their group thought nothing of the noise and hectic life around them, more than used to it, and the more they passed around Jasper's water skin the more they all began to feel that life pounding through them too.

Harper was in the middle of a story about a street fight she'd witnessed the previous night when somebody came jogging down the road and slowed down when she got to them. Clarke's gaze fell on the young girl as she began to walk past their group and when she caught her eye she gave her a smile.

“Hey Charlotte,” she called and the ten-year-old returned her smile, moving over to join their group. Maya and Jasper both stepped to the side to make room for her, and the rest of the group echoed Clarke's greetings.

“Hey,” Charlotte replied, flashing her smile around the circle before she moved over to the bench and sat next to Clarke, her feet just barely touching the ground. The older woman made room for her while studying her from the corner of her eye. It had been a few days since she last saw her, and now looking her over she decided she'd have to take her out to get a good dinner at some point soon. She'd made enough recently entertaining the lords and lady she could certainly afford a good meal for her friend. While she was protective of everyone at The Rig there were certain people she was more protective of, and Charlotte was one of them. She knew it was probably because the little girl was only a couple of years younger than Madi but tried not to think about it, memories of her little sister the ones that were always the hardest to push away.

Harper nodded to the old leather bag she had slung over her shoulder, saying, “You getting us all setup for the next couple of days?” The younger girl shrugged the shoulder with the bag over it, grinning as she told her, “Wouldn't want ya to get bored just sittin' around.” She grabbed at the bag as though she were weighing it in her hand and then added, “I bet there're plenty a men that can't wait to get their hands on you again, Harper.”

“Don't I know it,” the blonde replied with an eye roll quickly followed by a smirk and Jasper snorted as he tried to take another swallow from the water skin, inhaling the liquid. Half of the mouthful ended up running down his chin and Clarke wondered if maybe it was time to try to pry him away from the alcohol but decided that was a fight she didn't have the energy to get into. Maya shook her head as she pounded the heel of her hand against his back and Harper and Charlotte laughed at him while Monty let out a small, amused sigh.

“Maybe it's time to put down the ale, Jasper,” he tried, giving his best friend a look and the other boy just shot him a grin even as he continued coughing. “...fine,” he argued, shaking his head and holding the skin to his chest as though Monty might try to snatch it away. Nobody else tried to argue with him and when he stopped coughing he just grinned again, shrugging as though to prove he was alright.

Charlotte was still shaking her head at him as she pushed herself back off the bench. “I gotta go, Luna's waitin' for me. She's gonna wanna start goin' through all these papers to figure out whose workin' where the next few days.”

“I hope you at least brought me someone good this time,” Harper complained jokingly as the younger girl stood back up. “Last week all you had for me was Jeremiah Clawson. He spent half the time crying and the entire time stinking up the room. I still say Emori should have just burned those sheets rather than try to wash them after.” Charlotte flashed her another grin, giving her a look. “Hey, I just git the messages,” she reminded them, walking backwards towards the door. “You want some'un better 'en Jeremiah Clawson then you gotta find 'em and get 'em.” She gave Harper a wink and then turned around, hurrying into The Rig to hand over her bag to their mistress.

The rest of the group fell back into conversation but Clarke remained quiet, thinking about how different Charlotte was now than from when she'd first met her. It had only been a little over a year ago when Luna had heard about the nine-year-old girl working at Mecha's Pleasure House, a rival whorehouse in the city. That same day she'd gone down there with a full purse and returned with an empty one and the little girl trailing terrified behind her. Clarke had been horrified when she first learned about how young some children were when they started working at these kinds of houses, enough that she'd physically been sick once after seeing the expressions on some of their faces. It was a horror that Luna shared, but also one she was intent on fixing one child at a time. With every guest her people entertained part of that money went to the person entertaining and part went to Luna. The Rig's mistress always saved a percentage of it, tucking it away for these exact situations and whenever she could she used it to take in another child. Once they'd joined The Rig they worked as messengers, cleaners, anything Luna could come up with until they were fourteen. Then they would start work as whores or would leave to try to find some kind of work elsewhere. Clarke thought it was harsh but knew it was a better life than any of them would have had without Luna's involvement.

She was staring off, only half paying attention to her friends around her and thinking about the harsh realities she'd had to learn about quickly when Charlotte popped back out of The Rig, no longer carrying the bag. The young girl headed straight over to their group again, but this time only looked at Clarke, hooking her thumb over her shoulder.

“Hey Clarke, Luna wants to see ya,” she informed her, bobbing her head back towards the door. “Guess you got some'un.”

“Probably another pretty lord wanting to take you to the palace to show you off a little before he fucks you,” Harper said with a sigh and Clarke couldn't quite tell if it was exaggerated or real. “Maybe,” she muttered as she rose. Part of her hoped she was right and the other part worried she wasn't; none of the lords had reached out since her argument with Quint and scene with the queen, and she worried she'd blown her chances of ever going back. Even Finn hadn't reached out, and that was enough to surprise her.

Charlotte passed her to take her spot on the bench, easily falling into the conversation with the others, and Clarke felt the corners of her lips tug up for just a second at how comfortable she looked. A year ago she always hung back, too timid and terrified to even really talk to anyone, and now she looked to be entirely content with the others around her. Luna had saved her, no doubt about it, and to Clarke that was what made someone a true leader. Quint had the money and titles but in her mind there was no question that the mistress of a common whorehouse had a far better sense of duty than the lesser lord.

Thinking about Quint made her sigh, fingers coming up to rub at her forehead. The ale had been good in the moment but now it mixed with the anger she could still feel festering beneath her skin and she felt a headache coming on. Hopefully whoever had written for her company didn't want it right away or she was in for a very long and annoying night.

Ignoring the sounds of the house and people in it, she made her way straight to Luna's desk, the older woman behind it as always and shuffling through a pile of papers. “Charlotte said you had someone for me?”

“You have a message, yes,” she replied, not looking up. A piece of paper was folded neatly at the side of her desk and she picked it up, holding it out between them. Clarke raised an eyebrow at her and accepted it, unfolding it to read what it said. When she saw the handwriting she froze, and then had to scan over the words a few times before she was finally able to fully absorb them.

They're here. I'm watching them; what do you want to do now?
W.

All at once the monster in her chest settled, everything that had been whirling inside her for days, years even, going completely still. Her senses sharpened and all at once it was as though she could hear everything and nothing, her entire focus on the few words written on the piece of parchment in front of her.

They were finally in Polis.

It was finally time.

She glanced up from the paper and over the desk, finding Luna already watching her. “I'm going to need you to do a favor for me.”

Chapter Text

Bennet Johnson – called Ben by everyone but his mother – rolled his neck while he waited for his tankard, sighing when he heard a loud pop as he shifted just right. A long ride always made him achy, and nothing made it better than a good stretch followed by a better ale. On the seat across from him his friend Jenson Dawes picked at something in his teeth as he eyed over the tavern's other occupants.

“How long does it take to get a coupla drinks round here?” he growled, also looking around. As though she'd heard him a woman holding a tray with two tankards on it came over to them and placed them on the table between the two without a word. She turned to head back over to the counter and Ben's eyes followed her, dropping down to the swell of her ass. She had a decent face, but he bet she'd look a lot better without that dress on. He grinned just thinking about it before grabbing one of the tankards and taking a swig of his ale.

“Yer an idiot if you think that's gonna happen,” Jenson said, apparently noticing the way he watched their server leave. “She's not interested. Now me,” he paused, nodding towards a table a little ways away from them and smirked. “I see someone interested.”

Ben turned in his seat to find a woman sitting alone at a table with her own drink, clearly watching them. She looked to be in her late twenties, maybe a little older, her hair a mass of springy curls. She grinned when she saw him look and then got up, and both men were smirking as she made her way over to their table, carrying her drink with her.

“Mind if I join you gentlemen?” she asked and Jenson shook his head while Ben replied, “Not at all, sweetheart.” The woman took a seat at the end of the table, looking between the two of them, and raised an eyebrow. “You two aren't from around here are you? Traveling?”

“How'd ya know?” Jenson asked and the woman just shrugged. “Just a lucky guess. Where are you coming from?”

“Azgeda, most recently,” Ben told her and both eyebrows shot up, apparently impressed. “That's quite the trip. Sounds like maybe you two could use a little company tonight. In my experience men who travel that far want a nice welcome when they get to Polis.”

“You offerin'?” Jenson asked, smirking as he shifted a little closer to her and Ben mirrored the movement. He couldn't believe their luck but here this woman was, offering up exactly what he wanted.

The woman let out a soft chuckle, apparently amused at the thought, and his smirk fell away. He and Jenson eyed each other across the table, neither happy with her reaction, but then turned back to her as she said, “Not exactly. I'm Luna Flou; I run The Rig, one of Polis's finest whorehouses. I like to keep my eyes open for new customers.” She looked them up and down, as though she'd just found some and Ben took another large swallow of his ale to hide his thoughts. While he'd been happy at the idea of taking her back to their inn, the fact that she ran a whorehouse might be even better. Glancing at Jenson out of the corner of his eye, he could tell his friend was just as interested.

“Maybe we're not looking for a whore,” he said as he set his tankard back down, trying to act as though he didn't care what she had to say. She shrugged, leaning back a little in her chair, and when she crossed her arms in front of her he couldn't help but notice the way her tits stuck out of the top of her dress just a little more. Immediately his cock proved he was lying, but she didn't need to know that.

“Maybe you're not,” she agreed, giving him a little nod. “That's fine. I was gonna send you one of my best girls, but if you're not interested then I'll leave you alone.” She began to get up but Jenson leaned forward, glancing at Ben first and then back at her. “What's she look like?” Settling back in her chair Luna turned to him, telling him, “Big blue eyes and dark red hair. A pair of tits that'll fit in your hands nicely. She's a pro; it'd be the best fuck of your lives.”

As she described the whore Ben's pants seemed to get tighter, the visual she gave them making his cock stir. He knew he wouldn't be happy until he'd fucked her good and hard, and from the way Jenson shifted in his seat he knew his friend felt the same way. They glanced at each other, smirking again, and then Jenson asked, “When do we get 'er?”

Luna stood up again, grinning down at them as she did. “Go to The Dropship tonight and tell Murphy you're there to see Clarke. She'll be waiting for you in room five.” She walked away and the two men grinned at each other, just imagining what waited for them.

The rest of the afternoon seemed to drag by slowly after that. They got a few more drinks and then walked around Polis, just trying to pass the time. As the sun began to sink they grabbed dinner at another tavern, each clearly distracted with thoughts about what they would be doing in just a short time and then when they finished they finally made their way to The Dropship, having to ask around a little to be pointed in the right direction. The man behind the counter eyed them over once when they repeated Luna's message and then he gestured to a door that led upstairs and gave them directions to the correct room. As they made their way down the hall Ben could feel his cock hardening again, fully anticipating enjoying himself that night. He and Jenson shared a look when they got to the right door and then he pushed it open.

A woman laid on the bed on the other side of the room and Ben grinned when he saw the only thing covering her was a thin blue robe. Dark red hair covered her shoulders and when she turned he saw those bright blue eyes the other woman had promised. Even better was the fact that her robe wasn't closed all the way, which meant the swell of those big tits peaked out of the fabric covering her chest. His palms itched to touch them and his cocked twitched in his pants as he thought of ripping that robe off her.

“Well hello sweetheart,” he said with a grin as the two of them stepped into the room, Jenson closing the door behind them. “Luna wasn't lying; you look like you'll give us some fun tonight.” They moved further into the room, neither able to take their eyes off her. Ben watched as she sat up and then swung her legs over the side of the bed, his focus getting caught on pale skin and thinking about how soft it would feel when he ran his hands over it.

“You don't recognize me?” the woman asked, her voice low and husky, and he grinned thinking about how it would sound when they were making her moan. Jenson's eyes fell back to her chest as she stood up, her hair swaying lightly with the motion and showing just a hint more of her chest. “I think I'd remember seeing you before. Those tits don't look like they'd be easy to forget.”

“I looked a little different last time,” she replied, and as she spoke something in her tone changed, a coldness taking over and the huskiness leaving. The change made them pause, made Ben frown, and then it was her face he was looking at, finding that bright blue he'd enjoyed just a moment ago turning cold and dangerous. He met her eyes and felt a chill run up his spine, the hard stare she gave them piercing right through him. Her next words tore into him like a blade, shock coursing through him like a splash of freezing water as his eyes went wide. “I am Clarke Griffin of the Arkadian Hills, and you two killed my father.”

A floorboard creaked behind them and Ben tore his eyes away from her, turning around just in time to see a young man with dark skin lift the sword he was holding. His eyes flickered to the side of the room where the privy door now hung open and he realized what was happening just as the other man brought the pommel of his sword down against Jenson's temple. He dropped instantly, knocked out from the one blow, and Ben scrambled for the knife he always kept at his belt. The other man was fast though, had clearly been expecting it, and thrust his sword out again, this time bringing the pommel down against his head. Ben dropped to his knees, his vision immediately blurring into black, and the last thing he saw before he passed out was a woman he thought he'd killed seven years ago staring down at him.

***

Foreign voices swam through Clarke's mind, the words tapering off mid-sentence as her brain worked to try to understand them. Bursts of red and blue and white flashes constantly shifted against pure black, images trying to take shape but then quickly melting back into shadows as her consciousness desperately tried to grab at them. The words made sense and they didn't, growing and shrinking over and over again and Clarke couldn't quite grasp what was a dream and what might be a reality.

The list from the Miller's stores flashed in front of her eyes, numbers and letters bleeding together into nonsense.

“...don't know why we can't just do it...”

Madi holding onto their mother's hand, her other hand waving in a desperate flurry as the train of people rode away. Clarke could feel a ghost of herself grin at her sister's enthusiasm.

“...shut yer mouth and quit complaining, you know we have to...”

Her father pointing to a cluster of yellow flowers on the side of the road, his eyebrow lifting as he waited for her to identify them.

“...too fucking heavy...”

The flowers flashed in front of her again, and her sluggish mind worked to try to identify them. Not forsythia or knapweed but...

“...think she's waking up...”

Calendula.

Slowly Clarke's senses began to return to her. The sounds around her became more real, more solid, and she tried to focus on them. The two voices continued and she frowned, trying to place them but not knowing if she'd ever heard them before. They definitely weren't any of her servants, not her friends and absolutely not her family. They were a mystery she couldn't place, her foggy mind too tired to even try, so she ignored them for the time being. She could smell smoke, just a light scent in the air and could hear the fire crackling, and remembered she'd fallen asleep to the same crackle in the hearth in her room. Mixed with the smoke was body odor, not real heavy but also not particularly pleasant, and she was relatively sure it wasn't her own. Her mind showed her an image of soapy water and she remembered the bath the innkeeper had drawn for her.

Inn. She wasn't at home in Arkadia or even at the Millers' estate: she was at an inn, her father's favorite. They had been traveling all day and stopped for the night so they wouldn't have to continue in the dark. That all made sense and she even remembered pieces of the night and getting settled, but something still wasn't right, something still didn't quite fit together.

All at once the back of her neck ached and she realized her head was hanging forward, dead weight on her neck. That shouldn't be right: she'd fallen asleep in a bed with her head on a pillow, so why was she now upright, her head hanging down? It took more strength than she thought she had but she rolled it to the side and then back up, the motion making her dizzy and neck just ache even more.

“See, told you she was waking up.”

The voices again. They had gone quiet for a moment while she moved, but there one was again. She still didn't know it, couldn't place it, and forced herself to open her eyes. It took a few tries and a lot of effort on her part, but finally they were open and though the room swam a little, she began to make out details she couldn't before.

This wasn't her room. It took a moment, her focus still fuzzy, but after a minute she was sure of it. Hers had been just a little smaller, and had had a bit of artwork up on the walls. This room had shelves with a few books instead, and a small table stood beside the hearth. From the way the table was placed Clarke could tell there should be chairs around it, but instead they were in the center of the room and she and her father were sitting in them. The ropes wrapped around their arms and legs held them to the chairs, and when she tried to move she found she couldn't. They were stuck, and she knew once her mind started working at normal speed again she'd start to panic, but for now the thought just filtered through the fog. Only the sight of her father beside her, also tied up with his head hanging over his chest managed to push through that fog, beginning to clear it away.

“Father?” she let out in a croak, her voice hoarse though she didn't know why. She realized in that moment her mouth and throat were completely dry and tried to swallow, not having much success. “Wa... Wake up.”

It took repeating the words a few times, her volume growing each time, but finally she saw him begin to stir. By the time his head was lifting enough of the fog had cleared from her mind for her to fully understand the situation they were in, and her heart had started racing. She tried not to look to the side of the room where she could just make out the figures of two men standing, fear prickling up her spine.

Her father seemed to come-to a little faster once he regained consciousness, his mind clearly piecing everything together just a fraction quicker than hers had. She could see him blinking rapidly, likely trying to clear his vision, before he looked over at her. He scanned her over, taking in the ropes around her legs and arms and then looked up at her face, probably seeing the fear there.

“Clarke!” he exclaimed and tried to move closer to her, his own ropes keeping him from being able to do so. He looked down at them as though only noticing them for the first time and then he was looking back up, scanning her face. “Are you okay?”

“I don't...” she began, voice trailing off and when she heard footsteps she glanced over, the two men taking a couple of steps closer to them. Jake looked over as well, a fierce glare taking over his expression, something Clarke wasn't sure she'd ever seen before. “Who are you?” he demanded, his tone hard. “What do you want?”

“We got a job, m'lord,” one of the men said, a big man with black hair and dark eyes. He had a scar that ran down the right side of his face and disappeared beneath a thick beard. “It's not that we want to do it, but a job's a job.”

“And we're getting paid real good for this one,” his companion agreed, smirking over at him. This second man was a little smaller than the first but looked no less dangerous, his long brown hair pulled back with only a few strands falling in his face. He had a large, nasty looking sword buckled against his hip and one hand went to the pommel, resting casually against it. Clarke followed the motion, eyes drawn to the weapon and felt her heartbeat begin racing even faster as sweat started to bead along her hairline.

“Whatever you're getting paid, it isn't worth it,” her father tried, his voice still hard. “You've kidnapped a lord and his daughter; if any harm comes to us it'll mean your lives. Leave now and we won't track you down. We can forget this happened.”

Before he even finished talking, the one with the sword began shaking his head. “Can't do that m'lord. We got half the pay when our boss gave us the job, we'll get the other half when we prove to him it's been done.”

Clarke could feel the panic turning into bile in the back of her throat and she fought to keep it down, to not let her fear show so obviously. Beside her her father looked almost calm, eyes scanning back and forth over the two men's faces and she wondered what he was thinking, what he was going to do to get them out of here. Suddenly he lifted his chin a little higher before he glanced over at her. She tried to read everything in his eyes as they looked at each other, and the resigned acceptance she saw flicker in pale blue she'd known all her life made her stomach turn. Finally he looked back over at them, telling them, “Do whatever you have to to me, but let my daughter go.”

“No!” Clarke yelled, the panic turning into something like a frenzy inside her. Whatever had knocked her out earlier still seemed to make everything happen a little slower, made it harder to fully grasp everything that was going on, but she knew what her father was doing and couldn't just let him sacrifice himself for her. Looking back at the two men she let her fear show, hoped it would do something to make them change their minds as she begged, “Please, you don't have to do this. Whatever you're being paid, we can double it! We'll, we'll just pay you and you can leave and we can, we can forget this! Please!”

The man with the sword gave her a partial grin, the look causing a hole to form in Clarke's gut and her stomach to drop. “That's just bad business, m'lady. Who would hire us if we went and turned on the people who paid us?”

“It is too bad though,” his companion mused, stepping closer to them. “Wasting a pretty face like yers.” He reached forward to wipe a strand of hair away that had fallen in her face and beside her her father yanked against his ropes, hard enough that the chair shifted, scraping against the floor. “Don't touch her!” he shouted, eyes flashing and teeth clenching together. The man just raised an eyebrow at him, clearly amused. “Doesn't really look like yer in the position to be giving orders right now, m'lord.” As though to prove it he reached back out, this time grasping Clarke's cheek.

She moved without thinking. Her head snapped to the side and her teeth sank into the soft flesh between his thumb and forefinger, blood almost immediately pooling into her mouth. The man howled, trying to jerk his hand away from her but she just held on tighter until she'd pierced all the way through his skin and her teeth were touching. With his free hand he yanked a dagger from his belt, turned it upside down, and smashed the blunt end just above her temple. Clarke felt her skin open and blood begin to pour down the side of her face, the force of the blow enough to make her let go of his hand as her vision blurred for a moment before she could blink the room back into focus. He cursed, waving the damaged hand in the air and then glared at her and brought the bloody hand to her throat. All at once he squeezed and she wheezed, trying to draw air in past the pressure he put on her windpipe and being unable to.

“No, get your hands off her!” she could hear her father yelling, along with the sound of the legs of his chair scraping on the floor as he tried to wrench himself free. “F-Fa-” she tried to get out but the hand around her throat squeezed tighter. Jake just struggled more, bruises and welts forming beneath the ropes but he refused to give up. He rocked himself hard enough that the chair finally tipped forward, directly into the man with his hand around his daughter's throat, only to then tip over onto the floor. The movement was enough to distract the man, releasing his hold on her, and Clarke coughed and gasped as tears rolled down her face, her throat and neck burning. Despite the reaction she tried to glare at him, tried not to show him her fear anymore, and he met it with a clenched jaw before a spark lit up in his eyes, a grin slowly forming.

“Dumb bitch,” he growled, “I wasn't gonna make you watch this, but now.” Without looking away from her he shifted his grip on his dagger, turning it over in his hand. The cruel curl of his mouth grew and Clarke began shaking her head as he stepped over to her father strapped to the chair lying on the floor. “No,” she managed to croak out, “no, please, don't...”

“Too late,” he said with a grin and then his dagger plunged forward, burying itself in Jake's chest. He yanked back and then plunged it down a second, third, fourth time. Clarke screamed, the sound lost and terrifying even to her, but she couldn't even really hear it as the dagger sank over and over into his chest. Her father let out a loud groan, his eyes going impossibly wide and his body spasmed against the ropes holding him down in an automatic reaction. Blood began to bubble at his lips and his mouth started to move, no words quite coming out. Slowly he looked over, eyes going to Clarke and she met them, watching as their light slowly dimmed. “Clarke...” he got out in a wet murmur and then he was gone, his entire body going still and eyes no longer seeing.

“No!” Clarke cried over and over, tears now streaming down her face. No matter what she did she couldn't tear her eyes away from her father's lifeless face, desperately hoping she'd see even just a flicker of movement but knowing she never would again.

Beneath her screaming, she could hear the two men talking again.

“We have to get going,” the man with the sword stated, having to talk loudly to be heard over her cries. “The drug on all of 'em will wear off soon, probably sooner if she keeps screaming.”

“I say we bring her with us, teach her to know when to shut up,” the other man growled, wiping his bloody dagger against his pant leg. He held the hand she'd bitten up by his head, probably trying to slow the bleeding but by now only the tops of his fingers weren't fully stained with a mixture of his own blood and the dead lord's. Using his dagger he cut a strip away from the dead man's shirt and began wrapping it around his hand in a makeshift bandage.

“No, you know the orders,” the man with the sword replied, eyeing his companion. “No witnesses. If he finds out we let her live we might as well slit our own throats. She has to die, and it all has to look like an accident.”

The first man let out another growl but then smirked, a new thought clearly coming to him. He shifted his weight, looking at the crying girl, and said, “Then we'll let her die in the accident. Might as well let the story be half true.” His friend shrugged in agreement and then drew his sword and stepped over to Lord Jakob's body.

“No, stop!” Clarke cried, catching the movement. Her grief had overpowered her, leaving her barely capable of hearing them speak but she noticed his approach and the movement of his sword. “Leave him alone!”

“Our boss needs proof,” he replied simply and gave her a look. “You might want to close yer eyes.” She tried, desperately wanted to so she wouldn't have to see what happened next, but no matter how loudly her mind yelled at them her eyes didn't close. Instead she watched as the man brought his sword down in one swift, even slice, and then her father's head was rolling just a couple of inches away from his body. A thin, high-pitched noise filled the room and it took Clarke a second to realize the noise was coming from her, starting in her chest and pealing its way up her throat. The two men just ignored it, one grabbing her father's head and stuffing it in a sack he pulled from his belt before he resheathed his sword. Without another word he headed towards the door, opening it and waiting for his friend to join him. The man with the scar and bloody hand turned to her before he followed, smirking as he told her, “Goodnight, m'lady. I hear it's gonna be a warm one.” With that he followed his friend and the two slipped out of the room, pulling the door mostly shut behind them.

Clarke struggled against the ropes still binding her in place, her skin quickly chaffing, light trickles of blood running down her wrists where the coarse rope rubbed hard enough to break the skin. She yanked and twisted and struggled until her nightgown was sweat-soaked and sticking to her and her chest rose and fell rapidly, barely able to catch her breath. She fought until she was exhausted and then all at once she just stopped, all the fight leaving her. As soon as it was gone she was sobbing, tears streaming down her cheeks and her chest heaving as she tried not to look at the body of her father and failed. For some sick reason she couldn't make herself look away, her eyes practically stuck on the large dark spot forming along his chest and pooling even more thickly around the stump of his neck. Seeing it a wave of nausea washed over her and she only just managed to turn her head to the side in time as her dinner suddenly came back up in a half-liquid mess. She heaved and heaved until all that was coming out was stomach bile, the acid burning up her throat and coating her mouth and nose. Every time she tried to take in a lungful of air to stop it her body rebelled against it, yet more bile coming up. The acrid stench of stomach acid filled her nose and it only made her vomit more.

She was so focused on the vomit and the sharp ache of her muscles as her stomach clenched with another heave that it took her a second to notice the other smell quickly getting thicker around her. Finally she managed to get control of herself though, just long enough to take in a breath, and then she was frowning. Thick smoke now hung in the air, mixing into the putrid scent of her sick and the blood from her father's corpse, and she strained in her chair, her back twisting painfully to look at the hearth behind her. The flames there continued to dance, licking away at the few logs beneath them, and she frowned knowing that fire wasn't nearly big enough to be giving off this much smoke. She looked around, realizing the smoke was now thick enough to see, hovering in the air just above her head, and a fresh wave of panic settled firmly inside her chest as she turned towards the door. Clouds of thick gray smoke wafted through the crack of the door the men had left open behind them, and suddenly she knew exactly what had happened. Once again she began struggling against the ropes, the sheer panic of imminent death giving her a fresh wave of energy.

It was no use; the men, whoever they were, had tied her too tightly to the chair, not leaving any room for her to wiggle herself free. She fought and fought and fought and then again the fight drained out of her and she sank back against the carved wood, knowing it was no use. She had no way of getting away and the inn was burning beneath her: she was trapped. The smoke in the room made her eyes sting but it was the knowledge that she was as good as dead that caused the few fresh tears to slip down her cheeks.

“Clarke!”

Her head whipped up as the door suddenly burst open. Wells stood in the doorway in his night clothes, naked sword in his hand. Immediately he scanned the room, finding her upright in the chair and the body of her dead father laying on the floor beside her. Even in the dark room she could see him go ashen at the sight.

“Wells!” she exclaimed, relief suddenly washing over her. He rushed over to her, quickly cutting her loose and the moment she could she dove at him, arms wrapping around his shoulders as she cried against his neck. He dropped his sword to return the hold, his body hard and comforting against her own.

“What happened?” he demanded, pulling back just enough to look at her. One hand went to her head, fingers lightly brushing against the cut that still bled above her temple. She shook her head, unaware of the tears still streaming down her face. “They killed him. They killed him Wells. We, we have to get everyone and get out of here.”

“They're all unconscious,” he informed her, shaking his head. “Everyone. I heard something, you screaming, and woke up. I tried to rouse the others but couldn't. He can't be-” He looked over again at the body beside them, easily seeing the blood and missing head and then tears were running down his cheeks too. “Lord Jake...”

“We don't have time, Wells!” Clarke yelled, the smoke in the room starting to fill her nose and coat her throat. “We have to get out of here! They're burning it down!” She didn't have to say anything else, didn't need to clarify further as he started nodding. He grabbed her arm and tried to pull her towards the door but before he could she yanked herself out of his grip. He looked at her like she was crazy but she ignored it, running over to the bags beside her father's bed, the sheets strewn about from when the two men had pulled him out of it. Kneeling down she pushed the bags aside until she found his sword still firmly held in its scabbard and grabbed it, clutching onto it as though her life depended on it. Standing there with the sword in her hand she spared one final look at her father's body, forced herself to hold in a sob, and then ran back over to Wells. He grabbed her free hand and pulled her out of the room.

Finding their way out of the inn was nearly impossible. The smoke in the hallway was far thicker than it had been in the room, and soon they were both coughing, the billowing black caking itself into their lungs with every breath they tried to take. They had to let go of each other's hands to try to cover their mouths and soon Wells was leading the way, Clarke just behind him. The fire had yet to spread to the second floor but as they made their way down the stairs they could feel its heat growing. Turning out of the stairwell, they found a sight that made a cold shiver run up their backs despite the intense heat around them.

The kitchen and common room were engulfed in flames, the bright red and yellow and orange hard to look at for more than a few seconds. Fire ate away at the tables and chairs and even made its way up the walls, a living and breathing entity. Bodies had passed out at some of the tables, slung over their surfaces and Clarke watched as the flames danced along clothing and skin as easily as it did everything else. Along with the smoke, the scent of burning meat and hair filled the air and for a second Clarke thought she would be sick again.

“We can't... get out that... way,” Wells called between coughs, having to yell to be heard over the intense crackling of the fire around them. He pointed to the other side of the room where the door was, flames and burning beams of wood blocking their path. “This way!” she decided, grabbing his hand once again and tugging him back. Though the far side of the room was in ruins the fire had yet to spread much further so she led the way down another hall. She could practically feel the flames following them as though it were chasing them, and barged into the first room she could find. It was empty, its occupant probably already burning in the common room, and she looked around quickly, trying to squint through the smoke and tears clouding her sight. A small window had been carved out along the far wall and her heart almost burst with relief at finding it. It was up a little high and would be a tight fit, but it would have to do.

Immediately Wells saw the same thing she did and scanned around the room. Finding a small table pushed up beside the bed in the corner he ran over to it, dropping his sword so he could easily grab and move it. Quickly he repositioned it beneath the window and then picked up his sword again, nodding to Clarke. “Go!”

The table was a bit wobbly but held as she stepped up onto it, and he reached out his free hand to help steady her. Luckily for them the innkeeper hadn't been able to afford glass for his windows so all she had to do was pry the wooden shutters open. They required some yanking but finally they snapped back and she wormed her way through, throwing the sword she still held out first. She tumbled out of the window without anything that even resembled grace but couldn't care, barely noticing the dull pain when her side came into contact with the hard ground. She stood and grabbed her sword before moving out of the way, yelling for Wells to follow her. The window was almost too small for him to get through but after a good amount of wiggling and pulling he fell down as well. Still coughing they began running, putting as much distance between them and the burning inn as they possibly could.

An hour later Clarke stared at the smoke she could still see rising up above the trees, every now and then a lick of orange lighting it up. That same smoke still coated her throat and nose and had her coughing every few minutes, but now at least there was a mile between them and it. Wells stood beside her, the two silent as they stared.

“All those people...” she murmured, closing her eyes. The screams had started not long after they'd managed to get out. Apparently those not already dead had awoken from their drug-induced sleep only to find themselves in a hell no one could possibly imagine. Part of her had wanted to go back but the more sensible part knew it wouldn't have made any difference: by then the fire would have spread out so that it would be impossible to get in or out. She and Wells had only just managed to make it.

“I know,” Wells whispered beside her. She opened her eyes and looked over to see his hands clenched into tight fists. “We'll get justice for them, Clarke. We'll go back to Arkadia and get a company of soldiers together. The men you saw couldn't have gotten far. We'll find them, and then they'll pay for what they did to those people. For what they did to... to your father.” She could hear the anguish in his voice as he finished, noticed the fresh tears out of the corner of her eyes, but for the moment at least she couldn't quite feel it. Something else was growing inside her, black and hollow and painful, and it pushed away anything else she could possibly feel right then.

They'd said no witnesses. She and her father were clearly their targets but they had burned an entire inn down to the ground, killing dozens of people inside. Probably very few of those people had even seen them, especially depending on when they'd been drugged, so it hadn't been necessary. They could have killed her and her father and then slipped away and let everyone else live, but whoever had given them orders apparently couldn't take any chances. Even if these two men were found, Clarke knew they were just working for someone else; what would keep them from sending others? Clarke was a witness and now so was Wells, and she doubted whoever had set this all up would stop until they'd been taken care of.

“...I'll lead the company myself. I won't rest until they're dead, Clarke. What they did to him, what they did to you... We'll find them and make them suffer for it.”

“Yes,” she agreed quietly, breaking through his tirade. She could feel him turn to her, feel him watching her, but didn't look over at him. Something in her tone had changed and they both knew it, Wells studying her uncertainly while she resigned herself to the decision that would forever change her life. “We will find them Wells, but not with a company of soldiers.” She turned then, meeting his eyes in the moonlight, and saw him take an unconscious step back. He scanned her face, trying to read her expression in the dark, and then she continued. “We can't go back.”

“To the inn?” he asked and she shook her head. “No, Arkadia. We can't go back to the Hills.”

“Clarke,” he began but she cut him off. “They said no witnesses, Wells. Whoever they were working for was willing to burn an entire building full of people on the off chance any of them might have seen something. Even after drugging them.”

“So we'll find them too,” Wells tried, “All of them, we'll find everyone who had anything to do with this and make them pay for it.”

She nodded but wasn't swayed. He was right, they would all pay for this, but not in the way he was thinking. “If this person was willing to kill that many people just to get to my father, what do you think they'll do when they find out I'm alive?” she continued, trying to make him understand. “That you're alive? We're witnesses, Wells; I saw them, I know what they look like, what they sound like. I know what they did and that they were paid to do it. Do you really think they're going to just let me live?”

“They won't get to you, Clarke,” he growled, his grip on his sword tightening, “I won't let them.”

“They'll try though Wells, that's the point, and they won't care who else gets hurt along the way,” she insisted. “What if your father got hurt, or my mother? Do you really think we could make sure Bellamy and Octavia and Raven are safe? What about Madi?”

The idea of anything happening to her little sister solidified her decision, adding a new steel to her voice. She would die before she ever let anything happen to Madi, even if that meant having to die right now. “I won't let it happen, Wells. I won't. I refuse.”

His mouth opened and then closed, an argument likely dying on his lips before he could even put voice to it. He scanned her, reading the determination in her expression and certainty in her tone. Despite how much he hated what she was saying, how much he wanted to just hit her over the head and then carry her back to Arkadia if that's what it took, he understood. He hated it, despised what he was about to agree to, but finally nodded stiffly.

“Okay,” he replied unhappily but Clarke could see the fight leave him, if just for the moment. “We don't go back.”

“No,” she agreed, turning to stare back at the smoke pluming above the trees. “As of right now, Clarke Griffin is dead.”

***

Clarke sat at the end of the bed, staring at the two men before her. Jenson's hair had been cut, not long enough to be pulled back anymore. Wells had stripped them of their weapons as soon as they were both unconscious but she was pretty sure the sword he took from him was the same one he'd had that night. Bennet had shaved his beard and now she could see that his scar ran all the way down his cheek to hook up under his chin. He'd probably gotten it while killing someone else's father; she would get revenge for them today too. Her knife laid beside her on the bed and her fingers itched to grab it but she waited, holding herself back. She could be patient for just a little bit longer.

The two men she'd been hunting for ever since the night her father was murdered now sat in front of her, unconscious and tied tightly to a set of uncomfortable wooden chairs. She thought that was a little poetic and would have patted herself on the back for it if she could feel anything other than the simmering rage that flickered in her heart. A large linen sheet was laid out on the floor beneath their chairs in preparation for what would happen next. Neither Murphy or Emori had asked her why she wanted the extra sheets, had just handed them over. She figured they knew it was better just not to ask. Seedy things took place in Polis all the time, some of it even in their inn; it wasn't anything they weren't used to. Murphy had just mumbled about how she better clean up any mess she made and had gotten back to work. She could have told him she always cleaned up her own messes and that that was exactly what she was doing now but hadn't. Wells stood behind the two men, looking like the perfect soldier with his sword strapped to his side, and she wondered if he was as ready for this as she was. Glancing up to find him glaring into the back of their heads, she suspected he was.

They waited silently, neither taking their eyes off of their captives until Jenson started to move, groaning as his head lifted. His fingers curled on the arm of the chair and Clarke watched them, waiting for the moment when he would realize what had happened. His shoulders shifted, arms trying to lift but the rope held them in place and a moment later his eyes finally opened, looking down at the chair. Clarke silently counted the seconds until he figured it out, knowing he finally had when he swore loudly. He looked up, seeing her watching them, and then glanced at his still unconscious comrade. He swore a second time and then tried to lean over, the chair shifting slightly against the sheet. “Wake up idiot!”

Bennet growled as he woke up, his eyes scrunching up into a glare before they'd even opened. “Fuck, my head. It's fucking pounding.”

“That's what happens when you get hit with the hilt of a weapon,” Clarke said mildly, not moving from the bed. He clearly had forgotten what had happened and hadn't been expecting a woman's voice because the moment she started talking his eyes flew open, head lifting to look straight at her. She met his eyes and watched as he scanned her face, clearly trying to place it. To help she pointed to the scar above her left temple, the thin white line barely visible. “It hurts and makes your head pound, but don't worry, at least you won't be getting a scar from it.”

“You...” he began, still scanning her face and she could see the surprise as he finally recognized her. “Yer supposed to be dead. We fucking killed you!”

“You left me to burn,” she corrected him, her voice cold steel, “after you murdered my father.”

“We saw the inn burn down,” Jenson growled, shaking his head. “There's no way you got out...” She nodded behind them, for the first time since they woke up looking anywhere but at them. They both turned as much as they could in their chairs, realizing they weren't alone. Wells met their look with a cold glare, his jaw set in a hard line. “I got lucky,” she informed them, doing her best to keep her tone light. “My friend doesn't eat well when he travels so your drug didn't knock him out quite like everyone else. He found me and saved me. We've been looking for you two ever since.”

Jenson turned on Bennet, glaring as his fingers curled into tight fists. “Idiot! We should've killed her but you wanted her to burn!”

“How the hell was I supposed to know she'd get away?” Bennet demanded, returning the look with a glare of his own. “It was yer drug that didn't work!” They bickered back and forth for a moment and Clarke let them before she shifted on the bed. The slight movement caught both of their attention and they went quiet, turning their glares back on her.

“You fucked up,” she told them with a shrug, “and now you know it. What I want to know is who paid you.”

Bennet scoffed, a cruel smirk pulling at his mouth. “We're not telling you nothing, bitch.” Behind him Wells's eyes flashed and he stepped forward, one hand darting out to cuff the back of his head harshly. “Watch your mouth,” he growled, eyes narrowing. “You're talking to Lady Clarke Griffin.”

It was Jenson's turn to scoff, an eyebrow rising up. “Looks to me like we're talking to nothing but a common whore.” Wells's hand came down again, this time on him, but the man barely flinched, not so much as glancing away from Clarke.

For her part she didn't show any kind of reaction to their words. She just looked at them mildly, telling them, “Do you think that's going to offend me? I've been called worse by better.” She stood then, her hand trailing to the side and hovering over her knife before lifting it and she almost smiled as their eyes dropped to it, the smirks gone. “I'm actually a very good whore and have had some high-paying customers lately, so I was able to buy out this entire floor and the one above us. So when you start screaming the only people who might hear you are the drunkards downstairs, and they're too busy with their dice to care about anything else. So.” She took a step closer to them. “You're going to tell me who paid you to kill my father, or you're going to start screaming.”

“You don't scare us,” Bennet told her, sneering.

“She will,” Wells muttered from behind them and Clarke glanced over to him. He looked up to meet her eyes and nodded, expression set, and she returned it with her own. Looking back down at the two men between them she let herself think back to the night they'd met, the night they'd changed her life forever and felt a familiar fury grow in her chest. Holding on to the heat of her anger she moved with no warning, smashing the butt of her knife into the knuckle of one Bennet's middle fingers. She could feel the bone crush beneath the blow and then the man was screaming curses.

“Fuck! Fucking bitch! I'm gonna fucking kill you!”

“Who paid you to kill me and my father?” she demanded, grabbing a handful of his hair with her free hand and wrenching his head back. He thrashed beneath her, trying to yank out of her grasp but she just held on tighter, a few strands of hair ripping out of his head. “Tell me who!”

“When I get loose I'm gonna fucking kill you and this time it'll stick!” he threatened, arms yanking against his ropes. “Yer gonna wish you'd died in that fire when I get my hands on you!”

“Idiot,” Clarke growled softly, “you're not getting out of here.” Her grip on his hair tightened more and she wrenched his head back a little further, not looking away from the glare he gave her. “You're going to die tonight, the question is just how long it's going to take. That's entirely up to you.” He spat in her face and she barely flinched. This time she flipped the knife over and tapped its tip lightly to the skin between his thumb and forefinger. She could see a scar in the shape of a crescent, an impression of her own bite and for a split second she could have sworn she tasted blood again. “At least I gave you something to remember me by last time.” He thrashed in his chair but couldn't go anywhere, so when the tip of her knife came down and plunged into the same spot where her teeth had once been all he could do was howl, his head snapping back from the pain. Clarke watched him for a second and then drew the knife back in a sharp jerk before turning to Jenson. “Maybe you're feeling more talkative.”

“Killing us ain't gonna help you,” he told her as he met her cold stare. “Even if we told you something, you'll never be able to get to him.”

“I'm very resourceful,” she just said, stepping over to him. She held a tight grip on the knife but didn't move it towards him, waiting to see if she could get anything out of him without it. “Let me worry about that.” He just met her look with a scowl and she decided to see if she could coax the information out of him. “I know he's a noble. Just tell me which one and this can be over.” Surprise flashed across his face but she didn't give herself credit for the correct guess: it was the only thing that made sense, and confirmation from them didn't matter unless she got an actual name. Unfortunately it didn't look like either of them were quite ready to give that information up yet, Jenson now meeting her look with a clenched jaw and Bennet glaring daggers at her as his hand continued to bleed beside her. Mentally she shrugged; if they wanted to keep going then she would keep going.

She didn't start with the fingers with Jenson. Instead she brought the hilt of her knife down against the center of the back of his hand, multiple bones crushing beneath the force of the blow. When he just hissed from the pain she turned the knife around and pressed the sharp edge to the crook of his elbow.

“Did you know my mother was trained as a healer?” she asked them, looking from Jenson to Bennet and back again. “She was the second daughter in her family but I guess her parents thought it would make her a better candidate for a wife for some nobleman.” She shrugged then, trying to look unaffected as she spoke. “I don't know if that's part of the reason my father married her; I'll probably never know.” She pressed a little harder on the knife, the pressure now just enough to break the skin but not do much else. After a second blood began to seep into the sleeve of his dirty shirt, growing the longer she held the knife there. “What I do know is everything she taught me about healing. The places that will cause a person to bleed out the fastest, and the others that would make it a slow, painful death.” She let out a low, humorless laugh. “I don't think this is why she taught me all that, but it'll certainly be helpful.” When they both continued to remain silent she increased the pressure on her knife, it's blade beginning to slip further into Jenson's arm. The stain on his sleeve grew until enough blood had pooled in the cup of his elbow to spread outwards, vines of the red streaking down his sleeve and staining the fabric.

The man held out for another few seconds, sweat dripping down his forehead, until Clarke could practically feel him give in.

“We don't know his name,” he growled between clenched teeth. His head fell back a bit and he glared up at her, telling her, “We never met him. The noble. We jest met someone who worked for him, a soldier. He's the one that paid us.”

“A knight?” Wells asked, stepping up closer and Jenson shook his head. “No, no knight, jest a soldier, but he musta been close to the guy to be trusted like he was. Any time the other guy had a job for us, this guy gave us the instructions and the money.”

“A name,” Clarke insisted, bearing down on the knife and the man flinched beneath her, gritting his teeth. “Emerson!” he told them, “Jest Emerson! That's all we know! He's the one we talked to!”

Clarke jerked the knife from his arm and stepped back, her fingers clenching and unclenching around the weapon over and over. It wasn't exactly what they'd been hoping for but it was something. She wracked her brain trying to see if she could place the name but came up empty. If she'd ever heard the name Emerson before it hadn't been a memorable encounter. She would remember it now though, and once she found him she'd be that much closer to finding his master.

The thoughts whirled around her head in less than a second, storing the information away to go over further when she had the time. For now she turned back to the two men tied up in front of her, knowing exactly what to do with them. They'd given her the little information they had and she could tell from the way Bennet was glaring at her and Jenson was frowning that they didn't have anymore which meant she was done with them. Looking past them she nodded to Wells who returned the nod before grabbing the back of Jenson's chair and shoving it to the floor, the man toppling over with it.

Glancing over to Bennet who was watching his friend now on the floor with bulging eyes, she told him quietly, “Just so you know, you were always going to have to watch this.” Looking back over at Wells, she stated more clearly, “I want his head.” He nodded swiftly once and then lifted his sword as he positioned himself above the man on the ground. With just one more glance down at the man staring up at him Wells brought his sword down in an easy arc, enough force behind the blow that Jenson's head easily detached from his body without any trouble. Bennet's nose flared but he didn't say anything, just glared at Clarke. For her part she flexed her wrist, the knife moving with it as she moved to place herself in front of the man with a scar on his face and hate in his eyes. She met those eyes with her own hate, feeling it all well up inside her and then she was stabbing him, the knife plunging into his chest once before she tore it out and then a second, a third, a fourth and final time. Each time Bennet grunted loudly, pulling against his ropes but they held him in place. After the fourth stab Clarke stepped back, her knife still buried in the man's chest, and she just watched as blood pooled out of the fresh wounds, staining his shirt until it was almost black. His breath turned raspy and shallow, chest heaving, and it took multiple minutes for it to finally stop. When he did finally stop breathing he was still staring at Clarke, the same hate still in his eyes.

For a few minutes she stared at the two bodies, not entirely sure what she felt. There was relief, certainly, and a sense of satisfaction knowing that the monsters who had killed her father and an inn full of people were dead, but beneath that was aggravation. Aggravation because they were dead but she still didn't feel like she was any closer to the man who pulled all the strings. Now she had a name but it wasn't the name, the name that would bring this all to an end but just one more piece of this puzzle she couldn't seem to solve. It frustrated her, this never ending feeling of not knowing, but she swore to herself she would get to the bottom of it all. No matter how many people stood between her and the master behind everything, eventually she would find him and make him pay for all the suffering he had caused.

“Clarke?” she heard, and had to shake her head to get herself out of her own thoughts. At some point Wells had stepped around the bodies and now stood beside her, one hand lightly on her shoulder. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” she told him, pulling away. “Yeah, I'm fine.” She looked down, noticing that her left hand was covered in blood and there were a few smears on her right hand and shook her head again. “Come on,” she just said, turning around and moving to the where she'd placed the rest of the stack of extra sheets beside the bed, “we have to get this all cleaned up.” He nodded and then got to work with her, the two cutting the ropes holding the bodies to the chairs and then carefully rolling them up in the sheets. It wasn't perfect work but it would have to do for the moment, and then they moved over to the privy, taking out the basin of soapy water they'd had sent to the room before Bennet and Jenson had shown up. Together they scrubbed at the floor and the chairs, doing their best to get rid of any evidence of what had just taken place, and then they cleaned themselves up, Clarke changing into an extra dress she'd brought once her skin was clean.

Together they moved first one body out of the room and then the other, using the Dropship's hidden staircase normally trafficked by servants and whores to get them out without others seeing. Wells had already arranged to have a cart out back behind the inn waiting for them and quickly and quietly they stuffed the bodies among a few bales of hay. Clarke rearranged the bales to hide the sheets and then stepped back as Wells pulled himself up into the driver's seat, a horse already hitched to the cart.

“I'll take them out of town and to the river,” he informed her as he settled himself on the hard bench, glancing around them. They were hiding in plain sight in a little niche in the back alley, but clearly he worried about someone seeing them. “Tomorrow I'll start asking around to see if I can find anything out about this Emerson person. We'll meet again in a couple of days.”

Clarke looked up at him, only seeing his profile in the dim lighting and her heart broke a little. She could so easily remember the days when he talked about nothing but being a knight and then becoming the lord to his own fief, and seeing what she'd turned him into instead struck a chord of guilt in her much more fiercely than the murder she'd just committed could have. It was her fault he was sneaking around dark alleys to dispose of bodies instead of winning his knighthood and for some reason in this moment she just couldn't shake that guilt.

“Wells...” she began but trailed off, not knowing what she wanted to say. He seemed to hear whatever it was in her tone though because he looked at her, brow furrowing before his expression entirely cleared. He smiled then, reaching down and she mirrored the movement until she felt his hand in hers. “We're almost there, Clarke,” he murmured, doing his best to reassure her. His grip on her hand tightened as he continued, “We got Jenson and Bennet, we'll find this Emerson guy, and then we'll have their master. We can do it. You can do it.”

Slowly she nodded, the words lifting her guilt, if only slightly. They would finish what they started and then he could go home, return to the life he deserved: she would make sure of it. She felt herself returning his smile and then his grip before nodding. “We can.” He gave her one last smile before releasing her hand and then turned his attention to the horse and the next moment he and the bodies in the back of the wagon were leaving her behind, heading down the alley and then turning into a busy street.

Clarke didn't stay there long wondering if he would make it to the river without anyone noticing his cargo; she doubted anyone would care enough about the hay to stop him and see what else was in the wagon. She didn't bother going back into the Dropship, knowing Emori and Murphy wouldn't be expecting her, and instead slipped out of the alley to begin making her way home. Her knife was once again tucked away into the hidden pocket of her dress and she kept one eye out for any trouble, but most of her attention was on what they had just done and what she'd learned. She felt like she was dehydrated and someone had only given her a tiny sip of water before pulling the rest away and moving it just out of her reach. Finally she'd gotten a taste of the revenge she craved but there was still more waiting for her and she began planning ways to try to find this Emerson, to solve the rest of the puzzle.

Whether everyone she passed was too busy to bother her or she looked as dangerous as she felt, no one tried to give her any trouble during her mile walk back to The Rig and soon she was walking into the building that had become her home, the usual noises dim as she continued to focus on nothing but her thoughts.

“Clarke,” she heard Luna say as she went to pass her mistress's desk, and she had to force herself to focus on where she was. Lifting an eyebrow at the other woman she turned to her, only to find her mistress already nodding to the wall across from her. “You have a visitor.” She frowned, knowing Luna was fully aware she had no plans to work that night, and turned to see who it was. For a second she was sure her brain must have short-circuited or that she was hallucinating, and she had to blink a few times to make sure she wasn't in fact seeing things. No matter how many times she blinked though the figure never changed, never shifted, and her eyes widened as her mouth dropped open.

The queen stood by the wall, looking entirely out of place in the whorehouse, and for a moment Clarke thought maybe what she'd just done had finally driven her mad.

Chapter Text

The sound of wrinkling parchment filled the room as Lexa, Anya and Titus went through scrolls and letters, various types of messages that had made their way to the palace over the past few days. Normally Aden would be with them, both Lexa and Titus knowing the heir should be just as used to combing through information as the queen, but earlier that evening he'd had to have dinner with their aunt alone so Lexa had given him the rest of the night to his self. She figured that was the least she could do for him.

“Lord Nyko writes that he'll be arriving within three days,” Titus stated, dropping one letter on the table in front of him only to pick up another.

“Make sure the kitchen has the stew he loves prepared,” Lexa replied, not looking up from her own scroll. She'd been staring at it for a few minutes now and still had no idea what it said, her mind wandering. “He'll appreciate it after his long journey.” The Lord of the Blue Cliffs lived further west than just about any other family, and she knew the road he would have followed to get from his home to the capitol was not the easiest. Titus nodded as he picked up a quill, dipped it in the ink bottle on the table beside him, and added it to a list he'd been making as the evening wore on.

“Looks like the Sydneys will be here by the end of the week too,” Anya told them from the other end of the table, leaning back in her chair with her feet up on another. She looked like the picture of laid back comfort, more like a lazy steward in this moment than anything else. Anyone else might assume the position would make her less of a threat than usual, but Lexa knew better. At the slightest hint of trouble she knew Anya would be on her feet with her sword in one hand and dagger in the other, once again the lethal knight she was. The queen always liked seeing her relaxed like this though, fully aware of just how much she deserved the few moments of calm.

“With Nyko and Diana here we'll have a representative from each of the thirteen houses,” Lexa remarked lightly, eyebrows raising a little in interest. Titus sat back in his chair, brow pulling down as he said, “Not the heads of all the houses though. Does the letter say anything about when the Griffins will get here?”

Anya shook her head, tossing the letter she'd been reading off of to the table. “No, it's from Diana, not Abigail. Maybe Diana will know when her lady will be joining us.” Titus shook his head, clearly not impressed. “The heads of the houses should all have arrived by now. Nyko had many more miles to go and even he's going to be here before the Griffins.”

“They'll be here. Lady Griffin doesn't like to travel,” Lexa murmured, eyes closing for a second while her fingers moved to rub along her forehead. To her right Anya scoffed, raising an eyebrow.

“Well can you blame her?” she asked, looking down at Diana's letter. “Seven years ago her husband and oldest daughter went on a little trip and ended up burning in an inn. I wouldn't want to travel after that either.” Titus seemed to give in a little at that, picking the scroll he'd been reading back up and said offhandedly, “We're just lucky the younger daughter wasn't with them also. Arkadia would have broken apart in their own civil war without a true Griffin still leading them. Abigail has done well but the lesser families likely would have rebelled if they'd just been left with a woman who'd married into the family.”

Anya mumbled an agreement across the table, her attention already on something new, but Lexa couldn't help but frown thinking about the young Lady Griffin. Madelaine had only been six when her father and sister died; she wondered if she could even really remember them. At least Lexa had been ten when her mother passed and hadn't lost her father until a full year later so she had memories of them both. Aden didn't but every now and then as he'd been growing up she'd told him about them, trying her best to describe the parents he'd never known. Did Abigail tell her daughter about her father and sister, or were the memories too painful? How scared had the little girl been when she realized the fate of her house and their people now rested on her shoulders? Lexa could still remember the terror she'd felt the first time she had to sit on the throne by herself, feeling dwarfed by the chair and everything around her. Madelaine had been cheated out of a childhood much sooner than she had been and her mother had lost her husband and child; though she could never show it, Lexa's heart bled for them.

For another few minutes the three sat in relative silence, each muttering some new piece of news to grunts or nods from the others, and the queen sat carefully in her chair. Her back was straight but her shoulders drooped a little, just barely curling in on herself. When she finally put down the scroll she'd been staring at to pick up another she once again rubbed at her forehead, trying to be subtle with the motion. She couldn't overdo this or Anya would never fall for it. Titus might though that was debatable, but anything over the top would have her best friend suspicious in a second. With that in mind she eyed over the new scroll for a minute or two before leaning forward a little, one elbow coming up to rest on the table and head resting against her fingertips. As she'd suspected Anya noticed the shift, an eyebrow cocking up as she gave her a look.

“What's wrong with you?” she demanded and out of the corner of her eye Lexa saw Titus look up, clearly surprised to see her leaning over the table. It certainly wasn't her usual posture so she sat back up, spine once again straightening and elbow dropping back to her side.

“Nothing,” she replied easily, pretending to ignore her friend's look. A noise coming from the back of Anya's throat told them she didn't believe her and Lexa let out a small sigh as though she'd been found out. “I have a headache, that's all. Go back to whatever you're reading.”

“Maybe you should get some rest, Your Majesty,” Titus suggested, giving her a pointed look. “Now isn't the time to come down with anything, not when most of the houses are finally here.”

“I'm fine,” she insisted, staring at the scroll she held as though she thought it too important to put down when in reality she couldn't begin to guess what it was about since all she'd done was read the first sentence a couple dozen times. Anya shook her head, loudly pushing her chair back and stood up, dropping the parchment she'd been holding to the table.

“Titus is right, you can't afford to get sick now,” she stated, circling the table and plucking the scroll from Lexa's hands. Dropping it along with the others she then grabbed Lexa's chair and pulled it back, all but bullying the queen out of it. “Come on, this will all still be waiting for you tomorrow.” She met her friend's eyes and then let out another sigh, shaking her head even as she stood up. Titus followed them, his chair scraping against the floor as he told them, “I'll put these away for now, Your Majesty. Anya is right, we can finish going over everything tomorrow.”

“Very well,” she agreed reluctantly, making extra sure her thoughts didn't reflect on her face. She could have grinned at how well this was going but knew that certainly would have caused suspicion so just nodded, lips pursed in a straight line. “I am expected to have breakfast with my aunt tomorrow so I'll be by before then.” He nodded as he began to tidy up the papers and then Anya led the way out of the room, Lexa trailing just a step behind her.

“I hope Aden isn't joining you for breakfast,” Anya said as they began down the hall that would lead to the queen's bedchambers. “Nobody should have to sacrifice two perfectly good meals in a row to the Ice Queen.” Lexa's lips twitched at her friend's nickname for her aunt, created years ago as a reflection of her frosty disposition. “No,” she replied, “breakfast will just be me and Nia. Possibly Roan as well. Though knowing her Ontari will be there too.”

Ontari was her aunt's little pet, an adoptive daughter of sorts. She'd been the second daughter of one of the Ice Nation's lesser houses but became Nia's ward almost ten years ago and ever since then Ontari had done everything Nia told her to. Now a fully fledged knight, she was also the duchess's personal guard.

“Sounds like a real family gathering,” Anya muttered, even coming close to rolling her eyes. “I'm sure it will be a lovely meal where you talk about how much you all miss each other when you're apart and how you really should visit more often.” Lexa couldn't quite hold back a single, soft laugh as her eyebrows rose. “I'm sure. It will be just like your own family gatherings.” The other woman let out a noise from the back of her throat, expression barely changing. Even though Anya's parents and younger sister had arrived for the summer, they still barely ever saw each other. Her mother hadn't wanted her oldest daughter to become a knight, had hated the idea in fact, and had practically disowned her when Anya did it anyway. Her father listened to everything his wife said without hesitation and had agreed. Now despite the almost fifteen year age difference between them, the parents were grooming their younger daughter Tris to inherit the family title. Anya could care less and had stated so to Lexa many times, far happier with a sword in her hand than a title and husband stuck at her side. The queen had never told her best friend how much she envied her the freedom she'd managed to find for herself, but she thought maybe Anya knew anyway.

Without much more conversation the two made their way through the hallways and stairwells to the queen's rooms, the two Guards posted outside the doors bowing the moment they saw her. Anya bid her goodnight, telling her to get some rest and Lexa returned the sentiment before slipping into her room and closing the door behind her. Once inside with the door shut firmly behind her she let the smile she'd been very carefully holding back grow as it had wanted to all night. So far her plan was coming along just as she'd hoped it would.

Queen Alexandria was not someone to sit idly back when others told her she couldn't do something. Clarke had told her she couldn't possibly understand what life was like for commoners and then Lincoln and Anya had both clearly agreed with that statement and she was determined to prove them all wrong. Maybe she didn't understand them as well as she'd believed but that could be remedied, just so long as no one else knew what she was doing. Titus would likely have a heart attack if he knew what she planned and Anya would tie her to her throne and refuse to let her loose for days, but once she'd started thinking about this she just couldn't stop. She needed to understand what Clarke had been looking for and not found in her that night almost a week ago, and the only way she could think to do that was to see the world from her perspective.

It was a delicate plan, and one she couldn't rush. She took her time in her room, changing out of the quality breeches and tunic she'd been wearing and into another pair of breeches that were clearly meant more for comfort. On her upper half she changed into a loose black shirt, feeling far more free in it than she had in the tunic. Then she sat on the edge of her bed and waited, letting the minutes slip by as anticipation pooled in her gut. Her nerves hummed and her heart beat steadily if not a bit more quickly than usual, and she counted down the seconds.

When a full half hour had gone by she stood back up and made her way back to the door. Opening it she found the same two Guards there, one turning a little to look at her curiously while the other forced himself to remain facing forward. She rolled her neck casually before she told them, “If your shift change comes before I've returned, tell them I'm in the library.”

The one who'd looked back at her, an older man named Hayes, smiled at her knowingly. “Can't sleep, Your Majesty?” She just met his look, letting her mouth turn up into a half smile as though he'd guessed right and he shook his head. “Don't worry Your Majesty, happens to the best of us. If you're not back by the time the next shift arrives, we'll let 'em know where you are.”

Luckily for her she'd fallen asleep among the books in the palace library enough times that no one would think it suspicious if she wasn't back in an hour or two. She nodded her thanks to them and then calmly made her way down the hall, her hands hooking behind her back in her usual stance.

Out of sight of the Guards, she didn't make her way down the hallway that would lead to the library. Instead she turned in the other direction, heading down to the ground floor of the palace. She had to make sure her pace never changed and that her posture never shifted, passing any number of people on the way. No one stopped to question where she was going or why she was up, just bowed or curtsied and let her be on her way. Even so the closer she got to her destination the harder her heart beat against her chest, both invigorated and anxious by this – honestly probably foolish – plan of hers. On the ground floor there was a small storage room that held sacks of flour and grain and any number of other items needed for cooking for an entire palace of people and she slipped inside it, making sure not a single person saw her. At the back of the room she moved around a few bags of the flour, finding the long dark cloak and sword and dagger she'd managed to hide the day before when no one was around. Quickly she donned the cloak and attached both sword and dagger to her belt, pulling the hood up over her head to hide her face. She listened at the doorway for any sound of movement in the hall and then peaked around the door frame and only once she knew the coast was clear did she leave, holding the cloak tightly around her.

For her safety and the safety of the other residents that lived in her palace, its main entrance was always heavily guarded. The vast majority of people who moved about the great structure entered through the main entrance and were subjected to Palace Guard scrutiny before they were allowed to enter. Lexa knew even late at night she would have no chance of getting through the gate without being recognized and stopped, so she never planned to leave that way. There was one other way to easily get in and out of the palace, and that was through the kitchen. Shipments came in so often and were so large that having to accept them through the front gate made no sense, so instead they were driven around to the back and accepted there. This entrance was seldom guarded, especially at night when no shipments were expected, so it was this door Lexa planned to go through.

The kitchen was only a few short steps further down the hall, but by the time Lexa got to it her heart was pounding in her ears. If she got caught she could of course always say she'd gotten hungry but nobody would believe it. In a palace full of servants, the queen would never have to make the trip to the kitchen herself, and the sword and cloak made it clear she intended to leave. Her friends would call her crazy and the nobles would stare and whisper behind her back when they heard what she'd tried to do, but she couldn't make herself turn around. She had to try to find out what had made Clarke look at her in that way, and this was how she was going to do it. Taking a deep breath, she slipped into the kitchen.

After playing her great escape out over and over in her head, the reality was a little disappointing. This late at night there were only a few people in the kitchen still cleaning up after dinner or preparing for the next day's meals, and apparently none of them could spare much of a glance to the woman walking through the room in a cloak. Lexa had never really spent any time in the kitchen, only even been in it a handful of times, so the one or two workers who did bother to look up as she passed by didn't immediately recognize her as she'd feared they would. Without any problems she made it to the back of the room and slipped out the door using the set of master keys hanging from her belt. She'd never needed a key to this particular door before but the moment it swung open she felt a rush not quite like any she'd experienced before, knowing she'd just found her new favorite door. She closed and locked it behind her and turned around, and just like that she was alone outside the palace for the first time in her life.

Leaving the palace and making her way into the city was nearly as stressful as getting out had been. One hand remained on her hood, making sure it stayed over her face until her home was far behind her. Every person she passed she tried to shift away from, afraid they would somehow recognize her but no one did. Soon the palace was well behind her and she was making her way into the city, and only then did she let her hand drop down to her side.

The noises of the city were the same as every other time she'd traveled through it, if not a little louder. Everything else though was different. To her utter shock, people bumped into her as she walked down the street. They didn't keep their distance, didn't move out of her way the moment they saw her, but just kept going, many not caring if they bumped her and even glaring or shouting at her to watch where she was going. Nobody looked at her with reverence or fear, many barely looked at her at all, and it occurred to her she wasn't used to being ignored. She couldn't decide if she liked it or not.

As she kept walking, not everyone she passed ignored her. She could see some people eyeing her, most moving on as she went by them, but as she made her way down a busy street two men caught her eye, theirs already on her. Their eyes raked over her and she frowned, not caring for it at all. Still she tried to ignore it, tried to put it out of her mind until they fell into step behind her, clearly following her. Beneath her cloak one hand went to her sword, gripping it lightly, and when she saw one of the men reaching towards her out of the corner of her eye she drew it in a single fluid motion, its tip easily settling only inches away from the man's throat. He and his friend immediately went still, their eyes wide.

“Whatever you were thinking, don't,” she warned, hard eyes watching them. The man with her sword at his throat shook his head emphatically, saying quickly, “We wasn't thinkin' nothin' m'lady, honest. We was jest curious what a lady like yerself was doing down here is all, thought maybe we might be able to help yas.” His friend nodded in agreement, eyes still wide as they glanced between the sword and her hard expression.

Clearly they thought her a noble of some kind; that was good enough for Lexa. She glanced around her, suddenly aware she had no idea where she was actually going. Clarke had told her once the name of the house she worked for and she wracked her brain for a moment trying to remember it. When she did she looked back at the two of them, telling them, “You can help me, actually. I'm looking for someone but don't really know where I'm going. Can you point me towards The Rig?”

Apparently the house Clarke worked out of was well known. Instantly their expressions changed, smirks pulling at their mouths. “Who ya lookin' fer at The Rig?” the second man wanted to know and Lexa turned her hard stare on him before shifting her sword to point at him as well and his smirk wiped away. “That's my business,” she informed them, the lines of her mouth hard. “Do you know how I can get there or not?”

They gave her directions and then bolted and she let them, only re-sheathing her sword once they'd fled. For her own peace of mind she made sure her hood was once again securely in place and then turned to try to follow the directions they'd given her. She made two wrong turns and almost walked right by the correct street, but finally she found herself standing in front of a four-story building with a large wooden sign hanging off the front of it, The Rig carved in big blocky letters. She swallowed once, her throat suddenly dry with the swarm of nerves that flooded through her, and then stepped forward, walking through the already open door.

Even just inside the doorway, the noises Lexa heard upon entering the building nearly had her cheeks turning red. She couldn't yet see anything but she could certainly hear it, moans and the slapping of skin against skin echoing into the front room. Two men stood leaning back against one wall, one with his arms crossed over his front and the other staring lecherously at a scantily dressed woman leaning against the desk at the opposite side of the room. A third man stood just off the side of the desk but while it was clear the first two were waiting to be seen into the house, it was equally clear that this man wasn't. Lexa saw the handle of what she assumed would be an impressive looking sword sticking up over his left shoulder, and his stance made her think of any number of fighters she knew.

“Can I help you?” a voice asked, and Lexa looked away from the man to a woman sitting behind the desk. Her long messy hair was dark at its roots but flashed shades of auburn as it continued, and she stared at Lexa with dark eyes that seemed to look right through her.

“I'm... looking for someone,” she replied hesitantly, stepping towards the desk. The woman behind it eyed her over before telling her, “We have a lot of someones here. Who are you looking for?”

“If you wanted to look for me, I'd be fine with it,” the woman leaning against the desk informed her, an impressed grin tugging at her lips. She looked Lexa up and down, her light brown eyes trailing from her face still partially hidden by her hood to her shoulders and everything below. Her dirty blonde hair was pulled back into a single thick braid that hung over one shoulder, its end hanging tantalizingly between the swell of her breasts that peaked out from the cut of her tan robe. Lexa was careful not to stare at the bit of bare flesh, fully aware she would have to be careful with where she looked in this place if she didn't want to get caught staring at something entirely inappropriate. Though from the tilt of the woman's smirk, she guessed she wore her robe like that very purposefully.

“Thank you, but unfortunately I'm looking for someone else,” she told her politely. She debated for a second and then reached up and pushed her hood back. It wasn't likely she'd see anyone she recognized here, and if she did she doubted they would necessarily recognize her. “The woman I'm looking for is named Clarke Blake.”

To her surprise, the woman's grin just grew. “Ahh, so you're one of Clarke's nobles,” she guessed, now fully focused on the queen's face. She looked at it for a second and then let out a wistful sigh. “If you're all so attractive, I really need to convince her to start sharing better.”

“Harper, take Master Koner upstairs to room six please,” the woman behind the desk said suddenly, not taking her eyes off of Lexa. The blonde sighed wistfully and then gave Lexa a wink before pushing off the desk and walking by her. “So Master Koner, are you ready for a fun night?” she asked and the man who had just been trying to peer further into the house grinned before following her down the hall towards the stairs.

The woman behind the desk – it had to be Clarke's mistress, the woman who ran The Rig – didn't look away from Lexa even as the two disappeared. “Clarke isn't working tonight,” she informed her, her tone even. “You'll have to come back tomorrow to see her.”

“I'm not here for...” Lexa began, knowing what she must be thinking. She cleared her throat after she trailed off, not really sure how to think with the sounds still coming from the rest of the house. “I was just hoping to talk with her, not anything else.”

One of the woman's eyebrows quirked, the most surprise Lexa guessed she ever showed. “That may be the case, but I still can't help you. Clarke isn't here at the moment.”

The queen frowned, her gut sinking. This had not been part of the plan. “Do you know when she'll be back? I don't mind waiting.” The mistress of The Rig studied her for a second before telling her, “I don't know when, but I don't care if you wait. Stand over there.” She nodded back towards the wall where the remaining man still stood and Lexa returned the nod before doing as she'd been told.

Waiting turned out to be more difficult than she'd thought it would be. People kept walking in and out of the building, many of them as scantily clad as the woman earlier – Harper, The Rig's mistress had called her – had been. Women and men in nothing more than thin robes walked by her, the vast majority looking at her curiously from the corner of their eyes if not out-right staring, and she had to do her best not to stare back. She ended up with her head tilted back so she had to look up at the ceiling, but that wasn't much better: creaking and moaning wafted down between the floorboards to mix with the similar sounds coming from the rooms on this first floor, and Lexa didn't like the way her mouth remained dry no matter how many times she tried to swallow. She was used to mayhem, something going wrong on a daily basis in the palace, but this was a kind of busyness she'd never thought she would experience and it was nerve-wracking to say the least. To try to distract herself from the sights and sounds around her she went through lists in her head, starting with what nobles had already arrived to Polis and who had yet to get there, and then moving on to the different kinds of feasts she would have prepared for each of her gatherings. Then of course there were the meetings with each individual head of house she would need to schedule so that they could each feel as though she'd given them a fair share of her time. All in all she had plenty of things to think about and keep her occupied, even if every now and then an especially loud groan or slap of skin from down the hall would break through those thoughts to try to make her blush.

No matter how deep into her lists her mind went, any time a person walked through the front door she looked to them, always hoping it would be Clarke. For what felt like a long time none of them were, instead all men and a few women who clearly had decided they required a certain kind of entertainment before they could go about their night. Many of them eyed Lexa against the wall, scanning her over but she ignored them and soon they'd been seen into the house, young half-naked men and women leading them away. Finally another figure entered and she felt her lips turn up, recognizing the head of burgundy hair anywhere.

Clarke seemed to be distracted by something as she stepped through the doorway, not seeing Lexa right away, but Lexa certainly saw her and if her throat had been dry before it was nothing compared to now. The younger woman's hair hung easily over her shoulders, looking messier than the queen had ever seen it but she thought the waves and slight curls suited her. She wore a simple cream colored dress, definitely of lower quality than any of the ones she'd worn to the palace but even it seemed to hug every one of her curves perfectly, the hem of the dress sweeping out around her feet as she walked. As always the neckline was cut dangerously low and Lexa wondered if she even owned anything that covered much of her chest, ignoring the tiny voice at the back of her mind that hoped she didn't. Tonight she wasn't wearing the pendant the brunette usually saw her with, and she wondered if that piece of jewelry was only worn to impress her higher ranked companions. From what Lexa had seen of it, it certainly seemed to be good quality silver and the blue stone in it had looked expensive, not an ordinary trinket just anyone would have.

As Clarke walked into The Rig Lexa didn't know what to say to get her attention. She didn't want to startle her but it was clear that she was going to walk right by without even noticing her. The house's mistress seemed to notice the same thing and spoke up before the queen could find her voice.

“Clarke,” she said, getting the redhead's attention. When she looked over at her she nodded towards the far wall where Lexa was still standing. “You have a visitor.” The queen watched Clarke turn, already frowning before she even noticed her, and then when the younger woman saw her she started blinking, as though she were trying to clear her vision. Finally she must have realized she wasn't seeing things because her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as Lexa stepped away from the wall.

***

The queen was in The Rig.

Clarke couldn't entirely believe what she was seeing, but no matter how many times she tried to refocus her vision, sure she couldn't actually be there, there she was. She even started moving, stepping away from the wall, and Clarke could have sworn she saw the flicker of a smug smile briefly tug at the corners of her mouth. Apparently she was impressed with herself for making the other woman speechless, but Clarke's mind just couldn't even begin to process what was happening.

“Y-” she began, finally getting her voice to work and had to immediately cut herself off. “You. What, what are you doing here?” Quickly she glanced around, taking note of everyone around them. Luna sat behind her desk and Derrick stood just behind her, both watching them. Three men hung back by the wall, most likely waiting for a whore to see to them, but they kept sneaking glances at what was going on as well. She didn't recognize anyone else in the room, definitely didn't see any of the people she would have expected to be around the queen outside of the palace, and her mind reeled to catch up. The brunette in front of her just smiled, a hint of satisfaction flashing in her eyes. “I wanted to see you,” she answered simply, not looking away. “I was hoping we could talk.”

“Hn,” one of the men standing by the wall scoffed, looking past the brunette's back and eyeing over Clarke. “Come over here and I'll talk with ya too.” He grabbed the front of his breeches, cupping his cock and raised an eyebrow at her, smirking. The queen's smile disappeared, a hard line taking its place and her stance shifted, one hand moving to her side beneath her cloak. As she moved Clarke's eyes were drawn to it and she saw the imprint of a sword at the woman's hip and knew exactly what the queen was about to do.

Behind her she heard Derrick shift, obviously seeing the same thing she did. She knew the moment the queen drew her sword Derrick's would be out too, and there was far too much chance the other woman would be hurt if that happened. Without thinking she stepped forward, her arms loosely wrapping around the queen's arm and halting her movements. Green eyes widened in surprise and Clarke put on her best flirtatious smile, batting her eyelashes.

“I'm so sorry my lady, how rude of me,” she said, playing up the part of the working whore. “You came all this way to see me and I'm making us just stand here. Luna, I won't be available for the rest of the night, I'm afraid.” She tossed the words over her shoulder, knowing her mistress would see through her act but just needing to get them out of there as quickly as possible. Batting her eyelashes again up at the queen, she lightly pulled against her arm, beginning to lead her further into the building. “My room is this way, my lady. We can talk in there.” The brunette just nodded, her posture stiff but arm loose in Clarke's grip, and the younger woman led her down the hall and to the stairs.

Clarke could barely focus on anything as she led the queen through The Rig and to her bedroom. Her mind was still whirling, too caught up with everything that had just happened at the Dropship to be able to even begin comprehending that the queen had somehow ended up in her whorehouse looking for her. Emotions rampaged through her, too fast and too furiously for her to tamper down. The satisfaction of finally finding and dealing with the men who had killed her father swirled with the annoyance of finding that they had yet one more person to locate before they would be able to identify the man who had started this all, and it was all topped off with the absolute and complete bewilderment at the queen's appearance in this part of her life. This woman was supposed to be in the palace, nowhere else, was certainly not supposed to be walking through Polis alone without any kind of escort, and yet the fact that that's exactly what she was doing had Clarke's heart ramming against her chest. It took every bit of her self control to hold everything inside, desperately needing to shut them away from prying eyes and curious ears before she lost that control.

The second they got to her room Clarke yanked the other woman into it and then all but slammed the door shut behind them, her act completely falling away. “What are you doing here?” she hissed, fighting to keep her voice down. She spun to find the queen standing calmly – or at least appearing calm, Clarke thought maybe she saw a spark of uncertainty light up in those green eyes just for a flash of a second – in the center of her room.

“You said I know nothing about my people,” she answered simply, as though it were an obvious answer. She evenly met the younger woman's glare and far beneath her confusion Clarke couldn't help but be mildly impressed; she knew her anger wasn't the easiest to stand up to. “I'm here for you to teach me.”

“You can't... This isn't safe! If someone recognizes you-” she tried, but again she cut herself off. They wouldn't. Clarke knew better than most that people only say what they expected to see, and nobody expected to see the most powerful woman in the country standing in the middle of a whore's bedroom, let alone out in the filthy streets of the capitol. She changed what she'd been about to say. “What will happen to the Kongeda if something happens to you?” she demanded. “This isn't safe. You shouldn't be here.”

“You told me I couldn't possibly know what it's like to be a commoner,” the other woman stated plainly, her tone entirely calm and it grated on Clarke's already frazzled nerves. “You said it isn't possible.” She lifted her hands just a little, almost like a shrug. “So here I am.”

“I didn't mean you should sneak out of-” Clarke muttered angrily and cut herself off again. The walls in The Rig were thin, and she couldn't risk anyone overhearing something they really shouldn't. Right now the woman in front of her just looked like a noble, a dangerous enough position to be in, but certainly not as bad as it could be. All different types of people made their way through here and if the wrong person found out who she really was they would be in for a lot of trouble. She closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath, trying to get herself under control, and then said with a forced calm, “When I said that, I didn't know you would take my words so literally.”

“I want to know, Clarke,” the queen told her, her voice softening a little. There was a wistfulness to it that tugged at something inside of the younger woman, had some of her nerves smoothing away despite her best efforts to stay angry. “If I can't understand the people who come to me for help, then what good am I? It's my duty to take care of my people and right now it seems I only understand a small fraction of them. How will that do the rest of you any good?”

She couldn't possibly know it, but she'd just used the best argument she could have against her. Her words sounded far too much like her father's belief and Clarke felt something open up inside her, her throat momentarily burning before she could swallow down the wave of emotion. Doing her best to hide it she scanned the queen's face, finding her own expression completely open. At the palace, even when they were talking just the two of them, there had always been a barrier between them, the cool persona of the queen showing to the world while Clarke showed the flirtatious whore. At this moment those two barriers were down and the fire she could see burning in green eyes that easily met hers was entirely real and very powerful. It made her step back, looking away, as her mind continued to race.

“Keep your voice down,” she murmured, her own quiet. “And watch what you say. We have thin walls.” The queen's expression barely changed, her eyebrows raising just a centimeter, eyes not leaving Clarke's. The younger woman thought about it, thought about all the nobles she'd interacted with since becoming a whore and knew that none of them would ever care enough about the common people to try to walk invisibly among them. Even Monroe, as fun and down to earth as she was, would never sneak away in the middle of the night to see what common life was like. Yet here was the queen, the greatest of all of them, standing in her bedroom trying to do just that.

“And how exactly do you plan on understanding us?” she wanted to know and one corner of the queen's mouth turned up into a partial smile. “By following you,” she answered easily. “I want you to show me around Polis. I want to walk through the streets and do all those things you said I've never done.” Clarke flinched at the reminder of what she'd said to this powerful woman, but it didn't seem to upset her. Her smile fell away, a slight frown taking its place before she continued quietly. “You were right about that, Clarke. I don't know my city. I've lived outside it my entire life but tonight is the first night I've ever walked through its streets. That isn't right. If I'm going to be the best-” she glanced over at the wall, remembering her warning, “-person I can be, I need to do this. And I need your help. Please.”

This is such a terrible idea, Clarke thought, but even as she thought it she could feel herself giving into the green eyes that had yet to look away from her. No wonder she was able to unite all the houses. How can you possibly say no to her? She tried to hold onto her resolve for even just a moment longer but felt it slipping away. Finally she rubbed at her forehead, knowing full well there was no way this could possibly end well, but nevertheless gave in.

“No one's ever going to believe you're a commoner dressed like that,” she just said, eyeing over her cloak and what she could see of the clothes beneath it. That made the other woman frown, looking down at herself before she replied, “These are the worst clothes I have.”

“The worst you have is still a lot better than the best most commoners have,” Clarke retorted, turning around and moving over to her closet. “If you really want to blend in, you'll have to wear something else.” She skimmed through her dresses, going right by the robes, and searched for something that would do. Their builds were different, Clarke's body more soft curves and the queen's more hard muscles – she'd tried not to notice it when they danced together and had failed miserably – but she was sure she could find something that would do. After going back and forth between a few options she pulled out a brown dress that was too tight on her, specifically designed to push her breasts up while making her waist appear thinner, deciding it would have to do. She also grabbed a pair of hose to go under them and then took a quick look at the other woman's feet: her boots, though great quality, were at least sensible and would work well enough with the dress.

Once she'd gathered all the clothing up she turned back around, holding it out to the queen. The older woman eyed it for a second and it was Clarke's turn to lift an eyebrow. “If you want my help, you're going to have to listen to me,” she told her. “And if you want to be invisible, then you're going to have to dress like everyone else.” Hesitantly the queen nodded and reached out to accept the clothes, but just before she could Clarke pulled them out of her reach. “Are you sure about this?” she needed to know, worry still gnawing at her gut. “Walking around Polis alone isn't nearly as safe as riding around with your guards. This is dangerous, too dangerous to even-”

“I'm sure,” the queen assured her, cutting her off. “I need to do this.” She scanned the older woman's face for just a second and then let out a sigh, shaking her head. This time when the queen reached out for the clothing she didn't pull away, and then the other woman turned to place them lightly on the bed. Clarke watched as she removed her cloak, folding it neatly before laying it on the bed as well, and then unbuckled her belt and carefully set it and her sword and dagger down. She was still watching as the queen's hands went to the hem of her shirt, but then those green eyes glanced over at her and she almost blushed, realizing she'd been watching her undress without thinking about it, too caught up in her own head. “I'll give you some privacy,” she said, turning around to face her closet again. While she was completely used to stripping in front of strangers now, it was entirely likely the queen wasn't. “Let me know if you need any help tying the back up.”

For a few minutes she just stared into her closet, wondering how her night had turned out like this, and listened to the quiet noises behind her as the older woman stripped and dressed herself in Clarke's clothes. “I've finished,” she finally stated and the dark-haired woman turned around to find her standing a little awkwardly. She gestured to the back of the dress. “Could you...?”

“Of course,” Clarke agreed a little too quickly and then moved over to where the other woman stood. The dress wasn't a perfect fit but it still looked better than she'd expected, and now it was Clarke's turn to try not to stare at the skin of her exposed chest. Not as much cleavage showed as it would if it were her in the dress, but still the new sight made her throat a little dry and her fingers tingle as she pulled at the ties on the back of the dress. By the time she finished she'd gotten a hold of herself and when she stepped back she could give the queen an approving look. “It will do,” she decided, pointedly avoiding looking at her chest. “You look far more like one of us now, at least.”

“Thank you, Clarke,” the queen told her, giving her a brief smile, “I appreciate this.” When she just tried to nod it off the other woman's hand reached out, lightly curling around her arm. She looked over again to meet her eyes and found a sincerity there she wasn't used to. “All of this. I appreciate all that you're doing for me.”

“It's my pleasure, Your-” she began and then snapped her jaw shut, furious at herself for slipping so soon. She never slipped, could tell a lie or a story with ease and had been able to since she was a child, but one look from the queen had her forgetting how careful she needed to be. A ghost of a smile tugged at the queen's lips despite her slip up or maybe because of it, before she told her, “Lexa. Call me Lexa.”

“I...” Clarke trailed off, not entirely sure what to say to that. To the best of her knowledge, only her closest friends called her that, and Clarke was hardly a close friend. The two had only known each other for a few weeks and only interacted for a few minutes any time they saw each other. This was the longest interaction they'd ever had, and the queen was really only using her to try to understand her people better, something Clarke couldn't really fault her for considering she was technically only using the queen for her parties. Still, if they were going to spend this time together she did need something to call her, and “Your Majesty” wouldn't cut it in the streets of Polis. “Alexandria” would likely be dangerous too, so really the nickname was the best way to go. “Okay,” she agreed with a nod, “Lexa. Where would you like to go first?”

She pretended not to notice how beautiful the name was or how it seemed to fit the other woman so much better than her title.

Lexa smiled, this time a genuine, fully there smile, and then she returned the nod. “Wherever you would like to take me, Clarke. I'm in your hands tonight.” Clarke grinned, liking the sound of that, and then turned to lead the way out of the room. Before she even got to the door she heard the soft thump of something heavy scuffing against cloth and turned around to see the queen had picked up her belt with the scabbard and sword hanging from it and was in the process of settling it around her waist.

“No,” she said, just shaking her head, “the sword stays here.” Green eyes widened in surprise and the queen – Lexa – glanced from her down to her sword. “If you're so worried about danger, then I should be armed,” she stated and Clarke just kept shaking her head.

“No, that's just more likely to draw attention to us.” When she frowned, still looking down at her sword, the redhead let out a slight sigh. “Common women don't have swords,” she told her, turning back around to move over to where Lexa still stood by the end of her bed. “Some common men do, but even that isn't often. Swords are for nobles and fighters, good fighters, and if you walk around with that people will notice.” She reached out and grabbed the dagger from the bed, holding it out for her. “The dagger you can take, that shouldn't draw much attention to us, but the sword stays here.” The queen shifted slightly, now eyeing the dagger while one hand rested on the pommel of her sword before she unbuckled it from her belt. She didn't immediately set it down, instead glanced around the room before asking hesitantly, “Is it... safe to leave it here? It's very valuable.”

Clarke didn't take the remark as an insult, understanding how this woman's first thought might be that someone would steal it while they were gone. Even without seeing the naked sword she could tell it was incredibly good quality. Reaching out she took it from the queen, Lexa's grip tightening on it just a millisecond before releasing it to her, and then took it over to her closet. “No one should come in here while I'm gone, but I can hide it if it will make you feel better.” For a second she considered prying up the loose floorboard and hiding it with her other secrets but realized giving the hiding spot away to the queen could lead to questions she didn't want to answer. Instead she tucked it away in the back behind her dresses and robes, covering it as fully as she could. Stepping away she eyed the space over, happy to find it successfully camouflaged. The other woman still didn't look entirely easy when she turned back to her but she didn't try to argue either, just buckled her dagger to her belt instead. Clarke lifted an eyebrow at her, silently asking if she was ready, and Lexa nodded.

The two left the redhead's bedroom, Clarke once again leading the way through The Rig. This time when they passed people fewer stared at Lexa, those who did now staring for a completely different reason as their eyes fell to her partially exposed chest. Clarke felt a little easier leading the way now that the other woman blended in better but that ball of worry continued to gnaw at her gut and she doubted it would go away any time soon. That worry sparked up just a bit brighter as they made their way by Luna's desk, the mistress's eyes following them as they passed. She didn't say anything but Clarke already began trying to mentally spin a story that would sound believable later when she asked why a noblewoman had gone up to her room and a common woman had come back down.

Once outside the whorehouse Clarke led them down the street, deciding that if the queen really wanted to see Polis then the best thing for them to do would be to just keep walking. It made her uneasy, being out in the open like this, but at least she could make sure the streets they went down were the safer ones in the city. As they walked she scanned around them, more on alert now than she had been in years. For the first few months after her life had changed she had constantly been exhausted from how alert she always was but eventually she'd gotten used to the ways of the cities and villages she and Wells had traveled through. Now once again she felt that same sense of hyper awareness creeping up on her and knew she'd be tired in the morning. It had already been a long evening, and she doubted walking along with the queen would make it feel any shorter.

“How did you get away from... your home?” she asked eventually after they'd been walking for a few minutes. The queen was staring at an elderly man sitting back up against one of the houses they passed, his clothes nothing more than tattered rags and his hair and skin filthy. “Very carefully,” she answered, tearing her eyes away from the man to stare straight ahead, and Clarke saw something flicker across her expression before she could lock it away. “Anya would have knocked me out and then tied me to my bed if she'd found out what I was doing.

Clarke noticed that didn't actually answer her question but decided not to pry any further despite her curiosity. If she didn't want to answer then wheedling her for more information wasn't likely to do anything other than make the brunette distrust her. Instead she tilted her head slightly, looking at the other woman out of the corner of her eye. “You and Anya must be close if she would dare to ever even think about doing something like that to you.”

Lexa let out a quiet laugh, the corners of her mouth tilting up. “Anya has smacked me upside the head many times, though it's grown less common as I've gotten older.” She eyed over a cluster of people around a stand, noticing that as a woman argued with its teller a child behind her used that moment to swipe a small loaf of bread from the edge of the table. The child took off running the moment it was in his hands, heading for two others waiting for him just down the street and then they were all running, disappearing into a side alley. She considered going after them to retrieve the stolen bread, the muscles in her legs bunching to begin chasing after them, but Clarke didn't so much as change her pace, obviously not concerned with getting involved so she let them go. The teller hadn't even noticed the missing bread by the time they were passed him.

“She's allowed to do that?” Clarke asked as her eyebrows rose, more interested in their conversation than the theft that just took place in front of them, and the queen shrugged. “She's been my friend since I was young,” she said simply. “She's never let what I am stop her from telling me whatever it is she wants to say.”

The younger woman doubted that very much, but the queen sounded so sure of it she didn't want to break that fantasy. “Are you two related?” she asked instead, pretty sure they weren't. It would explain why they were close, but if she remembered her history lessons right – which she was quite sure she did – Anya's family the Pines weren't directly related to the royal Woods family. They were a smaller house of the Trikru Forest where the Woods family roots originated, but didn't have any blood relation. Lexa shook her head beside her, proving her right, and then told her, “No, we're not related. She came to the palace after she finished her knight's training and I followed her around when I wasn't in any of my lessons. Soon she was teaching me how to use a sword, and those lessons continued after she became my personal guard.”

“No wonder she wouldn't like knowing you were here,” Clarke stated, eyes suddenly drawn to movement on the queen's other side. A street urchin, no older than eleven or twelve, was following them, his eyes on the woman's dagger. Clearly he could see how valuable it was, and the younger woman knew exactly what he was planning to do. Not saying anything to the brunette she shifted a step closer, one hand subtly falling into her pocket and wrapping around the hilt of her knife. “You would be safer if she were with you though.”

Apparently the words felt like a challenge to the queen because she looked over to her, eyebrows raising. “You've never seen me fight,” she informed her, chin tilting up just a hair, “I am very capable of taking care of myself.”

“Of course,” Clarke easily agreed, knowing better than to argue with a noble's pride, even if this particular noble had shown that she could see past it better than most. It might even be true that she could defend herself, but she clearly wasn't used to the hectic bustle of the city streets and the unsuspecting trouble that often accompanied it. A group of people crossed in front of them and they had to slow down, and the street urchin used the opportunity to slip his hand up towards the queen's belt.

Clarke was faster than the urchin or the queen would have expected. Just as the boy's fingers closed skillfully around the hilt of the small blade her own fingers closed around his wrist, the tip of her knife poised easily over his knuckles.

“I don't think so,” she told him, her voice a tad too sweet as she smiled down at him. “Find someone else's pretty dagger to steal.”

He stared up at her with bulging eyes, taken entirely by surprise. “You's a fast 'un,” he said, too shocked to release his grip on the dagger. “How'd ya do that?”

“Years of practice,” she informed him before tightening her grip just enough to remind him where his hand still was. He flushed and released the weapon and Clarke let him go, the boy stumbling back a bit in his surprise. “You have to be faster than that if you're going to be a good pickpocket.” That made him glare at her, clearly indignant at having his reputation tarnished. “I ain't bad at it, you's just too damned fast, Mist'ress.” Clarke smiled a little more genuinely at him, telling him, “Then you'll have to learn to be faster.” He shrugged and then nodded, glancing once more at the queen's dagger before sighing and taking off, knowing it was better to get out of there before he drew anymore attention to himself. As he left Clarke pocketed her own knife and then moved to step forward now that their path was clear again, but stopped when the other woman didn't follow. Turning back to look at her, she found green eyes almost as wide as the boy's had been.

“Where did you get that?” she nearly demanded, obviously referring to her knife. Clarke patted her hidden pocket, saying, “From where it always is. I've found knives are more handy when the person bothering you isn't aware you have one.” The queen continued to gape at her for a second before she seemed to catch herself, her expression all at once smoothing out. “That was... very impressive,” she said finally, stepping towards her with her hands moving to clasp behind her back and Clarke could have sighed; that was a noble's stance if she ever saw one.

Hoping to break her out of it the younger woman turned and began forward again, glancing over when Lexa followed her. “It was nothing,” she told her, waving her hand a little as though to wipe the compliment away. “He really will have to get faster if he doesn't want the wrong person to catch him.” The laws for stealing varied depending on what it was that had been stolen, but many people took the law into their own hands if they caught the perpetrator themselves. Clarke knew plenty of people who would have taught the boy a lesson by removing a finger or two or even his whole hand if they'd been the one to catch him.

Lexa frowned at that, loosening up a little as she fell back in step beside her, but then she caught sight of Clarke's hand, a smudge of something on her wrist. She would have missed it if she hadn't already been focused on the sudden appearance of the knife, but the second she saw it her brow furrowed, concerned. She reached out and gripped the other woman's hand, stilling it so she could get a closer look, and Clarke was taken aback by the touch, not expecting it. She stopped walking again and frowned and then followed the queen's gaze down to her wrist, eyes widening for half a second when she noticed the little streak of dried blood on her skin. Quickly she yanked her hand from the queen's grip, trying to appear perfectly calm as green eyes flickered back up to meet her own.

“What happened?” she wanted to know, scanning Clarke's face and the redhead shook her head as she rubbed at the spot on her wrist, wiping away the blood. “Nothing,” she answered, mind whirling to come up with a believable lie. “I fell earlier and scraped my knee, I must not have noticed when I was cleaning it up. Nothing to worry about.”

The queen didn't look convinced, her eyes glancing down her body to her legs, thankfully hidden beneath the skirt of her dress. “Are you sure?” she asked, her tone still concerned, “I wouldn't want to make you walk around if you're in pain.”

“It's just a little scrape, Y-... Lexa,” Clarke assured her, catching and correcting herself. She quickly scanned the few people closest to them, glad to see no one seemed to be paying them any attention to have heard her almost slip. Deciding they were safe, she turned back to the queen, adding more calmly, “Really, I'm fine.” Green eyes studied her for another moment, as though trying to weigh the truth of her words, and then she nodded and followed as Clarke began to lead them down the street again.

“You sounded as though you want him to become a better thief,” she stated after a minute, referring back to the pickpocket, and Clarke noticed her looking over from the corner of her eye. She shrugged, thinking her answer over a little before telling her, “It isn't a matter of what I want but more what I know. Bad thieves don't survive long, that's just how it is. That boy probably wouldn't be stealing if he didn't need to, so for him it's a matter of survival. Either he learns how to steal without getting caught or he doesn't and he winds up dead in an alley somewhere, either from somebody's knife to the gut or from starvation.”

“You think stealing is his only option?” the queen asked, a hint of surprise in her tone. “He could find work somewhere and earn his living.”

Clarke nodded, though her eyebrows lifted a little at the same time. “He could be one of the lucky ones that finds work,” she agreed, but she knew her tone made it clear she doubted it would happen. “More likely though nobody will hire him. There are hundreds of people living off the streets and only so many people looking for help. Why should he be hired over the hundreds of others?”

Out of the corner of her eye she could see the queen studying her, a frown pulling her brow down. She knew she sounded cold, sounded like she didn't care, but in reality she cared too much. Clarke had cried herself to sleep too many times with the faces she saw every day flashing through her mind's eye, desperately wishing there was something she could do for them but knowing there wasn't. She tried so hard to close herself off from it all and always failed miserably.

“So he should steal from people who earn what they have?” Lexa asked her. “Isn't that what you were accusing Quint of the other night?”
The words caused Clarke's entire expression to shift, the fury she'd been without for a few wonderful hours now returning to burn in her chest.

“There is a very big difference between a boy living in the streets stealing to try to survive and an arrogant man who already has everything he could possibly need raising taxes just to try to show powerless people who's in charge,” she argued fiercely, eyes flashing. “Quint just wants to feel more important than he is and doesn't care that doing something like that would only throw more people into the streets.”

The queen studied her for a long moment and then shrugged, and to Clarke's surprise she nodded. “You're right,” she agreed, “Quint isn't a good noble. The gods played an awful joke when they made him the heir to his house.” The complete agreement surprised her enough to douse most of her rekindled fury, and the queen must have seen that surprise in her expression. “Did you think I didn't know that? There are a handful of people I know who wouldn't have been born into their titles if the gods didn't have a strange sense of humor. But they were and now all I can do is my best to make sure they don't entirely abuse their power.”

It was now Clarke's turn to study the other woman, trying to read everything about her. It felt like every time she talked to her she learned something new or pealed away another layer of who the queen really was, and she found it both unsettling and interesting. Most of the time she could get a read on people without much effort on her part but the queen seemed to be entirely different from anyone she'd ever met before. She couldn't decide whether that was good or bad.

“It's a delicate balance,” she stated after a second, “trying to guide them into doing what you want and not pushing too far and possibly causing a rift in the Kongeda. I get it.” Lexa gave her a look, one that Clarke could clearly read the message behind, and for a split second wanted to tell her just how much she really did understand. She held the words back though, trapped deep inside herself as they always were.

“I wish you could get it,” the queen replied quietly, now taking another look around them. They'd walked more than a mile though Clarke had been so caught up in the conversation and sneaking looks at Lexa that she hadn't realized it. The other woman thought about her words again and then shook her head. “Actually, I don't. There is no reason to want to understand the headaches that come with leading unless you truly have to.”

Clarke could have told her she understood that too but didn't, not willing to answer any questions the response might bring about. Instead she watched the other woman looking around her, clearly trying to take everything in before she let out a small sigh. “Unfortunately I should be preparing for more of those headaches now. I'm eating breakfast with my aunt tomorrow and she will not be pleased if I'm too tired to pay attention to her.”

The incredibly brief interaction Clarke had had with the duchess flashed through her mind and she flinched, suddenly feeling sorry for the woman beside her. “My condolences,” she muttered, thinking maybe it was too low to hear but apparently not as Lexa's eyes flashed to hers and her lips curled up into a small grin. “Thank you. I will probably need them.”

The sudden joke caused something to shift between them, the seriousness of their earlier conversation melting away. Clarke turned and gestured down the street, saying, “We can go back to The Rig and you can change back into your terrible clothes before you go.” Lexa's eyes widened just a fraction before she seemed to notice the small smirk tugging at the corner of her mouth and then she was fighting against her own smile. “They really are my worst clothes,” she informed her and Clarke just shook her head. “If I hadn't already seen you in some of your best I wouldn't believe it.” The queen's head tilted up a fraction but even so it couldn't wipe away her smile, and Clarke couldn't help thinking that it didn't matter the quality of this other woman's clothes, that smile would always make Lexa the most beautiful person in any room.

Together they made their way back towards The Rig and as they went the queen's eyes scanned their surroundings, trying to take in this other side of life so she could begin to truly understand it. Clarke's eyes remained almost solely on the brunette, trying to ignore the way her heart skipped a beat here and there as minute expressions kept flashing across her face with every new thing she saw. After the past week she'd been about to give up on the belief that anyone shared her father's philosophy of the duty a noble owed to their people, but here she was walking through crowded city streets filled to the brim with the lowest of the classes, with no less than the queen beside her. Maybe there was hope yet for them, and her chest began to fill with it, a new kind of warmth passing through her she hadn't felt in a very long time.

Chapter Text

For the third time in under a minute Lord Sterling Reed of the Great Lakes nervously glanced around the room and it took all of Clarke's will power to pretend not to notice. Ever since they arrived at the palace over an hour ago he'd gone back and forth between being nervous and arrogant and it was really starting to get on her nerves. Around the young nobles who swarmed to her as always he puffed out his chest and made sure to be close to her, wanting them all to know who she was with but whenever any one of the older nobility looked their way he immediately stepped away, practically hiding behind her. All she could do was smile and pretend to find it all charming when in reality she wanted to cuff him over the head and tell him to get over it. She had enough to worry about already, she really couldn't afford to be following along with his mood swings all night too.

Only the day before had a message arrived from the young lesser lord asking for her services and company to this party. Clarke had been sure that no noble would risk hiring her again after her argument with Quint but then there Sterling's request was and she could have kissed the parchment it came on. She could care less about him and didn't really look forward to teaching him how to use his cock later, the young man very much giving off the air of never having had sex before, but he got her into the palace and among the rest of the nobles and that's all she wanted. Now she smiled and batted her eyelashes at him and the others around them while only half paying attention to their conversation, the rest of her focus traveling around the room.

Which one of you is it? she wondered silently, eyes drifting from person to person. She knew it was very likely that one of them was the man who had orchestrated her father's death but even with Bennet and Jenson dead she didn't feel any closer to identifying them than she had a week ago and it made her itch with impatience. Every man whose name she didn't know could be Emerson and every lord could be his master, and the mystery of it all had her feeling jittery.

“...gonna go get some food,” she heard Sterling mumble beside her and she forced herself to tune back into the conversation. He was looking at her, managing to look at her face for a full two seconds before his eyes dipped down to her chest and Clarke held in an exasperated sigh as she just gave him a simple smile. “My lord, I'd be happy to get it for you if you'd like.”

“Is that a good idea?” Atom Marsh, the second son of the Lord and Lady of the Shallow Valley, asked with a grin. “Last time you went to get someone food you ended up yelling at Quint.” The others with them began grinning as well, many of them trading looks, and Clarke made a show of glancing down and trying to look embarrassed. Sterling's reaction wasn't for show, his cheeks heating up a little before he shook his head. “No Clarke, it's fine, I've got it.” He left before she could say anything else and she just let him go. She had no desire to wait on any of them anyway.

“You do know how to put on a show,” one of the young men said, giving her a look. “Very entertaining.”

“You have no idea,” Philip Hyll, the second son of a lesser lord from the Boudalan Mountains replied, a smug grin creeping along his expression. He had been the first one after Finn to hire her and now he gave her a look while the couple of young women standing around in their group coughed uncomfortably and the men either shared his grin or tried not to look jealous. For her part Clarke met all the different looks thrown at her, not caring in the slightest what any of them thought. All she did was smile politely, not letting her mask slip for even a second.

“That's enough, Hyll,” someone said, and Clarke looked over to her left to see Finn breaking into their group. Clearly he'd heard what had just been said and if his glare was anything to go by, he wasn't happy about it. Those closest to him took a step to the side to make room for him and everyone looked from him to the other man. Philip met his glare and his grin fell away, a challenge sparking up in his eyes. “Do you have a problem, Collins?” he asked with an edge to his tone and Clarke had to force herself to keep watching on politely instead of letting out a loud, obnoxious sigh like she wanted. The last thing she needed was for the two of them to get into some kind of stupid fight over her.

Luckily Finn didn't seem to want to get into a fight anymore than she wanted him to. Instead of responding he completely ignored the other man, turning to her and giving her a small smile. “Mistress Blake, could I talk with you for a moment? Alone?” A few eyebrows shot up around the circle but Clarke just nodded. “Of course my lord.” He stepped forward and held out his arm and she took it, letting him lead the way from the group.

If he'd tried to lead her out of the room entirely she would have stopped him, having dealt with men before who thought they didn't need to pay her for her services to get what they wanted, but he didn't. He led her over to the nearby wall where there was a spot open without anyone directly in earshot and stopped there, turning to look at her. The moment she looked into his face she could see that same lost and lovesick look badly hidden in his eyes but did her best to ignore it, her stomach turning a little. Whatever he wanted to say, she wasn't sure it was anything she wanted to hear.

“I'm sorry I haven't been able to see you for a while,” he began, glancing away and then back again. He spoke quietly, as though he were afraid someone would hear even when there was no one particularly close by. “I've wanted to it just... it hasn't worked out.”

“I've been busy my lord,” she tried, giving him a smile to try to fight off some of the nerves she could see in his expression. “That's not your fault.”

His nose wrinkled at her words, obviously unhappy with thinking about her with others but to her relief he didn't say anything about that. She hated having to remind people that just because they paid for her company it didn't mean she belonged to them – it often got messy. Finn let out a sigh and then ran a hand through his hair, shaking his head.

“No it's my father's,” he informed her, a hint of anger coloring his voice. He glared over where Lord Emerys stood on the opposite side of the room but Clarke didn't take her eyes off him. “He wants the queen to choose one of my brothers for her husband and thinks me purchasing a whore's services will reflect badly on the house.” He said it as though he were quoting something he'd heard, anger flushing his cheeks red and Clarke wondered how many times he'd had this argument with his father before giving in. If she'd wanted to she could have told him she was now on a first name basis with the queen – had even been given permission to use her nickname – which was something none of her would-be suitors could boast. Despite the way she'd seen the first and second sons of the main houses flock around her, as far as Clarke could tell Lexa had no interest in any of them while she'd snuck out of the palace to find her. She didn't of course, would never even consider telling Finn about her strange new relationship with the queen, but for a brief moment she did wonder what Lord Emerys would think about it.

“Lord Emerys is only doing what he thinks is right,” she said instead, giving Finn a soft smile. “A whore may be fun for a night or two but nothing more than that.” To her surprise he frowned, his expression serious before he reached out, taking her hand and holding it up between them. “You're more than just a whore to me,” he murmured, “I think you know that.”

A warning went off in Clarke's head, both at the touch and the look he was giving her. She needed to put some distance between them now before too many people saw them like this and before he could convince himself to do something he really shouldn't. As politely as she could she extracted her hand from his grip, making sure her smile didn't waver.

“I'm sorry my lord but I'm here with Sterling tonight,” she reminded him carefully as she pulled her hand away, “he may be upset if he sees us in such a manner.” She very purposefully avoided what he had said, not wanting to fall into the massive headache that conversation would give her. His eyes flashed and his lips pursed but he nodded even as he continued to stare at her. She hesitated, trying to think of a polite way to get away from him when she was suddenly rescued.

“Mistress Blake,” they heard and Clarke almost let out a relieved sigh as she turned away from the young lord to find a much older lord now just a few steps away. Dante Wallace smiled warmly as he approached them, spreading his arms in front of him in greeting. “Just the person I have been looking for.” As though he was only just seeing the young man with her he continued the greeting on to him. “And Lord Finn. Would you mind if I borrowed Mistress Blake for a moment?”

“Of course he wouldn't,” Clarke answered for him, quickly leaving her spot by the wall to meet the older man. She looked over her shoulder, finding Finn still watching her with that same longing in his eyes and just gave him another simple smile. “It was a pleasure speaking with you, my lord. I'm sure we will talk again very soon.” Internally she made the mental note to keep as much distance between her and Finn as possible so he couldn't try to continue this conversation.

Finn nodded, barely able to force a smile. “I look forward to it, Mistress Blake.”

Dante held out one arm and she took it, following as he steered them away from Finn and back towards the center of the room. As they went he glanced over at her, giving her a small, knowing smile. “I hope you don't mind my interruption. You just looked like you could use some help. Sometimes it's very easy for these young men to forget themselves.” She flashed him a thankful smile, trying not to let too much of her relief show. “Thank you, my lord. Sir Finn is very kind, but it was best for that conversation to end before it could go any further.” He patted her hand lightly, nodding as though he understood.

Before they had made it much further he spoke up again, telling her, “I really did want to talk to you though.” He nodded to someone they passed, ignoring the look he got from having her on his arm. “I was wondering when you might be available to take me to the shop in Polis you were telling me about. The one you said had the best paint supplies? I haven't been able to do anything since coming to the capitol and it's making me a little stir crazy.”

“Whenever you would like, my lord,” she replied smoothly. “I am more than happy to help you.”

“I don't want to interfere with your schedule,” he insisted, stopping them in a bit of free space towards the center of the room. He pulled away just enough that she let her hand drop and turned to smile at her. “I know you have work you need to do.” She scanned his expression for a quick moment, trying to see if he meant anything by that or was making fun of her but found nothing but sincerity.

“I'm free tomorrow afternoon,” she told him, “I have to be working again by evening but if you are free at noon that would give us more than enough time.” He beamed, nodding once. “Wonderful. We'll meet at noon then.”

They spent a few minutes planning where they would meet and talking about art, the lord having a passion for it and Clarke thinking about a passion she'd had once upon a time when her life was simpler, before they were interrupted. Clarke saw the queen approaching them from the corner of her vision and fought to keep her attention on Dante for as long as she could, but when she was only a few steps away she couldn't keep herself from shifting to see the other woman better. For one reason or another her gaze went straight to the queen's eyes and she found an emerald stare already leveled at her. Lexa's eyes and the way the corners of her mouth curled up into a soft smile when their gazes met made her stomach flip and she couldn't even blame it on the wine since she hadn't had any yet. She could ignore the sensation though and did, the only a trace of the reaction making its way into her expression as she automatically mirrored the queen's smile.

“Lord Dante, Mistress Blake,” she said easily as she stopped beside them. “I don't think I've greeted either of you yet tonight. I apologize for taking so long to find you.”

“There's no need to apologize, Your Majesty,” Clarke informed her, dipping into the customary curtsy while Dante bowed beside her. “You are a very busy woman and couldn't possibly greet everyone first thing.”

“Mistress Blake is quite right,” Dante agreed with a generous nod, “I'm sure we're both just honored you were able to make your way to us at all.” Clarke nodded her agreement as she looked over to the queen from beneath her eyelashes, noticing the way she seemed to focus her attention on the lord while placing herself just a hair closer to the younger woman. Lexa asked him a question about some meeting the two had been in earlier that day and Dante answered, and as he did she nodded along but Clarke got the sense she wasn't really listening. Though she hadn't looked over at her since the initial greeting Clarke could tell the queen really had no interest with talking to the lord and had likely only come over because of her. For her part she didn't mind, taking the opportunity to get a good look up close of the other woman. The brunette was always beautiful, no one could doubt that, but tonight she wore a dark gray silk gown that looked as though it had been designed with her in it. Dark blue and green beading had been used to trim the dress, light glinting off of the beads any time she moved, and Clarke could feel herself being drawn to the shimmer of the light. It was different in every way from the dress she'd loaned her the other night, in cut and quality, but Clarke thought they both looked stunning on the older woman. She'd noticed before the queen's proclivity towards braids in her hair and tonight was no different, the brown locks swept out of her face by small braids and then trailing down her back in a tumble of loose curls with other small braids sprinkled throughout it. It was a simple look but on the queen it could have been the most elegant hairstyle ever worn.

Clarke lost herself in secretly studying the brunette, only pretending to politely listen as the queen and Lord Dante's conversation continued. They had to have been talking for at least a couple of minutes when Lexa finally looked over at her again, those green eyes washing over her.

“I'm sorry Clarke, we're being rude,” she stated while looking properly ashamed and internally the redhead applauded her. Clearly the queen could play this game just as well as she could. “We shouldn't be talking about these things right now, I'm sure we're boring you completely.”

“Not at all, Your Majesty,” she replied while giving her another smile, “I actually find this all very interesting.” Dante let out a laugh beside her, patting her arm gently. “My dear, no one but merchants find trading goods to be particularly interesting.” She shrugged before telling him, “My father was a merchant, so perhaps he passed down some of his interest to me.”

“Even so this is a party,” the queen said and then held out her hand between them. Clarke looked up to meet green again, seeing the woman's smile more in her eyes than on her lips as she asked solemnly, “Would you like to dance? I'd like to make up for my rudeness.”

Clarke saw what she was doing, knew she was just trying to get them as alone as they could be in a crowded room. Despite that – or maybe because of it – she accepted her hand as she nodded. “You have nothing to make up for, Your Majesty, but I would be honored to dance with you.” Breaking her focus away from her she looked over to Dante, saying, “Will you excuse us, my lord?”

“Of course,” he agreed without any hesitation, holding up his hands. “Enjoy. And Clarke, I will see you tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow, my lord,” she replied as the queen began to lead her towards the other side of the room where a few couples were already dancing to this week's chosen musicians, “I look forward to it.” He gave her one last smile and then turned away to find others to talk with and Clarke shifted her focus forward, letting the queen lead her.

As they walked, she glanced at the other woman out of the corner of her eye. She and Dante's parting words had made something flash across her easy expression, the smile on her lips a little more forced as they stepped onto the dance floor and turned to each other. She took one of Clarke's hands in her own and the other went to rest lightly at her hip but now she couldn't quite seem to meet the younger woman's eyes and Clarke raised her eyebrows.

“Is something wrong, Your Majesty?” she asked after they'd started moving, stepping right into the dance without any hesitation. The queen's eyes snapped back to her face as though she were surprised she'd been caught and then her expression smoothed back out, that same calm smile taking over again. “No, of course not,” she replied and Clarke just lifted one eyebrow higher, waiting to get it out of her.

Her patience paid off. After a second she looked away again and then immediately back, something obviously on her mind. “You and Dante are meeting tomorrow,” she stated, trying to keep her tone casual but Clarke could hear a hint of something beneath it. It didn't take a genius to know what she must be thinking and the dark-haired woman fought down a smirk, deciding to let herself have a little fun. Since she would have to deal with Sterling for the rest of the night, she figured she deserved it.

“We are,” she told her with just a nod, her tone carefully light. “I have something he wants so he's coming to get it. He's been meaning to for a while but it's only now working out.” She was only just able to make out a barely discernible clench of the other woman's jaw, her eyes flicking away again and Clarke couldn't keep herself from adding, “You might like it too. I'd be happy to show you as well, Your Majesty, whenever you would like.”

That had the queen's eyes widening and zeroing back in on her, her posture suddenly stiff against Clarke's body and feet no longer quite in time with the steps of the dance.

“I...” she began and then trailed off and Clarke could practically see her panicking despite the fact that her expression barely changed. “While I have no doubt what you have to show me would be... I don't think it would be, um, proper, for me to... I can't just...”

As fun as it was to listen to her ramble – something Clarke guessed was a very rare occurrence considering she always seemed so put together – she finally took pity on the brunette.

“Of course Your Majesty, it was a silly suggestion,” she decided, acting as innocent as possible. “I'm sure you're so busy you never have time to enjoy a little art anyway. I don't even know if you've ever painted before.” Lexa frowned, her cheeks now just the lightest shade of pink, and Clarke decided it was a beautiful hue on her. She highly doubted any hue wouldn't look good on the older woman.

“Paint?” the queen asked and Clarke nodded lightly, still playing the part of innocent, as though she hadn't purposely just seen whether or not it was possible to make the older woman blush. “Yes. Personally I prefer charcoal over paints, but Lord Dante says he's always loved the way the different colors come together on the canvas.” Lexa just kept giving her a look, confusion and relief obviously warring behind her eyes and Clarke was starting to lose the fight to hold her grin back.

“You have paints that he's getting from you?” she tried to clarify and Clarke shook her head before stepping away and then back again as the tempo of the music picked up. “No, I'm taking him to a shop that has the best paints in the city. He's been wanting to go since he arrived in Polis but we're only now making it work.”

“Oh,” Lexa stated, blinking once. “Well I'm glad you've been able to find time to meet then.” Clarke nodded and then cocked her head slightly to the side, glancing up at the woman from beneath her eyelashes. “What was it you thought I would show you?” The fading pink in her cheeks flared up again, this time even getting a little deeper and Clarke could no longer hold in her grin, it bleeding out and pulling the corners of her lips up. The queen saw it and must have caught on to what she had been doing because her eyes narrowed and she lifted her chin just a fraction. “You are a very cruel woman, Clarke Blake.”

“You have no idea, Your Majesty,” she replied, this time only half joking. If Lexa knew everything she'd done, what she had done just an hour before she'd shown up at The Rig the other night, her own lips wouldn't be curling up into a small smile right then. The queen didn't pick up on anything but the joke in her tone as she smiled, lifting one hand higher with Clarke's still in it as the redhead twirled neatly in time to the dance. “I've tried painting, but I'm afraid I'm not any good,” she informed her as their bodies came back together, “My teachers gave up on me when I was young.”

“I'm sure you were better at it than you think.” Lexa shook her head at her words, smile growing a little as she said, “No, I really wasn't. I only had a couple of lessons before my father decided I should spend more time at my histories instead. I was good at that.” Clarke let out a light laugh, unable to stop herself. She could easily remember being shuffled from one lesson to another and having to stuff years and years worth of names and dates and battles in her head with the intention of remembering it all, and imaging this woman going through all the same things for some reason made her chest feel a little warmer.

The song ended and they stilled in their movement and Clarke wondered for a second if Lexa would start in on the steps of the next dance as the musicians played the first notes to lead into the next song. She knew she should be getting back to Sterling after being away for so long but she didn't want to, the queen a far more entertaining companion to be around. Rather than fall into step with the new song though the queen glanced over her shoulder and Clarke saw the amusement that had been obvious just a moment ago get tucked away, hidden behind a cool exterior.

“Unfortunately it looks like our dance is over,” the queen told her quietly, one hand dropping down from Clarke's waist but her other hand remained in the redhead's and Clarke felt her squeeze it gently. The pressure made her heart skip a beat but when she glanced back to see what had stolen the brunette's attention a tiny ball of nerves sizzled in her gut. Two people were walking towards them, the bald man with the hawk-like expression she'd had identified to her as Titus, the queen's head adviser, and a woman she hadn't yet seen at the palace. Her blonde hair was pinned up against her head and light eyes scanned over her briefly before turning to the queen. Lexa led the two of them away from the others dancing to meet them and Clarke watched as the woman curtsied to the queen and Titus bowed.

“Your Majesty,” she greeted, and Lexa returned it with a small nod. “Lady Diana,” she returned, “I hope you had a safe and pleasant journey.” She then motioned towards the redhead beside her, finally releasing Clarke's hand and the young woman was too focused on the introduction to notice the way her palm tingled from the contact. “May I introduce you to Mistress Clarke Blake? Clarke, this is Lady Diana Sydney.”

It was Clarke's turn to curtsy, her eyes drifting downward respectfully as she felt the older woman's eyes drift over her. She made sure to keep her expression even, not letting a hint of the fact she already knew the woman show on her face. The last time she'd seen any of the Sydneys she'd been eight and had had holes in her smile from lost baby teeth and had light blonde hair; there was no reason for this woman to recognize her as her late-lord's heir.

“Clarke?” Lady Diana asked, recognizing the name if not the face. The redhead nodded and looked up from her curtsy, finding the other woman studying her with her brow furrowed. “You must be from the Arkadian Hills.”

“Yes, my lady,” she answered as she stood back up. “My family lived in Mirren.” She named a small village a couple of miles outside of the Jaha fief; after visiting Wells so much when they were young, she knew it nearly as well as the villages around her own home. Diana's brow rose in mild interest as she continued to study her. “You must have been named after the young Lady Griffin.”

“I was, my lady,” she agreed, giving a little nod. “My mother hoped the name would bring me luck.”

It was a true story, though not her true story. During the first couple of months after her father died she and Wells had met a number of girls with her name; it was why she hadn't bothered changing more than her surname when she came to Polis.

Diana glanced over at Lexa, the queen just standing and observing the conversation, before looking back at the redhead. “I don't think it would be wise for you to be here when the Griffins get here, Mistress Blake,” she stated, though Clarke had the feeling she was talking more to the queen than she was to her. “Lady Griffin still grieves her daughter's death. Meeting someone with her daughter's name will likely upset her. Especially considering your... profession.”

Out of the corner of her eye Clarke saw Lexa stiffen slightly before shifting, about to say something, but she curtsied before she could and cut her off.

“Of course, my lady,” she agreed, letting the corners of her lips turn down and her expression soften. “I wouldn't want to cause Lady Griffin any pain. It was already my intention not to accept any invitations to the palace once she and her party arrive.” Her voice almost broke as she finished but she caught it just in time. She knew they could hear the hurt in her tone and let them think it was because she would miss the palace and parties; in reality just thinking about her mother and sister's arrival to the city had caused her throat to burn, tears threatening to build in her eyes. She couldn't see them, would have to make sure to keep as much distance between them as possible while they were here, but it broke her heart to think they would be nearby and she would have to spend her time hiding from them. There were still nights she laid in bed sobbing silently into her pillow just thinking about the family she could never see again.

“Very good,” Diana stated with a firm nod, and then she looked back at Lexa, apparently finished with the dark-haired woman. “Your Majesty, if you have a moment I would like to go over your plan for council meetings this summer. It had been my intention to be here sooner but unfortunately a couple of things came up that delayed me, so I would greatly appreciate it if you would catch me up on what I've missed.”

“Of course, Lady Diana,” Lexa agreed, her arms folding neatly behind her back. Before she left she looked back at Clarke, nodding to her solemnly. “Mistress Blake, thank you for another excellent dance. I hope you have a wonderful evening. Please don't hesitate to let me know if you need anything.”

“You honor me with your kindness, Your Majesty,” Clarke returned, dipping into another curtsy. “I don't see how anyone could have anything less than a wonderful evening while at one of your parties.” She saw the corners of the brunette's lips quirk upwards for the flash of a second before smoothing out again, and then she was stepping away with Diana beside her, the two falling into a conversation Clarke was sure would be far less entertaining than their own had been.

She was about to turn to try to find Sterling again and apologize for being away for so long when she realized the queen's adviser hadn't followed them. He stood rooted in place, his dark eyes looking down at her with a hint of disdain, his lips pursed in a hard line.

“I'm sorry my lord, was there something you needed?” she asked, relatively sure she knew what he was going to say. He had the rigid posture of someone very much stuck in the stereotypes of the classes, his own nobility coating him as though he wore it for armor.

“Yes,” he answered, and though she could tell he was trying to keep his voice even she could hear his dislike for her coloring his tone, “instead of waiting for when the Griffins arrive, you can stop accepting these invitations now. You do not belong here, Mistress Blake, and it is time for you to realize that. It is disgraceful enough that so many young noblemen choose to buy your services, it's worse that they think it's alright to bring you here. At the very least you need to stop speaking with Her Majesty.”

Warm anger fizzled under her skin, something she welcomed far more than the tightness that had been in her chest as she spoke of her family. Nevertheless she did a better job of keeping her voice even than he did, simply lifting her eyebrows as she replied lightly, “If a noble wants to invite me, my lord, I see no reason not to accept. And it would be rude and disrespectful of me to ignore the queen. I am fully aware of the differences in our stations, but if you haven't noticed she is the one who has always approached me. I can't ignore a royal request.”

Anger flashed in his eyes and she watched as he somehow stood even straighter, noticing a similarity between how he stood now and how Lexa stood when she was angry. “Her Majesty has more important things to do than waste her time speaking with a commoner,” he stated, “and you need to understand that. Your being here has caused enough upset among the nobility, but the fact that the queen speaks to you so much is something no one has missed. It would be very wise of you to stay away from her.”

She could hear some kind of thinly veiled threat beneath his words and clenched her own jaw, eyes flashing. For a second she had to bite her tongue to keep herself from saying something that could just get her into trouble, and then she bowed her head to him slightly, fighting to remain polite. “I don't mean to argue with you, my lord, but if the queen doesn't have a problem with my being here then I see no reason not to come back, and if she wants to speak with me or dance with me then I won't refuse. She is the queen, after all.”

His nostrils flared in fury, clearly about to say more but neither of them had noticed someone approach them. A hand reached out and settled on his shoulder and he glanced over, fighting to maintain an appearance of indifference.

“Titus, Lord Costa is looking for you,” Anya told him, nodding back in the direction she'd just come. “He wants to go over the export of wheat with you.” He stared back at Clarke for another few seconds and she didn't look away until he finally turned and left them without another word. She watched him as he went, doing everything she could to try not to glare at him as he made his way through the crowd.

“You certainly seem to know how to pick a fight,” a voice said, breaking her attention and she quickly glanced back to the woman still in front of her. Anya was giving her a look, a single eyebrow cocked in either amusement or study, Clarke couldn't quite tell which. “I can't decide whether it makes you brave or stupid that you like to pick them with nobles so much.”

“It is never my intention to argue with the nobility, my lady,” she replied as carefully as she could, residual anger still flowing through her from her confrontation with Titus. She eyed the other woman over momentarily, taking in the fine breeches and silk tunic she wore as well as the sword she held strapped to her waist. One hand rested against its pommel casually and when the redhead looked up she found intelligent brown eyes studying her right back. “Are you also here to warn me to keep my distance from Her Majesty?” she wanted to know, trying to keep her voice light as she began to fall into a curtsy.

“Stop it,” Anya said and Clarke froze, frowning. “We can talk without you doing all of that.” She gestured to the redhead, waving her hand a little in front of her and Clarke stood up again, feeling a little like Lexa with how her shoulders settled back firmly into place. “I don't care who the queen talks to,” she continued, almost looking bored with the conversation. “All I care about is her safety. So long as you're not planning to hurt her, it doesn't matter to me if you're here or not. These idiots can drool all over themselves for you and the queen can dance with you all she wants.”

Her no-nonsense way of looking at it surprised Clarke, successfully wiping away the last traces of her anger from her conversation with Titus. “Well that's... good,” she replied, for a moment at a loss for words. Memories of walking through the streets with the brunette filled her head, of the kinds of people they'd walked by and of what could easily have happened to the queen, and a cold guilt pooled in her stomach. If all this woman cared about was the queen's safety then she'd be less than impressed to find out that only days ago Clarke had been leading her through the streets of the city. Apparently she managed to keep it out of her expression because Anya just nodded, looking away from her now to let her eyes scan over the crowd, appearing bored. “And as far as Titus goes, he's all bark and no bite, so you don't need to worry about him either.”

Clarke watched the other woman looking over the room, and despite her easy posture she could tell it wouldn't take more than a second for her to draw her sword and engage with an enemy if she thought her queen were in danger. For a second her guilt solidified, remembering the worry that had gnawed for so long at her gut with the queen standing in her bed room, and nearly told her about Lexa's escape from the palace, but she managed to keep her mouth shut. The words bubbled up her throat but she held them in, pretending to smooth a wrinkle out of her dress. As worried as she was about the queen putting herself in danger like that she couldn't betray the other woman's trust, and that's exactly what she would be doing if she said anything. Besides, saying something to Anya wouldn't do any good since she wouldn't be able to tell her exactly how the queen had managed to get away and it would only give her more problems to deal with. She was already searching for an unidentified lord and his lackey, she didn't need to take on anything else on top of it.

To keep herself from saying anything, she began to curtsy again and then locked her knees when she noticed Anya give her a look. “I apologize, my lady, but I should be getting back to Lord Sterling. I've been away from him for far too long already.” A sound came from the back of the older woman's throat, her lips curling up in mild amusement. “Sterling, huh?” She looked up, probably to locate the young lesser lord. “No wonder you wanted to get away and dance with Lexa for a little while. Good luck with that.” Her tone told her exactly what she thought of the younger lord even more than her words did, and Clarke had to fight hard to keep herself from smiling. She really couldn't agree more, but couldn't let anyone know that, not while Sterling was the one paying her for the evening. “It was a pleasure speaking with you, Lady Anya,” she just said and Anya let out another little scoff. “If you say so, Mistress Blake.”

With that Clarke pealed herself away from the older woman and scanned the room for a moment before she spotted Sterling in a corner with a number of other younger nobles. Plastering a smile on her face she headed over to him, silently reminding herself she only had to pretend to enjoy his company for another few hours.

***

Beside her Aden fought a yawn and lost, trying to hide it behind a hand and only being so successful. Silently Lexa agreed and had to fight back her own yawn, exhausted after a long evening of trying to please people. Anya grinned on the other side of her brother, bumping his side with her hip.

“Wake up, Squire,” she told him, “you're not done yet for the night.” The prince shot her a little glare and Lexa hid a smile as he muttered, “I don't get how you can still be so awake.”

“I'm fairly sure she's a demon,” Lexa told him quietly, making sure her expression didn't shift as she scanned around the Great Hall. Only handfuls of people remained, the last of the party, and like Aden she was ready for all of them to go. “Demons don't need sleep like the rest of us.” He let out an amused laugh and Anya's grin just grew, flashing Lexa a look that only made her more sure of her demon status.

Slowly the last few people trickled out of the hall, and as soon as they did servants began making their way in to clean everything up. Stacks of dishes were loaded into bins and onto trays, leftover food was carted out of the room and tablecloths were swept away to be washed. Lexa watched it all for a minute, noticing far more now after her escape into the city than she had before, but knew better than to change anything in her routine. Instead she turned and led the way out of the room, her friend and brother falling into place behind her. They didn't make it very far through the halls before Titus found them as well and he quickly took his place beside her.

“I told Lady Diana you would put together a scroll for her to go into greater detail of what has already been discussed with the other nobles regarding trade routes and supplies for each house and village,” she informed him, not looking over to her adviser. “I'd like you to get that to her within the next couple of days. She wants to go over it before Lady Griffin and the other Arkadian nobles arrive.”

“Of course, Your Majesty,” he agreed with a nod, “I can get that for her tomorrow.” Lexa waited, knowing there was something he wanted to say from the way he wouldn't look at her, and soon enough found she was right. He stopped suddenly and they all stopped a step behind him, and when Lexa turned back she met hard dark eyes. She held in a sigh, sure she wasn't going to like whatever this was. “Your Majesty, I want to talk to you about Mistress Blake.”

Lexa turned and started walking forward again, knowing it might be better if she wasn't looking at him while they had this conversation. He followed after her and she heard Aden and Anya follow him, but didn't look back. “What about her did you want to talk about, Titus?”

“She shouldn't be allowed in the palace,” he said, and Lexa could hear in his tone just how much he didn't like even talking about her. “Someone of her position has no place here.”

“'Someone of her position?'” Lexa repeated, doing her best to keep her voice even. She walked with her hands hanging easily at her side and had to purposefully keep them from curling into fists. “What exactly do you mean by that?”

“She's a commoner, Your Majesty,” he stated, and Lexa immediately replied, “Most of the nation is.” She could practically feel the look he was giving her and knew if he was a less composed person he would likely be rolling his eyes. “Yes but these parties are not meant for most of the nation. They are supposed to be opportunities for the nobles to come together in peace to build on the trust you've created with the reformation of the Kongeda now that the war is over. She is disrupting that.”

The queen lifted an eyebrow, still refusing to turn towards him as she turned down a hallway and the three of them followed her. “Clarke is disrupting the reformation of the Kongeda? How, Titus?” From the corner of her eye she saw his jaw clench almost imperceptibly. “She makes many of the nobles uneasy, Your Majesty. They don't think someone in her profession should be allowed to attend your parties and worry about the influence she is having on their children.”

“I like Clarke,” Aden spoke up, and Lexa finally let herself glance back over her shoulder. Her brother walked easily just a step or two behind Titus and didn't even flinch under the glare the adviser shot at him before her could stop himself. “She's funny, and she has an interesting perspective on everything. I never would have suspected a commoner would be so comfortable in the middle of so many nobles but she's never had a problem.”

“Your Highness, do you remember her argument with Lord Quint the other night?” Titus wanted to know, but this time it was Anya who spoke. She gave the older man a look, informing him, “Quint's an ass, Titus, everyone knows that. I was just impressed with how she stood her ground against him. Not even a lot of nobles will do that.”

“The fact still remains she started an argument in the middle of the Great Hall,” Titus informed her before turning his attention back on Lexa. “Your Majesty, she has become a distraction to you,” he insisted, not backing down. “You waste time every week speaking with her when there are more important things you could be doing, more important people you could be talking to. I spoke with Lord Emerys tonight about the possibility of an engagement between you and Myers and if you hadn't been dancing with her you could have-”

“Enough Titus,” Lexa cut in, tired of listening to him. She knew he meant well but every time he began talking about possible suitors it made her stomach roll, and she really wasn't interested in listening to him degrade Clarke anymore than he already had. She wanted to tell him how that commoner was smarter than any of the nobles she'd had to speak to so far this entire summer but she didn't, entirely aware he wouldn't listen. “I can assure you I am not distracted. In fact, I am more focused now on bettering the Kongeda than I have ever been before. I will not tell my people who they can and cannot invite to the palace and if any of them invite Clarke then I will not ignore her when she's here because that makes her my guest. As for Emerys and Myers, I will be the one deciding who my suitor will be, not you.”

“When, Your Majesty?” he wanted to know, something like a demand almost coloring his words. “The summer is nearly half over and you don't seem to have given it any thought. All of the nobles best suited for becoming king are here but you haven't given any of them any indication you care. This nation needs a king, needs an heir and you-”

“I said enough Titus!” Lexa interrupted again, raising her voice. He immediately went quiet as she turned on him, eyes flashing. “Do not lecture me on what my nation needs or my duties to it; I am very much aware of what I need to do, and I will do it, but I will make this decision in my way and in my time.” She met his eyes as they scanned her face, refusing to look away. “Do you understand me?” His eyes flickered back to hers, holding them for a moment, and then all at once his head dropped into a respectful bow. “Yes, Your Majesty. I apologize if I overstepped.” She waited for a second and then nodded, turning to continue her way down the hall. “Good. Now if you'll excuse me, it's late and I have a meeting with Lord Nyko first thing in the morning.”

Titus broke away from their group, probably to go to his own room, and the three continued up a flight of stairs to the next floor. They reached Aden's room first and bade the prince goodnight, Anya reminding him that no matter how tired he was they still had training in the morning, and then kept going until they reached Lexa's room. The queen nodded to the two Guards standing outside it as they bowed, but unlike most nights when she opened the door rather than bid her a good night Anya followed her inside, not bothering to wait for an invitation in. Lexa didn't say anything, just moved over to the center of the room as she closed the door behind them. With the door closed she rolled her shoulders a few times, trying to ease the tension out of them.

“Help me out of this,” she said, plucking at the sleeves of her dress and her best friend moved up behind her, slowly working at the intricate ties at the back that held the fabric up. As Anya worked behind her she glared down at the silk dress, muttering, “I can't wait until the summer's over and I can go back to tunic and breeches instead of all these stupid dresses.”

“I'd think you would be getting used to them,” she heard Anya say lightly behind her as she felt the fabric around her shoulders begin to give way. “You've worn them enough lately.”

“Yeah well what's a queen without a pretty dress?” she asked sarcastically and then let out a chuckle when Anya answered immediately, “More comfortable.” After that they stood in silence for a few minutes while Anya finished untying the back of the dress and then helped the brunette get out of it. Soon Lexa was in her nightgown, the fabric looser and more freeing than any of her many ballgowns, and she could breathe a little easier. Once she was dressed she glanced up and met her best friend's eyes, finding understanding and something almost like pity in the light brown pools.

“You know you're going to have to decide, Lexa,” she murmured quietly, her tone far more gentle than it almost ever was. “I know you don't want to, but you'll have to. You can't put it off forever.”

A pit dropped in her stomach and fire burned up her throat before she could entirely squash it, knowing exactly what she was referring to. “I know,” she replied just as quietly, having to look away from those eyes that knew her better than anyone else. “I'll do my duty, just... not yet.”

She felt a hand on her shoulder and Lexa looked up again, finding Anya standing just in front of her. Her hand squeezed her shoulder for a brief second, clearly trying to tell her she understood and that she was sorry, before falling away again. She turned to let herself out of the room, tossing back behind her in a much more usual tone, “You're welcome to join us for training tomorrow too. I'd be happy to knock your ass to the dirt just like when you were a kid.” Lexa saw her flash her a grin over her shoulder and just like that her chest felt just a little bit lighter. “I'll join you after my meeting with Nyko,” she replied, giving the other woman a nod, “but you're wrong about whose ass will end up in the dirt.”

“Hm,” Anya let out in a small scoff and then she left, pulling the door open and then closing it again as she slipped out of the room, and just like that the queen was left alone with just her thoughts.

Between all the many conversations of the night, Lexa had dozens of things she could have let her mind wander through. She was afraid about where many of those thoughts might take her though, the pit in her stomach from her conversations with Titus and then Anya still fresh, so instead of letting any of them take over she made her way to her desk across the room, pushed up against the far wall. She sat down and opened a drawer, pulling out a quill and inkwell and setting both on the surface of the desk before reaching back into the drawer and taking out a bound book of mostly blank parchment. Quickly she flipped through it until she found what she had been working on every night since her adventure in the streets of her city, and then dabbed her quill into the ink and began writing where she had left off the night before. Polis was what she wanted to think about – what she had been thinking about for days now – and she let the memories of all she'd seen in those couple of hours play through her mind. Her eyes had been opened to a city she didn't fully understand, had never expected, and ever since then her thoughts had been racing about all she could do with this new information, how she could work to make the lives of her people better.

Like every time she thought about that night her mind always circled back to a woman with burgundy hair and mysterious blue eyes, and it was these thoughts she was pretty sure she would never get enough of. As she scribbled down ideas and possibilities on the parchment in front of her, Clarke's face played behind her eyes and Lexa didn't fight against it, letting the distraction push everything else away.

Chapter Text

Just as before, the first thing Lexa noticed as she stepped into The Rig was the noise, loud moans and grunting echoing down the hallway and the rhythmic sound of skin slapping against skin layered beneath them. Somehow she managed to keep her face straight, didn't let the way the sounds made her stomach flip or her mouth dry show. Tonight there was only one man standing against the wall waiting to be seen to, his eyes flicking over to her and glancing her over before looking back towards the hallway. Clarke's mistress – Luna, if she remembered correctly – sat behind her desk as she'd been the last time she'd been here, looking up from the parchment in front of her for only a second to see who had entered before looking back down. The same man stood behind her and Lexa noticed his eyes fall to the sword strapped to her hip, its outline clear beneath her cloak. She kept her hands visible in front of her, not wanting to start any trouble: she was relatively sure she could take him in a fight, but his arms were well-muscled and the space was cramped. If he did draw the weapon she could see strapped to his back, they would have little foot room to move and that would leave her at the disadvantage.

“Clarke is entertaining,” Luna stated before she'd had a chance to say anything, “if you're here to see her you'll have to wait. It shouldn't be long.” The queen said nothing, just nodded to her and then moved across the room to stand by the wall. She was a little surprised there weren't any chairs or benches set up for those waiting but figured the mistress had decided they weren't necessary. From what she'd observed the last time no one ever had to wait very long, few having to stand around for more than fifteen minutes before being led further into the building and it was likely there that their comfort was seen to. For her part it felt like she'd been sitting all day, going from one meeting to another and the stretch in her legs felt like a much needed relief. If she were anyone else she might have leaned against the wall while she stood there but years of lessons in good posture kept her from doing so. Instead she linked her hands together in front of her and closed her eyes, doing her best to drown out the noises as she let her mind wander.

Titus was getting more insistent on choosing someone to be her husband. Even after her warning the other night it seemed to be all he could talk about now when they were alone or with Anya and his reminder how she needed to do her duty to herself and her people echoed over and over again in her mind. He wanted her to choose Nyko, the only unmarried head of house, or Ryder or Penn. He had argued for Cage a couple of times too, reminding her that Mount Weather was the wealthiest house, owning more gold than even her family had. Over the past couple of days she'd tried to envision herself married to any of them but any time she'd thought of any of them touching her her stomach had rolled and she'd had to swallow down the bile that tried to rise up her throat. Now every time Titus tried to bring it up she promptly changed the subject as best she could. She knew her adviser could see through her but luckily he was too proper to try to argue with her.

It was easy enough not to think about her impending suitor decision; ever since her first journey into Polis, she'd been able to think about little other than the city. She'd only been able to wander around for a short time but the things she had seen had certainly opened her eyes. Most of it she'd seen before, the rags and dirt, children running through crowds and men and women screaming after them, but from atop her horse and surrounded by soldiers it all looked so different. Clarke was right, she'd needed to walk through the streets to truly see them, and images of what she'd seen had flashed across her mind constantly ever since. Big men yelling at each other and anyone who got in their way, just pushing those smaller than them aside as they walked as though they owned the whole street; women carrying buckets and sacks filled with food or wares, others tossing soil from their chamberpots out the window and anyone below having to dodge out of the way of its vile contents; filthy children running around, weaving their way through crowds, many of them sticking their hands in pockets and purses as they went and pulling out whatever they found before disappearing; people of all ages and genders dressed in rags that barely covered them, now more bones than skin as they sat back away from the crowd, too hungry to have the energy even to beg for coin or food.

The queen couldn't quite believe how different it all was from what she'd been expecting, and every time she'd thought about those people with nothing a strange kind of hurt had washed through her, feeling far too much like guilt for her to be comfortable. She'd been up late almost every night since then writing it all down, jotting down ideas of how to help her people, but she knew it just wasn't enough. Despite the horrors she'd needed to come back, to experience more, and so as soon as she'd found the chance she had snuck away again.

The sound of bare feet padding along the wooden floor pulled her attention back to the present and she opened her eyes, looking down the hallway. Clarke and two others were walking towards the small waiting room, the redhead and young woman with her both wearing light robes while the man with them was fully dressed, readjusting his belt as he walked. Lexa barely looked at the man or other girl, her eyes immediately drawn to Clarke and in turn Clarke looked at her, a flash of surprise flickering across her face before the queen saw her let out a silent sigh that grew into a very small smile. It made Lexa somehow feel instantly lighter than she had a moment ago and before she was entirely aware of it she was returning that smile.

“Always worth my money,” the man the two women were walking with said with a grin, lightly tapping his knuckles against the desk as he passed it. “You sure know how to pick 'em, Mistress Flou.” Luna nodded as she looked up at him. “Then I suppose we'll be seeing you again soon, Master Morris.” He grinned at her and then took his exit, strutting out of the building.

“Lania, take Master Grant upstairs to room eight,” Luna said, apparently speaking to the young woman with Clarke. The woman, a true redhead with light auburn hair and soft brown eyes and a smattering of freckles across the ridge of her nose, nodded before turning her focus to the man who had been waiting not far from Lexa. “This way, Master Grant.” He pushed himself off the wall and followed her down the hall.

The moment they were gone Luna's attention returned to the parchments on her desk, seemingly not caring about the two women. Lexa watched as Clarke took a few steps closer, doing everything in her power to not let her gaze drop from the other woman's face. Clarke's robe was a light blue that almost matched her eyes but was extremely thin, to the point where she was fairly sure she'd be able to see through the fabric if she stared hard enough. Not only that but all it had to keep it closed was a sash around its middle, one that Clarke's fingers fiddled with, and it showed a tantalizing amount of her chest.

“My lady, such a surprise!” she exclaimed, beaming radiantly up at Lexa and the queen forgot for a moment how to swallow. She knew Clarke was only putting on a show for the others in the room but she was without a doubt an excellent performer, an observation she had made before but always seemed to forget. “Another visit, and not even a full week after your last one.” She closed the space between them, slipping her arms around one of Lexa's and the brunette wasn't sure she'd ever felt a more comforting weight before. “You're going to spoil me.”

“I just... wanted to see you again,” Lexa replied lamely, glancing back over to Luna for a split second and then back to Clarke. She was not nearly as great a performer as the redhead and knew it would be better for the younger woman to take the lead until they were alone. Clarke's beautiful smile widened and her hold on the queen's arm tightened before she began leading her out of the waiting area and down the hall. “Well then come on, let's go somewhere where you can see more of me.” The implication made Lexa's cheeks heat up but she didn't say anything, just let Clarke lead her through the building just as she'd done before.

The moment they were safely in Clarke's room with the door shut behind her the younger woman's act dropped, and this time when she turned to look at the queen it was with a single raised eyebrow. “Nothing I say is going to convince you to stop doing this, is it?” she asked, crossing her arms over her front and Lexa couldn't help but notice how the movement pushed her bosom together and displayed it even more prominently than usual. She didn't let her eyes drop to it, instead made sure not to look away from the cerulean eyes giving her an exasperated look and shook her head. “No,” she answered, reaching up to start removing her cloak. She didn't need it anymore and it was hot in this building, for some reason even more so in Clarke's bedroom. Carefully she untied its strings and then began neatly folding it up, laying it down on the bed once she was done. “There's still a lot of my city to see and I need to see it.”

With her back now to the other woman she didn't see Clarke sigh but she did hear it. A moment later it was followed by, “Whatever you say. I still think this is a bad idea though.” Lexa turned around again as she began to remove her belt, assuming Clarke would again not allow her to bring her sword with them, and found the dark-haired woman already moving over to her closet. As she'd done the last time she ruffled through the items in it for a moment before dragging out the same brown dress along with a pair of hose. The queen nodded her thanks as she accepted them and then turned back towards the bed, putting them down and freeing her hands to start pulling at her clothing.

Just as she was about to pull her loose shirt over her head she heard a rustling behind her and automatically turned around to see what it was. Her eyes widened when all she saw was pale skin and dark hair running halfway down Clarke's back. Her robe now laid pooled at her feet and all Lexa could do was stare at the perfect skin that made up the woman's back, only a few fading pink marks and a couple of freckles blemishing it. The back dipped down into what could only be a soft round bottom, and though she'd never stared quite so blatantly at any others Lexa knew without a doubt it was the most beautiful butt she'd ever seen. The sight of Clarke's bare skin caused her brain to short-circuit and despite the indecency of it she couldn't look away.

Clarke pulled another dress out of her closet, looking over her shoulder when she didn't hear any other movements and found the queen staring wide-eyed at her. Her lips were just barely parted as though her jaw had begun to drop but she'd caught it, eyes raking over her skin. For some reason the look made her skin heat up and butterflies suddenly swarm in her stomach, strange only because she was used to people staring at her naked and it had never quite caused this reaction before.

“What?” she asked over her shoulder, not turning around anymore fully. If she did the queen might see that her nipples had stiffened and were quickly turning to peaks and she couldn't have that. She also made sure not to let her thighs press together, even if the stare was causing an uncomfortable heat between them. “I can't walk around the city in my robe. We won't get a hundred yards before people decide I must be open for business and I would really rather not deal with the trouble that will cause.”

Clarke's voice snapped Lexa out of the stupor she'd fallen into, a hard blush flooding her cheeks. Quickly she turned around, both to give the other woman her privacy and to try to hide her reaction. “No,” she mumbled quickly, her mouth still dry. The tips of her fingers itched to run over her skin, to find out how soft it really was, so she grabbed the hem of her shirt instead, needing something to hold onto. “Of course not, you're right. You just caught me by surprise. I apologize for staring, it, it was very rude.”

“You don't need to apologize,” she heard Clarke tell her but didn't dare to turn around. If all she found was pale skin again she wasn't sure she'd be able to force herself to look away a second time. “I probably should have warned you.” Lexa nodded only because she didn't know what else to say and then forced herself to focus on changing into the dress on the bed. The moment she removed her own clothes she felt her skin prickle, though whether it was from the air now hitting it or the thought that they were now both bare she didn't know and probably didn't want to know. She could hear Clarke moving behind her and pulling on her dress so Lexa focused on getting into her own.

By the time they were both dressed Lexa's cheeks had cooled down and the butterflies in Clarke's stomach had settled. When they faced each other again it was calmly, a cool mask of control on the queen's face and an easy one on Clarke's. The dark-haired woman was even able to help tie up the back of Lexa's dress without letting her hands wander, though the tips of her fingers tingled to run down along the brunette's shoulders and Lexa found herself holding her breath until the other woman had stepped away again. Neither of them said a word as they dressed and once they were done the dark-haired woman eyed them both over and then gestured towards the door, leading the way out of her room.

Just as they got to the staircase someone else was coming up it, and Clarke watched as Niylah eyed over the two of them as she stepped into the hallway. Clarke wasn't hanging off Lexa as she would a normal guest and she knew the other woman would notice that so when light brown eyes met hers she just gave her a simple smile, trying to ignore the way her stomach dropped.

“Niylah,” she greeted before gesturing to the woman beside her, “this is my friend Lexa.” Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw the queen's lips curl up into a tiny smile for just a second but then it was gone as quickly as it had appeared. Niylah continued to look them over, reading Clarke in that way she hated, and then she was just looking at Lexa, both eyebrows lifting a little.

“It's nice to meet you Lexa,” she told her, giving her a slight nod. “Are you a new worker here?” The queen's eyes widened slightly, clearly surprised by the thought, but Clarke answered before she could say anything. “No, she's not a whore, she's just a friend. She... just moved to Polis so I'm showing her around.” She began to step by Niylah, Lexa following behind her, when Niylah asked, “I thought you were working tonight?”

“I was but I decided to take the night off,” she replied lightly, giving her friend a smile. She tried to keep going but before she could Niylah had reached out, fingers gently curling around her wrist and stopping her. She winced internally; she had been avoiding Niylah ever since she'd pushed her way into the other woman's room a week and a half ago, and now was not the time she wanted to have the conversation she could read in the blonde's expression.

“Clarke,” Niylah began softly, glancing over at the strange brunette with her and then stepping a little closer to her friend. “Look at me.” Almost against her will Clarke did just that, finding just what she'd been afraid she would see in those honey-brown eyes. “We should talk. If you want. About the other night.”

“Not now, Niylah,” she said, lightly trying to pull her arm back but her friend's grip got just a fraction tighter so she couldn't. “When, Clarke?” she wanted to know. “You've been avoiding me.” She winced at the hurt she could hear coloring the other woman's tone and immediately felt guiltier than she'd already felt. Not only had she once again used Niylah to try to quiet the monsters inside her but she'd then pushed her away. When it came to the blonde she always did everything wrong and shame bled into her guilt. She pulled away just enough to get her to release her grip and then took her hand, squeezing it once. “I know. I'm sorry. We'll talk, I promise, but I can't do it right now.” She let Niylah scan her face for a second, making sure not to look away, and the other woman nodded before letting her go.

With that Clarke headed down the stairs, not looking back as she heard the queen follow her. It was bad enough she'd run into Niylah like that to begin with but the fact that it had been in front of her somehow just made it worse. Lexa was quiet for a few seconds as they made their way down the stairs but finally Clarke heard her ask quietly, “Is she... I mean, are you and Niylah... together?”

“No,” she just said, really not wanting to get into it. Unfortunately for her the queen was behind her and couldn't see the way her lips were pursed. “She seems to care for you very much.”

“Can we please not talk about this?” she asked, stopping where she was and turning around. The sudden stop took the queen by surprise and she almost bumped into her, but Clarke didn't care. “Niylah and I... it's just confusing, okay, and I don't really want to talk about it.”

Lexa hesitated for a second, seeing something buried behind her eyes she couldn't quite define, but then nodded. It was none of her business after all, and she certainly didn't want to upset Clarke. She pretended not to feel relieved by Clarke's answer, just as she pretended it hadn't been a spark of jealousy that had flared up in her chest when the other woman had touched her. The redhead met her eyes for another moment and then turned back around, once again heading down the stairs and Lexa followed. Too curious to keep entirely silent, after a minute she asked, “Is it alright for you to just leave like this? I don't want you to get in trouble with your mistress.” She hadn't thought about how this would be interfering with Clarke's work and suddenly she felt guilty for pulling her away from it.

To her surprise the other woman let out a soft scoff, and when she looked over her shoulder at Lexa a small smile had once again curled along her lips. “It's fine, I won't get in trouble. With the nobles I bring in the largest purses, so Luna gives me a little more leeway than some of the others.”

It was true, though not the entire truth, but she couldn't exactly tell the queen that she and Luna had an understanding. Not when that understanding had to do with who she really was and what she was doing. For her part Lexa seemed satisfied with the answer, nodding and returning her smile, and then neither spoke again until they were outside The Rig and standing in the street.

“So what do you want to see tonight?” Clarke asked, glancing over to the other woman. The queen was already looking around, clearly scanning the street and everyone around them, but she just shrugged. “I am happy to follow you, Clarke. You've made it clear you know this city better than I do.”

“Okay but there has to be something specific you want to see or know,” the redhead argued, tilting her head just a fraction to the side. She almost crossed her arms over her chest but then thought better of it; though no longer in one of her robes, the dress she now wore still managed to show off a decent amount of her chest, and she didn't need to draw anymore attention to it than she was already getting. Many of the people walking by them very clearly were staring, and though it was something she pretty much expected by now it didn't mean she exactly liked it. “You're the one who keeps coming to me, so you must have at least some kind of plan.”

The queen looked up as though she were mulling the idea over and then replied slowly, “I want to really understand these people but maybe just walking the streets won't help greatly with that. Is there someway I could observe them a little more closely?” Clarke thought for a second and then a grin slowly tugged at her mouth. “I think I know exactly what we can do. This way.”

She led the queen down the street, the other woman quickly falling into step beside her. Lexa didn't ask any questions and just followed along, and as they fell into an easy silence Clarke let herself steal a glance or two every few steps. Emerald eyes were constantly scanning around her, probably taking in every detail of the people and places they passed, and Clarke wondered if she'd been born naturally observant or if she'd had to develop and hone the skill because of her station. How much of what she saw was the queen and how much was the young woman beneath the title?

As they walked Lexa's hands folded behind her, and the redhead knew without a doubt that was entirely due to her station.

“Can you not walk like that?” she asked, once again looking forward. Out of the corner of her eye she saw the other woman look over to her, obviously confused and she gestured to her arms. “You're walking like a noble. Or at least like someone who cares too much about their posture. Do you see anyone else out here walking with their hands clasped behind their back?”

Lexa hesitated a moment, looking around, and then released her grip on her wrist. “Sorry,” she murmured, “it's become habit.” She shifted to let her arms dangle at her sides as Clarke's did and immediately felt odd. She even tried to slouch a little as those around her did but after a minute stopped, the change in her posture feeling far too wrong. The fact that even the way in which she walked was so much different reminded her just how very separate she was from so many of her people. It wasn't something she liked and very much hoped to change somehow.

Clarke had them weaving in and out of the crowded streets for a mile, stopping beneath a very familiar sign hanging over an even more familiar door. Though it was closed she could hear the noise coming from inside the Dropship almost as though it were open, the usual late-night crowd inside, and pushed her way in. The queen followed without a word, though the younger woman noticed her give the sign a look before stepping through the doorway.

More than a dozen people were already inside, many of them crowding around a long table and hollering at each other as a pair of dice was passed around. A few of the other tables were also full, probably patrons staying at the inn or just people needing a quick drink before returning home. Murphy was over at the long table, giving his signature annoyed stare to the people around it while Emori stood behind the counter, wiping a tankard down with what Clarke assumed was at least a semi-clean cloth. The woman looked up as they walked in and smirked over as the redhead led the pair to the counter.

“Well Mistress Blake, we're always happy to be seeing you. It's been a while.” Clarke hadn't been back to the Dropship since dealing with Bennet and Jenson, though she tried hard not to think about them at the moment. “Let me see what I got for rooms available.” She eyed Lexa over, clearly thinking she was one of the redhead's costumers, and then began to pull out a little book from beneath the counter before Clarke stopped her.

“That's fine Emori, I don't need a room tonight,” she told her, flashing her a simple smile, “just a couple of tankards.” The other woman raised an eyebrow and glanced over to the brunette one more time before shrugging. “Alright, take a table and I'll bring 'em over.”

Clarke led them across the room to an empty table close to the dice game and Lexa followed though the redhead could see the tiny frown tugging at her eyebrows. “Clarke, what are we doing here?” she wanted to know as they sat across from each other and the other woman shrugged. “We're drinking.” When that only made the queen's frown grow Clarke shifted in her seat, leaning over the table so she could speak quietly without being overheard by anyone around them. “You said you want to observe, this is the place to do it. Nothing is more common than men and women drinking and playing dice while they yell at each other.”

“If you say so,” Lexa replied slowly, eyeing over the tables as though she were still unsure. A few seconds later Emori came over to their table and placed a pair of tankards between them, a little of the ale sloshing over the side to drip onto the worn wood. Lexa thought nothing of it and reached for her own but Clarke didn't, instead fiddling around with her dress for a moment before she pulled out a small leather pouch that must have been tucked away in a hidden pocket. Remembering the knife she'd seen the dark-haired woman draw the other night the queen wondered what else she had hidden away. Clarke reached into the pouch and pulled out a couple of copper pieces, dropping them into the serving woman's outstretched hand and Lexa frowned, suddenly feeling very foolish. It had never even occurred to her to bring money for her excursion into the city. She almost never had to handle it, had others who actually paid for everything though she decided how much to spend on anything from food to construction to soldiers throughout the city and across the Kongeda. Because the thought of money had never even crossed her mind now Clarke, a woman who had to sell her body in order to make enough to survive, was paying for her drink, she who was one of the wealthiest people alive. The thought shamed her, leaving a bad taste in her mouth.

“I'll pay you back,” she promised once Emori had walked away. Blue eyes looked up to meet her own as the leather pouch was returned to its hiding place and Clarke just flashed her a smile. “Don't worry about it. I can afford to buy my new friend a drink or two.” Lexa returned her smile even as she tried to ignore the way her heart skipped a beat at the other woman's words. Without looking away she grabbed the tankard in front of her and took a large sip of the drink, too distracted to notice the difference between the scent of this ale and the wine she normally drank. Bitterness clawed at her tongue and she made a face as she forced the swallow down, glance shifting to the dark liquid sloshing in her mug. Even once she'd swallowed an unpleasant aftertaste clung to her tongue and she didn't even try to hide her look of disgust.

Across from her she heard Clarke let out a light laugh and when she looked back up at the other woman she found her shaking her head, a large grin on her face. “Sorry,” she said, though Lexa didn't hear any trace of it in her voice, “I probably should have warned you. I'm sure this is very different from what you usually have.”

“How do you drink this?” the brunette demanded, glaring down at the offensive liquid. She didn't want to so much as take another sip, let alone drink the whole thing. The dark-haired woman across from her just shrugged, raising her own tankard. “You get used to it,” she replied and then Lexa watched as she took a hearty gulp, nothing flashing across her face to say she didn't like it. She let out a loud sigh as she set the tankard back onto the table and then licked her lips to catch the few drops of ale sticking to them. The queen's focus got caught on the pink of her tongue as it ran over her lips and found she couldn't look away. “This batch is actually pretty good. Be glad Emori didn't bring us the cheap stuff.”

“...Whatever you say,” Lexa decided, eyeing her drink once again before she lifted it to take another sip. It was still just as bitter and harsh as the first but at least this time she managed to not make a face at it. Clarke nodded, as though she approved.

For a few minutes the two sat there nursing their tankards and before long the queen was back to surveying her surroundings. There were three women sitting two tables away from them, apparently gossiping and she found herself eavesdropping. Two of them were looking over the men playing dice and debating which of them were married and which might be single, while the third was too busy trying to complain about her mother to contribute. Her friends didn't appear to be listening to her woes in the slightest.

Bored with their conversation, Lexa pried her focus away from the three women and found herself watching the men passing the dice back and forth. There were eight of them ranging all ages, the youngest appearing to be barely more than a boy while the oldest's hair had long since gone gray and thin. All of them roared, most talking over each other, some even threatening those around him when a roll didn't go their way, and Lexa wondered how any of them could even understand what was going on. She'd spent little time in her life playing games and what little time she had hadn't incorporated dice, so she didn't entirely understand what was so exciting.

“Do you play?” she asked suddenly, nodding over towards the table when Clarke looked at her. “Sometimes,” the other woman replied, barely even glancing over. “I don't have much luck with it so I usually just watch. My friend Jasper is great at it though, so sometimes when neither of us are working we come out for a couple of games. Some of our other friends come too. If he wins much he'll usually buy us all a round to celebrate.”

Lexa nodded, trying to picture Clarke enjoying an evening out with her friends. She wondered if she relaxed during those times, if she let her mask slip away and just enjoyed herself, or if she only let her mask slip so far. Looking at her now even with the way her lips were curled into a small smile the queen still felt like the other woman was playing a part, like she was hiding behind a mask and Lexa thought that maybe even with her friends she kept part of herself hidden. It was an idea the queen understood all too well, and one she saw no need to point out. Instead she looked back over to the table, asking, “How do you play?”

Clarke explained the game to the queen, answering the few questions she asked as she went, but her focus was only half on the explanation. She was far more interested in watching the brunette, studying her while she studied the game. Every now and then the queen would take a drink from her tankard, and though it was clear she didn't enjoy it she said nothing else about it, apparently determined to finish it. She could have just sipped at it or left it alone, but she seemed resolved to immerse herself into the life of a commoner as fully as possible. She frowned just a little as Clarke spoke, nodding along with her words, and the redhead wondered if she always approached everything this seriously. From what she'd observed at the palace and now for the second time in Polis, she bet she did.

She'd finished explaining the rules and was watching the queen observe the game when movement along her periphery caught her eye. Wells stepped into the common area from the stairwell and scanned the room as though it were second nature. He clearly hadn't been expecting to find anything out of place but when he saw Clarke she noticed his eyes widen for a brief second before he continued on. He didn't look at her again, obviously not wanting to draw any kind of attention to them, and took a seat by himself at an empty table across the room. After just a minute Emori walked over to him, probably to see what he needed, and then walked away. Clarke bit the inside of her cheek, debating whether or not she dared go over, but then began to stand up. She hadn't been able to see him since he wheeled off with two bodies in the back of his wagon and they needed to talk.

The queen glanced over at her as she rose, her attention torn from the game. Clarke gave her a smile to show nothing was wrong and nodded towards Wells. “I'll be right back. The man over there is one of my regular guests and I'm sure he expects me to say hello now that he's noticed me.” The older woman looked over at Wells, the man positioned so she could only see the back of his head, and lifted her head a little higher, her expression smoothing. “Is everything alright?”

“Of course,” Clarke answered, making sure her smile never wavered. “This will just keep me from having to build his ego back up the next time he hires my services.” She left before the queen could say anything else, quickly making her way across the room. The fact they were in public meant that she had to keep up the charade so when she reached Wells's table she wrapped her arms around his shoulders and pressed a kiss to his cheek, feeling her friend stiffen. She knew he realized who it was but hated when they had to do this, so she closed the space between them, whispering in his ear, “Relax.” To anyone watching it would look like she was flirting with him, just another whore with a customer, and that's exactly what they needed it to look like. “I'm going to sit on your lap now so we can talk quietly.” She could feel him hesitate but then he nodded and pushed his chair back just enough so she wouldn't be pressed up against the table. She pulled away just enough to move, smiling flirtatiously at him, and all but fell into his lap, her hands moving up to hook around his neck. He didn't smile, didn't let his expression change, but that was good enough for her.

“Everything went well after the last time I saw you?” she asked, keeping her voice low but making sure to smile. She had to be careful with what she said in the off chance someone did overhear but she didn't worry about that; they knew each other well enough by now that she was sure they could have a conversation about nothing but the weather and still walk away understanding every hidden meaning that no one else would ever be able to pick up on.

Wells nodded, one hand moving to support her back, the touch gentle. “It did,” he replied just as quietly, “no surprises. I've been looking for our friend but haven't had any luck yet.”

She'd expected that, though it was frustrating. “I haven't either,” she told him. They would have to try to come up with a better way to search for this Emerson person other than just talking to people in taverns or trying to locate him at one of the queen's parties. She was about to say more but then saw Emori approaching them from over Wells's shoulder, a tray balanced on one hand that held a tankard and a bowl of stew and a few slices of bread. Emori gave her a look as she stepped up to the table, a smile pulling at her mouth as she lifted an eyebrow.

“Thought you had a friend with you already?” she asked, jerking her head towards the table Clarke had left Lexa at. She placed the food and drink in front of Wells who just sat silently while the redhead smirked up at her, easily falling into her role. “Well yes, but that doesn't mean I can't come over and say hello to my other friend,” she said innocently but with a tinge of teasing coloring her tone. Emori just shook her head but grinned, holding up one hand while she tucked the tray between her arm and side with the other. “Far be it for me to tell you how to do business.” She nodded back towards the table where the brunette still sat and added, “Let me know if you two want anything other than the drinks. We do have a couple of rooms still available.” She finished it with a wink and to Clarke's surprise her throat went a little dry, eyes automatically moving over to the queen. She found Lexa mid-swig, her expression so even no one would know she'd probably never had anything other than wine or at least a very high quality ale before. Against her will the idea of falling into bed with the queen popped into her head, visuals of what the brunette might look like outside of her clothes flashing through her mind before she could stop them and mentally shove them away. It was a foolish thought and one she felt guilty for even having. To the best of her ability she ignored it, pretended it hadn't even happened, and evenly met Emori's look. “That really won't be necessary. Thank you though.”

“If you say so,” the older woman replied with a shrug and then looked back to Wells. He'd remained quiet, just staring straight ahead at his food while they talked. “If you need anything else, just holler.” He nodded without looking up again and she turned around to move back to the counter.

With Emori gone Clarke returned to why she'd come over in the first place, subtly making sure no one else was nearby. She pressed a little closer to Wells, unhooking her hands so that she could draw little patterns along his chest, the picture of a whore trying to get into a possible customer's bed. “We should get together again soon. I'm free tomorrow if you'd like. In the morning?”

“By the river,” he told her, finally tearing his focus away from the food he hadn't touched and looking down at her in his lap. She could read how uncomfortable he was in his dark eyes, but she doubted anyone else could. “Not here. It's been a while since we've met there.” She nodded, knowing what he had in mind. She could use a little change in scenery herself. Clarke let out an exaggerated sigh and then shifted, sliding off his lap and he turned with her. “I'll see you mid-morning by the river then,” she agreed, and then leaned over to press another kiss to his cheek. He must have been busy the last day or two because there was a rough stubble along his cheeks as though he hadn't shaved, something he almost never had. She knew Wells believed firmly in keeping himself well groomed and typically shaved daily, so the fact he hadn't done so meant he must have been too busy. She reached up and brushed her fingers where her lips had been, sadness working its way into her smile despite her best efforts. Clarke wondered if she would ever be able to forgive herself for what she had done to her best friend's life, how she had destroyed it so thoroughly, but knew it wasn't likely.

Wells must have read the look in her eyes because he reached up, slipping her hand in his. “We'll find our friend, m-Mistress Blake,” he promised her, a smile ghosting across his features, “I swear to you.” She gripped his hand tightly, using the steady lifeline that had grounded her from day one and returned his smile. “I know we will. We'll find him.” He looked up at her for another moment and she stared down at him, the two in perfect understanding before Clarke sighed and pulled her hand out of his grip. “I need to be getting back to my table.” A look flashed across Wells's face, his lips pursing before he turned to stare over at the brunette waiting for her. “She's pretty,” he just said, distaste coloring his tone, and a real smile broke out across her expression as she scoffed.

“She's beautiful,” she corrected him, raising an eyebrow at him. He said nothing to that, nothing in his expression changing and she shook her head, not fighting her grin. Leaning down she informed him, “But we're just here for a drink, nothing else. You don't have to be jealous, I still belong to you.” She gave him a wink to add to her flirtatious teasing and Wells shook his head, his lips turning up just a fraction. “You don't belong to anyone, Clarke. We all belong to you.”

She had nothing to say to that, at least nothing she could say where others might overhear it, so she just gave Wells a look. Out of the corner of her eyes she saw movement as one of the men at the dice table got up and when she realized where he was going her eyes followed him, her attention now split. “I have to go,” she told her friend, “I'll see you in the morning.” He nodded in agreement but she didn't wait for it, moving almost as soon as the words were out. Her entire attention was now back on her own table where the queen still sat, the man now leaning against it and smiling down at her. Clarke recognized him and knew nothing would happen, but even so Lexa looked entirely uncomfortable, her back perfectly straight and one hand curled tightly around her tankard. She guessed the queen was wishing she had her sword at the moment and was debating whether she should draw her dagger. Before that could happen Clarke slipped back to the table, raising an eyebrow at the man as she stopped beside him. Crossing her arms over her chest she asked lightly, “Cole, are you bothering my friend?”

Cole, a man who was easily over six feet tall and had ashy blonde hair, grinned down at her. “Me? I wouldn't bother yer friend. Just introducin' myself is all.” He turned to give Lexa another smile, one that had charmed more than one maiden before, but she continued to give him the same polite, disinterested look. Clarke almost laughed at it but held it back, shaking her head. Slipping by him to take her seat across from the queen, she told him lightly, “I hate to break your heart Cole, but she isn't a whore. Introducing yourself isn't going to get you anywhere with her.” His charming smile fell for just a second and the redhead saw something in the queen's eyes flash, but then the big man just shrugged, the smile growing again. “Still never hurts to know a beautiful woman,” he informed them. “I'd be an idiot to let that stop me from introducin' myself.” Looking back at the brunette he nodded, telling her, “Name's Cole Smithson.”

The queen hesitated a moment, glancing at Clarke and then back to the man, and then said evenly, “Lexa.” His grin grew and he reached out a hand which the brunette accepted after just a second. “It's a honor to meet ya, Lexa,” he told her with another grin and Clarke had to take a swig of her drink to hide her smirk. He had no idea just how much of an honor it was. He jerked a thumb over to the redhead, continuing, “Any friend a Clarke's is a good friend to have.”

“You don't say that when Jasper's here,” the younger woman teased lightly, looking up at him from over her tankard and the big man scowled, nearly pouting. Lexa's brow rose just a fraction, unsure what to make of this man but choosing to just sit quietly. “Yeah well he cheats,” Cole accused, crossing his arms over his chest. “When he cheats an honest man outta his money then he ain't a good friend to have.”

A noise rose from the back of Clarke's throat as she raised an eyebrow, looking over to the dice table. “You and I both know there's never a single honest man playing that game,” she told him, and then she shrugged as she turned back to her tankard. “And if Jasper does cheat, you haven't been able to prove it yet. He's just lucky.”

“Course he is,” Cole agreed with a wistful sigh, “he gets ta spend his time with you.” He leaned down, a teasing glint in his big brown eyes. “I could use a bit a that luck myself. It's why I came over here.” He nodded to Lexa, flashing her another smile. “That and to meet yer friend.” Looking back over at Clarke he gave her his most charming smile. “Any chance ya'd give me a kiss for luck?” She seemed to think it over for a second and then crooked her finger at him, gesturing for him to lean down. He did eagerly and she lightly grabbed his chin, turning his face so she could press a quick kiss to his cheek. “There,” she said as he pulled away, wrapping both hands around her tankard. “You'll have to pay for the next one.” She winked at him as she took another drink of her ale and he grinned down at her. “No problem,” he replied, puffing his chest out in exaggeration. “With yer kiss a luck I'll be winnin' in no time.” He returned her wink with his own and then flashed another smile at Lexa as he nodded before turning to rejoin the game.

“You seem to know him well,” Lexa observed once he'd walked away. The queen had watched the entire interaction, both interested and amused by the way they teased each other. She hadn't been sure what to make of the big man when he'd made his way over to the table, but Clarke had rejoined her only seconds later it seemed and handled him with an easy grace that the queen almost envied. Any uncertainty she'd had about him had melted away as the redhead steered the conversation away from her mysterious friend.

For her part Clarke shrugged as she took a sip from her ale. “Every now and then when he wins enough he'll come over to The Rig and usually I'm the one to see him,” she told her once she'd swallowed. “Cole's a good enough guy, as far as men go. I don't know if I'd go so far as to call him a gentle giant, but he definitely looks like more trouble than he actually is.” Lexa nodded, gaze drifting back to the spot where the man had sat down just in time to see someone pass him the dice. He rolled and then let out a loud holler, pumping his fist up in victory as some of the people around him groaned. Apparently Clarke's lucky kiss had paid off, for this roll at least. For some reason that didn't surprise the queen in the slightest.

The two stayed at the Dropship until both tankards were empty, and despite the awful aftertaste Lexa was proud of herself for managing to get the entire thing down. The slight heat she could feel starting in her stomach and slowly crawling towards her limbs certainly didn't hurt, though the one drink wasn't enough to really make her feel intoxicated. For another few minutes they stayed there but eventually the queen knew she needed to begin making her way back to the palace. Last time it had taken almost two hours to get from The Rig back safely into her room without being spotted and she doubted it would be any faster this time. When she mentioned needing to get back Clarke nodded, standing up and leading the way back out into the street. Before she left the dark-haired woman nodded towards the woman once again behind the counter and Lexa did the same, following her lead.

The walk back to The Rig was quiet, both women content to listen to the bustle of the streets around them rather than try to talk over it. Lexa still couldn't believe everything she saw, stopping for a moment to watch a man and what must have been his daughter, the pair playing some instruments to the small crowd that had gathered around them. The man played a lute, his voice rising above it as he plucked at its strings. The girl played a recorder, the sound basic but no less lovely as it wound in with the notes from the lute. A couple of people tossed copper pieces at their feet as they played and whenever they did the man would smile and nod at them gratefully while never missing a note of his song. Lexa was lost in the sounds long enough that Clarke finally had to tug lightly at her arm to pull her away.

They were only a few yards away from The Rig when the people in front of them parted and Clarke got a look at her home. Immediately her disposition shifted, more on alert than she had been a moment ago. Jasper and Harper stood outside the door but rather than appear relaxed or aloof as usual, Jasper was pacing and Harper was shifting from one foot to the other. Both appeared slightly pale, though it was difficult to really tell in the dark around them. Clarke picked up her pace, the queen apparently noticing her shift and moving right along behind her. Harper was the first one to see her and she grabbed at Jasper, halting him in his tracks. He glared at her and then followed her eyes to Clarke, relief momentarily flashing across his face. “Clarke!”

“What is it?” she asked without preamble, clearly seeing that something was wrong. Already her pulse had picked up, afraid of what they would say, but even so she wasn't ready for it.

“Monty,” Harper said, her voice hoarse as though she had been crying. Clarke quickly scanned her face, not seeing any signs of tears but her eyes were bright, as though she were barely holding them back. “Dax. He got him.”

For the flash of a second Clarke's heart stopped, fear striking through her and then the next second she was pushing past them, now running into The Rig. She heard footsteps behind her and knew that all three of them were following her, but didn't turn back as she demanded, “Where is he?”

“Luna's room,” Jasper informed her, his voice directly behind her. She wondered how long they had been out there and how anyone had managed to pry Jasper away from his best friend but didn't bother with asking, too focused on getting to Luna's room as quickly as she could. She had no doubt that the moment he had heard he'd been by Monty's side, but since he had no training in healing he probably hadn't been able to do anything. None of them said anything else, just ran to the stairs at the back of the house.

A few people were gathered outside Luna's doors, other whores who had heard what happened. Clarke pushed through them, too afraid and determined to be polite, and finally she practically stumbled into Luna's bedroom. There she froze, barely even feeling it when Jasper ran into her back at the sudden stop.

Monty laid on Luna's bed but if she hadn't already known it was him, Clarke might not have immediately recognized him. One eye had swollen completely shut and the other had bruising around it and looked like it was still swelling as well. His nose was clearly broken and dried blood painted his upper lip and had dripped along his lower to mix into the blood that came from a split down its center. A cut had opened up at his hairline and was still bleeding sluggishly, the red dripping down the side of his face. Somebody had already removed his shirt which meant Clarke could see the dark bruises that nearly covered his torso, the skin torn in a few places from cuts that looked like they had bled lightly. While Monty moved slightly when he saw her in the doorway, she noticed that his right arm laid uselessly on the bed beside him.

Maya and Niylah were already in the room, the younger girl using a damp cloth to wipe at the blood on his face, clearly trying to be gentle. Niylah stood behind her, crushing herbs together in a bowl to be used as a poultice on either the bruises or the cuts, Clarke couldn't be sure which without getting a better look at them. On the other side of the bed were Luna and Derrick, the woman holding a large pot of hot water obviously meant for tea or cleaning. It all felt far too familiar, all too much like the scene she'd walked into barely more than a month ago and Clarke's fury boiled over. Before she even knew what she was doing she had crossed the room and grabbed Luna by the shoulders, shaking her once. Luckily for them both Luna had seen her coming and shoved the pot into Derrick's hands just before she got there otherwise they both would have been splashed with the hot water.

“How could you let this happen?!” Clarke nearly shrieked, too angry to control herself. “We knew, we knew this would happen if Dax got anywhere near him again! How could you let this happen?!”

“He wasn't sent to Dax,” Luna told her evenly, her own fury barely hidden in her voice. “A man named Connor Hines hired him. Dax used his friend to get to Monty.”

“You're supposed to protect him!” Clarke yelled, her grip on Luna's shoulders just tightening to the point where she knew her fingernails must be digging into the other woman's skin. Rage made it impossible to forgive her, even if sensibly she knew this hadn't been the woman's fault. All she could see was Monty behind her, bruised and bloody and hurt once again, and her heart beat furiously in her chest, demanding someone pay for this.

Unlike most people, Luna wasn't cowed beneath her fury. Her eyes narrowed and her lips pursed before she reached up and forcefully broke out of the younger woman's grip. “Remember who you are talking to, Clarke Blake,” she merely said through gritted teeth. Clarke didn't back down, just took a step closer so that they were almost touching and growled, “No, you remember who you're talking to.” The two women stared each other down, neither looking away until a voice behind Clarke tore her focus back to what was really important.

“Clarke,” Monty got out, having to speak slowly around his split lip, “it's okay, I'll be fine.”

The moment he started speaking she turned away from Luna, all but forgetting about the other woman. Quickly she made her way over to him, stopping at the bed beside him. She forced herself to give him a small smile, fighting against the tears forming in the corners of her eyes. Up close he looked even worse than he had from across the room. “I know you will be, Monty,” she told him as soothingly as she could manage. “We're going to take care of you.”

“I'll go get a healer,” Lexa offered from the doorway, and Clarke realized she'd forgotten the queen was even still with her. She shook her head, not taking her eyes off of the boy on the bed. “No Lexa, it's fine, I'm a healer.” She looked up at Maya and Niylah then, reaching out for the bowl Niylah still held. “What do you have?”

“A paste to put on the cuts to help stop the bleeding and keep them clean,” she answered automatically, handing the bowl over. “I'll start on something for the bruises next.” Clarke nodded, looking back down at Monty as her mind raced. “We need more cloths. Something to put over the cuts.” She reached out, running her fingers as carefully as she could along Monty's right arm but even so he winced. She wanted to apologize for adding to his pain but didn't have time, saying, “And a long piece for his arm. A yard, at least.” Derrick nodded behind her, handing the water back to Luna and then left to get what she'd asked for. She looked up only long enough to watch him leave the room, but as he did her eyes were drawn back to Lexa, the queen still standing in the doorway with a hard look on her face.

“Lexa you should probably go,” she told her. “You know where my room is. You should be able to get your things without any problem.” She thought she saw the queen begin to nod but she was already turning back to Monty, her focus entirely on her friend. Once again she lightly ran her fingers over his arm, trying to make sure nothing was broken. It only took a minute to know that the problem was that the arm had been dislocated: in her old life Octavia had dislocated her shoulder twice, once while riding and another while practicing with the sword Clarke had given her, and her mother had taught her how to put it back in place. Carefully she placed the bowl she was still holding on the bed and leaned closer to Monty.

“Monty, I know it's hard, but can you sit up?” she asked, trying to keep her voice quiet and tone soothing. He grimaced but then nodded and used his left arm to push himself up. As he moved she watched him wince, trying to move gingerly, and the monster returned to Clarke's chest in full force, roaring its fury. Dax would pay for this: last time she'd been too busy with thoughts of her own revenge that she had let it slide, let him get away with hurting her friend. Not this time.

Once he was up she let her hands move to his arm but didn't look away from his face, making sure he was looking at her. “This is going to hurt Monty,” she told him, already sorry she had to do it, “but after it'll feel a lot better. Okay?”

“Okay,” he replied right away without any hesitation. She nodded and then without any other kind of warning tightened her grip and popped his shoulder back into place. He yelled from the pain and then bit his lip to try to hold it back, only wincing more as his lip began to bleed again. “I know, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she murmured as he winced, lightly running her fingers through his hair to try to comfort him. After a second he shook his head and forced a smile up at her. “Barely felt it,” he mumbled and she let out a small, humorless laugh. He remained sitting up and she picked up the bowl again, starting to cover his cuts with the paste. Maya wiped the blood away with the cloth she held as best she could and then she got to work on them. As she lightly spread the paste over the cut along his hairline, she forced a smile.

“Now we match,” she tried to joke, gesturing to the scar she'd received the night her father died. He looked up at it and smiled again, otherwise holding still while they worked on him.

Despite what Clarke had said, Lexa didn't leave. She stayed where she was just inside the doorway, watching everything unfolding in front of her. Her hands curled into fists whenever she looked at the boy on the bed, feeling her own anger igniting beneath her skin, but it was nothing compared to what she had seen in Clarke. For the first time she felt as though she'd seen the other woman without any semblance of a mask, and what she had seen both amazed and terrified her if she was being entirely honest with herself. The queen had seen many things in her life, experienced anger and rage both in herself and from other people, but she couldn't remember a time where she had seen a fury quite as intense as Clarke's. Even now as the woman worked on her friend she could see it, what had been sudden and intense now coiled just beneath her skin. It had turned into a quiet fury almost, like a lioness stalking its prey just before making its kill, and she wondered briefly how Luna had been able to stand in the face of its intensity so calmly. She honestly didn't think most people would be able to. Now the younger woman sat beside Monty on the bed, and even across the room Lexa could see how gentle her touch was. She spoke softly to the boy, doing everything to keep him calm and help him feel safe, and this too she felt sure was the real Clarke, a woman no longer playing a part but being herself. The dichotomy between the two sides she'd just seen left her speechless, unable to match words to what she felt, so she just watched on, unable to tear her eyes away.

As those around the bed saw to their friend, the two who'd met them outside stayed by the doorway with her, too focused on what was taking place across the room to even really notice her. She remembered Harper from their brief interaction the first time she'd been to The Rig but didn't recognize the boy. He kept taking a step forward and then back again, as if he couldn't decide whether to get closer to the bed or not while Harper stood still, her arms crossed over herself as though she were trying to hold herself together. Neither looked away from their friends as Clarke and the girl with the cloth continued to see to Monty's wounds and Niylah kept taking herbs and berries out of jars on a tray she must have carried in, making more ointments to try to help. She handed a few herbs over to Luna who added them to the cup of water she'd just poured, and after a few minutes of letting the tea steep she handed the cup to the boy on the bed who slowly began to drink it, wincing as the cup bumped his lip.

“I'll kill him,” the boy by the door muttered darkly as his friends helped Monty. Lexa glanced over at him to see his teeth clenched harshly while he glared across the room. “Next time I see Dax, I'm gonna kill him.”

“He'd kill you first,” Harper replied, keeping her voice down as though speaking too loudly might disrupt those on the other side of the room. “He's a trained soldier and you're just a whore.” The boy shook his head, hands curling into tight fists but he didn't say anything else. Lexa however looked at her, her eyes widening a little. “A soldier did this to him?” The thought that one of her soldiers, no matter his rank, had committed the atrocity she saw before her made her anger settle even more deeply than it already had.

Speaking up apparently brought attention back on her and the boy beside her glanced over, eyeing her suspiciously. “Who are you?” he wanted to know, his tone hard and almost demanding. Clearly he didn't trust strangers, at least not at this moment, but before Lexa could say anything Harper elbowed him sharply in the side. “Hey!” he exclaimed as he winced and turned his glare over to her.

“Knock it off, Jasper,” she just told him, not looking away from the bed. “She's Clarke's friend.”

Apparently being Clarke's friend – two words that managed to fight through the anger simmering in her gut and make her heart flutter for just a moment – was all he needed to know. Jasper gave her another look, his expression a little softer this time, and just nodded. He didn't say anything so Harper did, telling her, “Yeah, a soldier did this and another one helped. Dax has been hurting Monty for a while now and when Luna refused to let him see him anymore he got his friend Connor to help him.”

“Fucking bastards,” Jasper growled quietly, once again glaring. “Somebody should kill them and I'd be more than happy to try.”

“Maybe we'll get lucky and the gods will do it for us,” Harper murmured as she uncrossed her arms. Lexa saw her look over at him, continuing, “Remember almost a year ago when Lania was raped by Olen? He was found three days later dead in his bed.” The memory made Jasper nod, a flash of hope crossing his face, but Lexa frowned.

“What happened?” she asked and Harper glanced over at her as she shrugged. “No one knows. He was just dead. The healers said it looked like his heart suddenly just stopped.” She looked back over to the bed, pausing for just a moment before adding quietly, “I think the gods were angry at him for what he'd done. They punished him when no man would.”

As soon as she'd finished talking Lexa was shaking her head. “Rape is against the law. Wasn't he brought to the city guard?” She couldn't remember hearing of anything like it, but the crimes of the city seldom made it all the way to her unless somebody brought it to her in an audience. Most commoners didn't, choosing to let the City Guard dole out punishments to match the crimes.

Jasper snorted beside her, the sound dark and humorless. “People would have to believe a whore can be raped to bring it to the Guard,” he answered, anger snapping in his voice. “Most don't.”

“Of course they can be raped,” Lexa replied, her surprise leaking into her tone. “Anyone could be.” Harper shook her head, her eyes bright as her lips turned up into something that almost resembled a smile but clearly wasn't, her anger twisting it. “It's nice you believe that but most people don't. We sell our bodies for a living so of course anything a person tries to do to us is okay. We're just... things.” Her face twisted into a grimace as she spat out the word. “Holes for men to put their cocks in or bodies for women to slap around when they're frustrated with their own lives.”

The words forced the air from Lexa's lungs, made it impossible for her to catch her breath as liquid fury pooled into her chest. Before she'd met Clarke she'd spent little time thinking about people who sold their bodies for a living, barely ever giving them more than a passing thought other than just knowing they were part of any town or city. Whores were everywhere despite the fact she'd never interacted with any before, but she'd never even considered what Harper was saying. The idea that people thought they could get away with treating others in this way, as though they were only good for getting out frustrations or claiming in whatever violent way they wanted tore something inside her, something she was afraid she may never be able to make whole again. Now these people weren't nameless or faceless, now she knew a few and was seeing first hand what could happen to them, and she'd never been more furious than she was in this moment, both at the men who had done this to the boy on the bed and at herself for never knowing about any of it before. She would make this right somehow and make sure the laws against rape were enforced for everyone, no matter their profession, but she would never forgive herself for taking so long to realize the danger so many of her people lived in. Silently she vowed it as she watched the others caring for Monty, and her hands curled into fists, her fingernails biting deep into the palms of her hands.

The big man with the sword had returned as they talked and now Clarke was carefully wrapping a long piece of linen around Monty's right arm and tying it over his shoulder to immobilize it. Luna gave him another cup of tea almost as soon as he'd finished the first, and Niylah helped Clarke rub another ointment over his many bruises. Lexa didn't move through it all, both forcing herself to watch and not being able to look away, making sure she remembered every detail of this night. This would remind her any time she began to think there was any kind of even breakdown between the classes, remind her of how much work she still had to do to make that in any way true.

Finally they had seen to all of Monty's visible injuries and Clarke was kicking them out of the room to give the boy his privacy for anything else that needed to happen. Luna and The Rig's guard were the first to leave, Harper following right along after her. The girl who had wiped away Monty's blood left next, stopping as she passed Jasper and lightly grabbing his hand. The queen noticed their eyes meet, hers sad and his still angry, but even as she watched she could see Jasper deflate, his anger leaving him and morphing into an aching sadness. The girl squeezed his hand and then led him out of the room and he said nothing as he followed.

Niylah was the last to leave the bed, not saying anything to Monty or Clarke as she walked away but she stopped in front of Lexa before exiting the room. “It's time for you to go,” she said quietly, meeting and not looking away from the queen's eyes. Lexa considered arguing for a moment, not wanting to leave Clarke or Monty, but finally she nodded. Instead of immediately turning around though she stepped past the other girl, moving a few steps further into the room before she stopped again, not really knowing what to say. She looked at Monty now laying with his one somewhat good eye squeezed shut, likely preparing himself for what had to happen next and then looked at Clarke, kneeling beside the bed as she ran her fingers through the boy's hair. Lexa didn't think she even knew the brunette was still there, far too focused on her friend. The queen stood there awkwardly for a moment, trying to think of what to say, but just as she was about to open her mouth she closed it again when she heard Clarke begin speaking softly.

“It's okay Monty,” she whispered, and Lexa could hear the tears in her voice but much more strongly beneath it a steely determination. “He'll never touch you again. I swear I won't ever let him anywhere near you again. He's going to pay for this. I'm going to make sure of it.”

Something in the redhead's voice made the queen pause, tilting her head ever so slightly to the side. There was anger in it, sure, the same intense fury she'd witnessed when they first entered the room, but beneath that anger was something else she couldn't quite name but that sent a small shiver up her spine. It took her a second to place it, but finally the absolute promise in her words clicked into place, and Lexa found herself studying the other woman. In that moment she wasn't seeing a whore or a woman hiding behind a mask but someone not only angry enough but also smart enough to fulfill the promise she'd just made in whatever way was necessary.

Maybe no man could punish those who hurt The Rig's workers, but the queen had a feeling she was staring at a certain redhead who could.

In the end Lexa didn't say anything to Clarke, just turned around and left the room, the wheels in her mind turning as she changed back into her own clothes and returned to her palace. She had a lot to think about and what she suspected was very little time to put any kind of plan into action.

Chapter Text

Clarke stayed by Monty's side throughout the night, refusing to take her eyes off of him. After seeing to all his injuries she gave him another cup of tea, this one infused with the same herbs she used in her lip paint and before long he'd passed out, but she didn't get more than two or three hours of sleep. Instead she spent the night planning, working out the best way to make sure Dax never touched Monty again.

It wouldn't be the first time she'd protected her friends by getting rid of someone who had hurt them, but the sudden deaths of a pair of soldiers was likely to get more attention than that of an angry drunk. She wouldn't let that stop her though, it only meant she would have to be even more careful than she'd been with Olen.

The gray light of dawn began to filter through the small window in Luna's bedroom, the thin curtain she had up blowing gently in the small breeze. Clarke watched it move, momentarily letting it clear her mind until she heard Monty begin to stir on the bed. The second she heard the movement her eyes were on him again and she was scanning his face even before he opened his good eye. Niylah's bruise balm had helped to reduce the swelling of the other one but only barely, still too swollen to see out of. Monty grimaced as he woke up, the pain from his many injuries likely flaring up now that he was once again conscious but when he saw her he forced a little grin.

“How bad do I look?” he asked, trying to make a joke and Clarke forced herself to return the grin as best she could. “You could never look bad,” she replied, doing her best to keep her tone light. “You're just as handsome as always.” He let out a laugh and then winced again, his left hand shifting to lightly touch at his face and trace over the bruises and cuts. When a finger brushed over the cut at his hairline Clarke continued, “Guys'll think you're even more handsome with a scar or two. I bet one of them will come in here someday soon, fall in love with you on sight and then take you away. You two will live happily ever after.”

He looked over at her as she spoke, a bemused smile tugging at his mouth. “I like that,” he said, but from his tone Clarke could tell he didn't believe it. Her heart broke a little because she didn't believe it either. She'd stopped believing in fairy tale endings years ago, and even if they did exist they didn't happen for someone like Monty. No matter how much he deserved it, they both knew he would likely spend the rest of his life at The Rig; Clarke just hoped it would be a long life, and that he would never have to go through something like this again.

After a few minutes she helped him get up, Monty wanting to give Luna her room back and go to his own. She didn't like the idea of him moving but she understood and so helped him, letting him put his good arm over her shoulders and lean against her. As they walked Clarke could practically feel how tired he was even after a night of heavy sleep and so did her best to support even more of his weight, glad they didn't have very far to go.

Reaching the door to his room, she was unsurprised to find Jasper and Maya there, the two sitting on the floor with their backs up against the door, sleeping. Her head was resting on his shoulder and his head rested on hers, and Clarke might have smiled under different circumstances: their relationship had to be the worst kept secret in the whorehouse. Instead of smile she lightly tapped Jasper's leg with one foot to wake him, having to nudge him a few more times to finally get him up. He yawned even before he'd opened his eyes and when they did open he frowned as he glanced over at the girl leaning against him, clearly confused. The next moment he looked up at Clarke and Monty and everything must have rushed back to him all at once because he was jumping up, unceremoniously waking Maya as she almost fell beside him.

“Monty!” he exclaimed as he rose, quickly scanning over his friend. “How're you doing? Can I get you anything? What can I do?” His best friend was grinning again, lightly shaking his head before he'd even finished talking. “I'm fine Jasper, I don't need anything.”

“That's not exactly true, but I'll give it to you for the moment,” Clarke muttered, watching as Maya slowly got up, rubbing her neck and grimacing. They must have been outside Monty's room all night, and if so Clarke knew her neck would be incredibly stiff from being in at an odd angle for so long. She didn't say anything about it though, just grabbed Jasper's arm and pulled him out from in front of the door. “They're trying to get inside, Jasper.”

“Oh yeah, right,” he mumbled, stepping aside. Clarke led Monty forward, opening the door, and all four of them filtered into the room, Maya and Jasper bringing up the rear as Clarke helped Monty get into his own bed. The two crowded around the bed, both unabashedly looking the injured boy over and when he noticed Monty shook his head again. “Really guys, I'm fine.”

“No you're not Monty,” Maya told him, her voice wavering a little on his name but not breaking. Clarke glanced up through her eyelashes and noticed dampness building in the other girl's eyes. “What he did to you...” She trailed off, unable to finish.

Beside her, Jasper's hands clenched into fists.

“He can't get away with this,” he growled, obviously just as angry as he had been the night before. “We can't let him get away with this!”

“No Jasper, just let it go,” Monty pleaded, his good eye widening just a little. “Dax is...” He paused for a second to swallow, and Clarke wished she couldn't see the fear tugging at his mouth. The boulder that had grown overnight in her gut shifted and it was all she could do not to straight out glare at the thought of the person who had put that fear there. “He would hurt you, if you tried to do anything. I don't want anyone getting hurt because of me.”

“He already hurt you, Monty!” Jasper exclaimed, throwing his hands up in the air. “Look at you! And it's not even like this is the first time! Someone has to stop it!”

Not you, Clarke thought, carefully looking down at the sheet on Monty's bed and beginning to lightly tuck it against him just for something to do to keep her busy and out of the conversation. Monty's right, Dax would kill you. She would make the soldier pay for what he'd done like Jasper wanted but she would do it in a way that drew no attention to her. Jasper never did anything quietly, and while most of the time that was fine, this kind of thing needed a far more delicate and calculated hand. Clarke glanced up at him as Jasper and Monty continued to argue and decided she had better put her plan into action soon: Jasper looked angry enough that this might be more than just talk, angry enough that if he got enough ale in him he might just decide to go after Dax after all. She wouldn't let that happen.

After a few minutes she left the room, leaving Maya in charge while she went to get Monty some more tea. Entering the kitchen, she was only a little surprised to find Niylah sitting at the large wooden table in the center of the room, the couple of cooks working around her as they bustled to get breakfast ready for a house full of dozens of people. Clarke hesitated for a moment but then moved towards her, the other woman looking up as she approached and giving her a tired smile. Even before Clarke had sat down she was reaching for the tea pot in front of her and grabbing at one of the many empty mugs laid out around it.

“Here,” Niylah said as she poured the tea into the empty mug, “I bet you got even less sleep than I did.” She pushed the cup over in front of the stool next to her and Clarke nearly fell into it, suddenly feeling exhausted. The blonde gave her a knowing look and then tapped the side of the mug with her pointer finger. “I added something extra to this pot to help us stay awake.”

Clarke flashed her a thankful smile and grabbed the cup, wrapping both hands around it before bringing it up to her lips. She could smell the usual herbs used to prevent pregnancies as well as something else, and she took a big whiff of it, sighing as she identified it. “Rosemary; good choice.”

“You always know,” Niylah said with a smile, watching Clarke as she took a sip of the tea. The hot liquid rolled down her throat and into her stomach, immediately warming her and making her feel just a touch better than she had a moment ago. “And you always pick just the right herbs to add.” The other woman's lips tugged up just a hair more before she turned her attention back to her own cup, but Clarke could still feel her watching out of the corner of her eye. She closed her eyes after taking another sip, remembering how she had very pointedly been avoiding spending any time with Niylah and why that was. Guilt, the same wave she'd felt the night before in the hallway with Lexa watching on, washed through her, and she shook her head.

“Niylah I'm...” She couldn't quite say it so opened her eyes, glancing over to find the blonde once again looking at her. Clarke had to swallow at the look, reading what she hadn't wanted to see in her friend's expression. “...sorry.” The word was spoken quietly, hanging between them. They both knew it was about more than just her avoidance, even about more than how she kept using the other woman to try to quiet the emotions that so often raged within her. Niylah looked at her with eyes that held so much more than just understanding in them and Clarke wished she could jump into her tea and just disappear.

The apology didn't hang between them for long. After only a few seconds the blonde reached out, fingers moving to the ends of Clarke's hair. “I have everything I need for your dye,” she informed her, keeping her voice light. “We could darken your hair again today, if you want.”

With that Clarke's apology was brushed to the side as though it were unnecessary, and the dark-haired woman had to swallow again as her throat burned slightly. A part of her wished she could give Niylah what she wanted, could return her feelings, but a larger part of her knew it was dangerous. Love was something she couldn't afford to waste her time on, not now that she was so close to getting her revenge, and once she got it she had every intention of disappearing. She was already playing with the other woman's feelings enough as it was, something she never intended to do but somehow had fallen into, and she knew that was bad enough.

“Sure,” she replied with a nod, glad to hear her voice remain steady, “I'm meeting a friend later this morning but after that I should be able to.”

Niylah fiddled with her cup, looking down into the liquid as she returned the nod. Clarke thought she wasn't going to say anything and was about to return her attention to her own tea when she heard the blonde ask lightly, “Is Lexa the friend you're meeting?”

The question completely threw the younger woman off, her eyes widening as she looked back over at her friend. To her discomfort the queen's name made her heart skip a beat, but she told herself it was only from surprise. Niylah's tone had been a little too light, just a tad too invested in the answer while trying to appear uninterested and Clarke's eyes scanned her face, trying to read her thoughts. As always it was easy, and she frowned as she recognized the jealousy pulling the corners of the other woman's lips down just a fraction.

“No, I'm not meeting Lexa,” she answered automatically, wondering where that had come from. She continued to study her friend's face as Niylah took another sip of tea before saying anything else. “Oh. She seems nice. It was nice of her to offer to get a healer for Monty.” She took another sip of her tea. “She's pretty too.”

“She's...” Clarke began, not really knowing what to say. In all honesty she'd forgotten that Lexa had even still been there while she'd been helping Monty, too focused in the moment to notice anything but the many cuts and bruises on the boy in front of her. Now she remembered and bit the inside of her cheek, thoughts flickering back to the queen and what she must have thought about everything she saw the night before. Beside her Niylah continued to stare into her cup and for the moment Clarke forced those thoughts back, making herself focus on one thing at a time.

“She is,” she agreed lightly, giving a nod. “Nice, that is. Pretty too, I suppose.” That was a bold face lie and they both knew it; calling Lexa pretty was like calling a stallion a pony, but Clarke chose to keep that to herself to save her friend's feelings. “She's a good friend to have.”

“It's always good to have friends,” Niylah said, turning back towards her and once again the blonde's lips curled up into a small smile. “Lexa is lucky she can call you one.”

Clarke shook her head, her mouth slowly curling up to match the other woman's smile. “I don't know about that.” She paused for a second, fiddling with her mug, and then continued quietly, “I do know I'm lucky to have my friends though. All of them.” She met Niylah's eyes as she finished, hoping she could convey what she couldn't say, could show the blonde how much she meant to her even if it couldn't be in the way the older woman wanted. Niylah's smile grew just a little and she nodded, seeming to get the silent message.

The two sat together for another few minutes, no longer talking and just listening to the hustle and bustle of the kitchen staff around them. Clarke let herself fall into the energy of the room, closing her eyes and trying to soak it in before she returned to Monty's room. Even just thinking about her hurt friend made her grip tighten on her tea and she stared at it while the thoughts she'd been thinking through all night returned to play in her mind.

“If I asked you to get something not exactly legal for me, how quickly could you get it?” she asked Niylah suddenly, keeping her voice low. Her eyes lifted from her drink and darted around the kitchen, tracking where everyone was so she would know none of them would be able to overhear this part of their conversation. She doubted any of them cared enough to want to, but she couldn't be too careful.

Niylah grabbed a slice of warm bread from the loaf one of the cooks had just put on the table, tearing it in half. “Depends,” she answered just as quietly even as she kept her voice light. “What is it you need?”

“Do you remember Olen?” Clarke just asked, and the woman's eyebrows rose for a moment before she tore off a small chunk of the bread and popped it into her mouth. She chewed it slowly as she stared in front of her, and Clarke made sure not to take her eyes off of the others in the room. “I know someone,” Niylah replied once she'd swallowed, “I should be able to get that for you within a day or two. I'm sure you remember its price.”

“Doesn't matter,” she told her, briefly glancing over to her friend, “I can cover it if you can get it.” Niylah just nodded as she stood up. She drained the last dregs of her tea and then took another bite of her bread. Turning around, she leaned a little closer to Clarke, telling her softly, “We can talk about it more while we dye your hair.” With that she left, not saying another word and just nodding to one of the cooks as she passed her.

Clarke only stayed in the kitchen for another few minutes, brewing a fresh pot of tea specifically for Monty and begging one of the cooks to make a broth for him for later. She finally agreed and the redhead gave her a large smile before swiping a couple of slices of bread, grabbing the tea and a clean mug and leaving the room.

Once back in Monty's room she got a cup and a half of tea in him with little fight, also giving him the bread. He didn't complain but she could see it hurt to open his mouth wide enough for the bread and so wasn't surprised when he stopped after one slice. Jasper and Maya were still there when she got back and though Maya had to leave after a little while the boy stayed there, clearly having no intention of leaving his best friend alone. Clarke would have liked for Monty to get more sleep but seeing the way his best friend managed to keep him smiling she didn't have the heart to say anything. For a while she debated staying too and finding Charlotte to take a message to Wells, but she knew she'd done all she could for her friend for the time-being and hovering over him wouldn't do either of them any good. Finally she dragged herself out of the room, reminding both boys that Monty needed to get more sleep, and made her way up to her room. There she changed from the dress she was still wearing into a pair of breeches – one of the few she owned – and a loose shirt. As soon as she was dressed she strapped her knife to her belt and left, making her way down the stairs and out of The Rig and then through the city.

The Trikru Forest surrounded the city and palace, a few worn roads torn into the dirt after years and years of heavy travel. She didn't follow any of them as she slipped into the trees, taking an unmarked path that had become very familiar to her after a few years of using it. As she went she let her gaze wander, watching squirrels and chipmunks race up and down trees and fight over acorns, freezing only as she walked by and staring at her. Birds lighted on branches and in bushes, their musical chirps filling the air and being carried to her on the light breeze. After walking for a little over half a mile she began to hear the sound of running water, and only a of couple minutes later she broke through a few bushes, seeing the Polarian River flowing gently down its banks, Wells sitting on a rock beside it while he waited for her. A sword lay in the grass by his feet, the sun glinting off the metal, while he held a second one, using a whetstone to sharpen it.

He looked up at the sound of branches snapping beneath her feet and smiled, standing up. Clarke rolled her eyes as he bowed, his right fist placed over his heart as always whenever he greeted her alone. “My lady.” She wasn't in the mood to get into the usual argument with him so she just nodded as she pulled her left arm across her front and hooked her right arm over it, beginning a few simple stretches. “Wells.” He raised the sword he still held and then gestured to the knife at his belt. “Would you rather work with swords or knives today?”

“Swords,” she answered immediately, widening her stance and leaning to the side to stretch out her hamstrings. Luna and Derrick made sure that every one of their workers knew how to protect themselves with a knife – Not that that's always enough, she thought darkly, images of Monty flashing through her mind – so she had partners to train with for the smaller weapon often enough, but Wells was the only one who could help her keep her sword skills sharp. He had been expecting it and was already leaning down to lift the sword in the grass before she'd even answered. Carefully he handed the one he'd been sharpening to her and then took a few steps back to settle into his stance while Clarke tested the weight and balance of the blade he'd handed to her. It was heavy but not overly so, something she would be able to handle well enough and she gave it a few test swings before stepping back into her own stance. They looked at each other for a moment, letting the sounds of the forest surround them and sinking into its calm before Clarke leapt forward, brandishing the weapon. Wells's came up to block the strike, and they fell into battle.

As a child Clarke had stopped using swords, the weapon always tiring her out more than daggers and bows, but after the fire she'd started learning again and Wells had been her teacher. While they traveled that first year trying to track down Jenson and Bennet they had trained almost daily. For months Clarke had gone to bed exhausted, her legs tired from walking and her arms sore from swinging her sword, but eventually her body had grown accustomed to the new abuse it hadn't known before. The amount of training had seriously dwindled since Luna found them and Clarke became her whore, only having the chance to the few times a year Wells would return to Polis to let her know what he had found, but a few times a month she would sneak away into the woods alone to practice her stances and swings, making sure to keep all of the movements fresh in her mind and body. She would never be a great swordsman like Wells or her father had been but she knew enough to defend herself and – hopefully – to get her revenge when she found it.

Wells swept her weapon to the side after her strike, immediately falling into his own attack. Clarke stepped quickly to the side to avoid the sharp edge of his weapon, blood now pumping hotly through her veins. All of the rage and hate she'd been feeling for so long crammed itself into a ball in her chest and she used it to fuel her as she moved. When she swung it wasn't Wells she was attacking but Dax and Connor and Emerson, and a faceless lord she couldn't yet name. She wanted to kill them all, to make each one of them pay for the pain they'd caused, and used her body and sword to try to make it happen. Two blades came crashing together again and again as the sound of metal screeching against metal drowned out the calm of the forest.

Sweat had pooled in the dip of her collarbones by the time Wells stepped back, holding up his hand and ending the bout. She was breathing heavily, her chest heaving as her lungs fought to take in some much needed oxygen and her arms ached, screaming at her each time she moved them. Clarke ignored the dull pain, even reveled in it a little as she used one to wipe away the sweat dripping down her forehead. Wells was breathing heavily as well, though it was clear the fight hadn't taken as much out of him as it had her, and stepped back over to the rock he'd been sitting on when she showed up, grabbing a waterskin from behind it. He held it out to her and she accepted, drinking greedily from it and sighing as the cool water eased her parched throat. Once she'd had her fill she gave it back to him and then sat in the grass, dropping her sword beside her and running her fingers through the green fibers. Soon she ended up on her back, staring up at the sky and watching small white clouds drift by. Wells sat down beside her, corking the waterskin, and for a while they just sat and laid their in silence.

“Do you remember when we used to do this as kids?” she asked suddenly, not looking away from the sky. Today it was a white-blue instead of the usual pure robin's egg blue, and she wondered if it would rain later.

Wells glanced up, eyes trailing over the clouds above them. “I remember. Octavia and Raven would argue over what shapes the clouds made and Bellamy would have to break it up before they started yelling.” The memory made Clarke's lips tug up, her heart aching now more than her arms. “Sometimes Madi would come with us and you would braid her a flower crown. It never stayed together for very long but she would wear it until it entirely fell apart.”

Thinking about her sister made Clarke's throat burn and she had to close her eyes to hold back the sudden heat of tears. Even now she could easily picture Madi's little smile as she proudly wore the flower crowns, the pink and blue and yellow petals sticking out against her dark blonde locks. She wondered if her hair was still so dark or if it had lightened at all over the years. She hoped not: everything about her sister had been perfect, from her dark hair to her dark blue eyes and tiny smile, and she hoped nothing about her had changed as she grew older. Clarke knew it wasn't likely, knew that her and her father's deaths must have taken a toll on her sister and mother but always tried to pretend they were as happy as she wanted them to be. Her eyes opened again and she stared up at the sky, wishing she could see them again but knowing it could never happen. Clarke Griffin was dead and now only Clarke Blake the Whore lived, and her family never needed to know everything she had done to survive.

“They'll be here soon,” she murmured, not taking her eyes off the clouds, “a couple weeks at most, probably. I won't be able to go back to the palace once they're here. We have to find Emerson and whoever he works for before then.”

Wells nodded beside her, looking away from the sky and reaching over to pick up his sword once again. He turned it over in his fingers, clearly just needing something to do with his hands. “I know where a few of the servants to some of the different houses get together a few times a week to play cards,” he told her. “I've started going to see what I can learn from them. The people change with every game, so hopefully I'll find him or at least someone who knows him.”

Clarke nodded. That was good; servants gossiped more than anybody, always glad to share their masters' dirt if given the right kind of push. Around a card table with the ale flowing freely Wells should learn a lot and quickly, they just had to hope it would lead them to what they needed to know.

“I'll keep my eyes open at the queen's parties,” she replied, tearing her focus from the sky and pushing herself up so she was once again sitting. “Maybe I'll even start asking around about Emerson.”

Wells looked over at her, his brow creasing. “Don't do anything to draw attention to yourself, my lady,” he warned and Clarke raised an eyebrow, letting out a small scoff. “Wells I'm a whore, I'm supposed to draw attention to myself.” She saw his nostrils flare and his frown deepen, but instead of saying what she knew he was thinking he just said, “Don't draw the wrong kind of attention to yourself. People might get suspicious if you start asking about a man you don't know, especially where he isn't even a noble.”

“I know Wells,” she told him with a sigh, drawing her knees up to her chest, “I'll be careful.” She didn't want to be careful; she wanted to take her sword to the next party and demand to know who Emerson was, demand to know who had killed her father. She wanted for this to all be over so she could finally rest, but knew she still had a lot of work left to do before then, and now she had someone else's revenge she had to get before she could go after her own. Thinking about Monty again she held in another sigh, this one filled with regret and pain, and began to stand up. Enough time had gone by that she knew she should be getting back to The Rig to check on the boy, hoping that he'd managed to get more sleep and Jasper hadn't kept him up all this time. Wells rose with her, studying her carefully, and she forced herself to flash him a smile. He couldn't know about Monty and what had happened because he would immediately know what she was planning to do and try to stop her, always more concerned for her safety than anything else. She appreciated it, she really did and she loved him for it, but she wouldn't let him get in the way of what she needed to do.

“When should we meet again?” he asked after a moment, apparently appeased enough by her promise to let go of his worry, at least for the time being. Clarke rolled her shoulders, her muscles still sore from their sword work and thought about it. “The next party is in three days, so how about the following night?” While he nodded she bent down to get the sword she'd left on the ground and then handed it to him, and his fingers wrapped around her own on the pommel. “I'll see you then, my lady. Good luck.”

“You too Wells,” she replied, meeting his eyes, and then she let go, leaving the sword with him and turning to disappear back into the woods.

The walk back to the city went by too quickly, and as she went Clarke had to fight the urge to just disappear into the trees. Maybe life would be easier if she gave up on her ideas of revenge, for herself and for Monty. Killing one or two soldiers wouldn't stop other people from beating or raping those less powerful than them, and taking down one bad noble wouldn't keep others from coming up with their own treacherous schemes. She could disappear and never be seen again, Clarke Blake dying just as easily as Clarke Griffin had and then she could live as no one. Being no one sounded like a blessing right then, the idea of having no responsibilities and no one else to care for, but she knew she couldn't do it. She couldn't leave now when she was so close to getting what she'd spent seven years working for, couldn't go when Monty wasn't safe. She couldn't leave her friends at The Rig or Wells or even the queen wondering what had happened to her, so her feet kept moving forward, taking her steadily back to the life she'd made for herself. As the trees thinned and disappeared and the noise of the city beat back the quiet calm of the woods she sighed heavily and then mentally donned her mask once again.

The second she stepped through the front door to The Rig she knew something else had happened. People were crowding around the small waiting room, but not the usual guests she would expect to see. Workers crowded around, an excited buzz filling the air, and Clarke scanned the group, immediately suspicious and more than a little hesitant; she honestly wasn't sure how much more she could take at this point. Luna stood in the center of the group with a heaving Charlotte, the young girl doubled over as she tried to catch her breath. Someone shoved a waterskin in the girl's face and she took it, water streaming down the corners of her mouth as she guzzled thirstily. Harper and Niylah stood on the other side of the girl, one of Niylah's hands resting on her shoulder, while Maya, Jasper and – Clarke was displeased to see – Monty standing in front of her. The redhead's hands went to her hips, glaring at the group and ignoring the other people surrounding them.

“Monty, what are you doing down here?” she demanded, her glare not leaving when they all turned to look at her, obviously just realizing she was there. “You're supposed to be resting.”

“Clarke, it's good news!” Jasper said excitedly, completely ignoring her reproach to his friend. “Hell, it's fucking amazing news!” She ticked an eyebrow at him and glanced around the group, seeing grins and beaming smiles everywhere. “What?”

“Dax and Connor,” Maya told her as she gestured to Charlotte, “they're gone. Charlotte was picking up messages this morning and heard the news. They've been sent south, to track down the remaining Reapers.”

Clarke's eyes widened, her mind going blank as she tried to process the information. Everyone else continued to look ecstatic, clearly thinking nothing better could have possibly happened. Harper looked over to Jasper, beaming as she said, “See? I told you the gods would make them pay for what they did!” Clarke just shook her head, still trying to take it in, and let her eyes shift over to Monty. The boy looked nothing but relieved, as though the weight of the world had finally been lifted from his shoulders and he could stand tall again without fear. He met the redhead's eyes, smiling as widely as his split lip would allow. “They're gone, Clarke. Almost nobody comes back from the south. Dax is gone!” Everyone around him all started talking at once it seemed, each sharing their own joy at the news, but Clarke tuned them all out.

It hadn't been the gods who had done this. She knew that as sure as she knew her real identity. The gods didn't take the time to mess in the lives of mortals, likely didn't care enough to. No, she knew exactly who had done this, who had meddled with her plans, and although all her friends grinned and smiled she felt a cold anger building up in her chest.

Suddenly three days was far too long to wait. She wanted to speak with the queen now, but knew that unlike Lexa she would never be able to sneak into the palace. When she finally did see the other woman again though, she doubted the queen would like her reaction.

***

Titus and Lord Nyko were talking beside her, and though Titus was clearly invested in the conversation Lexa could only pretend to be. Two years ago a rock slide had destroyed part of one of the Blue Cliff villages and the repairs were still taking place, and while normally that was a conversation the queen would give her full attention to tonight she just couldn't. She pretended to, nodding along whenever either of the men would look at her and automatically replying when something was addressed to her, but in reality she was only half listening. Most of her attention was on the group standing not very far away, the number of people flocking around Clarke having grown to the point where she might have even lost sight of the burgundy hair if she managed to take her eyes off of her for more than a minute or two. She hadn't though, had been watching her almost exclusively for the past half hour after conveniently placing herself so she would be able to see her over Lord Nyko's shoulder. Titus suspected where her focus was, she could see it in his eyes and the way his posture shifted, but at the moment she couldn't find it in herself to care. He could lecture her later on propriety and the respect she owed her nobles.

The night's party was in full swing, dozens of people standing around talking and eating while more danced and Lexa had spoken to just about everyone at least briefly except for the one person she'd been thinking about for days. She had been unable to get the redhead off her mind since she heard Clarke whispering those words to Monty and the unspoken promise the queen was sure had been laced between them. Lexa had stepped in and fulfilled that promise for her, talking to General Semet first thing the morning after Monty had been attacked and having the two who had hurt him transferred south, and while she had hoped that would be a relief to the dark-haired woman, it didn't seem to be the case. So far this evening Clarke had very pointedly not looked her way, throwing herself into conversation with the people around her, and all Lexa had been able to do up to this point was steal glances at her. She'd been hoping an opportunity would naturally present itself to her and lead her over to the other woman, but she was beginning to think if she was going to speak with Clarke she would just have to go over and do it; the night was coming to an end, and she had a feeling Clarke's escort for the night, a minor lord from the Shallow Valley, would want to be leaving soon so as to begin the next portion of his night with the redhead. The thought nearly made her frown, catching herself just in time from letting her brow crease, and the next thing she knew she was excusing herself to Nyko and Titus, barely even waiting for them to say anything. Titus's eyes bore a hole into the back of her head as she walked away but she barely felt it.

Those around Clarke immediately fell into bows and curtsies the moment they realized she was approaching them, but Lexa could have sworn the redhead waited until the last second that was socially acceptable to do so herself. She didn't look at the queen as she dipped into her always perfect curtsy, pointedly looking instead at the air beside her, but Lexa couldn't look at anything else. Clarke was wearing the same dress she'd had on the night they met, the rusty red as exquisite as the queen remembered it. Tonight her hair had been piled up at the back of her head and the loose strands had been curled, bouncing lightly from her movements. Her blue pendant dangled against her chest, very nearly dipping between the swell of her bosom and as always Lexa had to force herself not to stare. The memory of the bare skin of her back flashed suddenly through her mind and for a second her mouth went dry as she tried to push the thought away.

“Your Majesty,” she heard in a chorus, everyone in the group greeting her respectfully but Clarke. For her part the younger woman remained quiet, still refusing to meet her eye even once she rose out of the curtsy. She wasn't glaring but it was likely as close to it as she could come in a room full of people. Lexa tried not to frown but wasn't sure she was entirely successful.

“Clarke, could I speak with you for a moment?” she asked, ignoring the looks the people around the redhead were giving each other. She didn't even pretend to be interested in any of them, too focused on the other woman.

“If that's what Your Majesty wants,” Clarke replied evenly, looking over Lexa's shoulder. The brunette saw some of the young nobles around them widen their eyes, probably trying to decide if the answer was truly acceptable but Lexa said nothing, just turned to the side a bit and then gestured for Clarke to follow her. As she began walking away she was relieved at least to hear soft footsteps behind her.

She led them to the side of the room where there was some open space, only a Guard standing by the wall. “Excuse us,” she told him, giving him a look that didn't allow for argument and he bowed before quickly stepping away. As soon as she turned around she eyed the room, noticing plenty of pairs of eyes stealing looks their way but nobody approaching. She would have preferred to have this conversation away from everyone else entirely but knew leaving the room with Clarke would only start gossip she couldn't have so settled for what she could get.

“You're angry with me,” Lexa stated calmly and quietly, letting her eyes fall back on Clarke. The redhead still wasn't looking at her but over her shoulder and for some reason that irked her. She was used to people being too intimidated to make eye contact with her but not people actively avoiding looking at her out of anger and found she didn't like it at all.

“I don't know what you're talking about,” Clarke replied just as quietly, trying to keep her tone even but beneath the words Lexa could hear the resentment weaving into her voice.

“I had to do something, Clarke,” she murmured, glancing briefly over the other woman's shoulder to make sure there was still no one around them, being careful in the look so as not to draw even more attention to them. “I couldn't just let them get away with hurting your friend.”

She'd wanted to bring them both up on rape charges but knew she wouldn't be able to do that since nothing had been reported. If she'd tried people would want to know how she knew about it and that would lead to questions she couldn't answer. Instead she'd done the next best thing and sent them to a battle she knew they wouldn't come back from.

Openly talking about what had happened managed to make Clarke finally look at her, a storm brewing in hard blue eyes that Lexa had a hard time looking away from.

“You had no right,” she hissed between clenched teeth, her voice still quiet. The queen didn't let her expression shift, knowing that anyone who looked over could see it, but inside she marveled at the other woman's anger. She'd made sure to strategically place them so that Clarke wouldn't have to worry so much about controlling her expression and at the moment she was glad she had. The redhead took a step closer, fury flashing across her face. “I was going to take care of it!”

“I'm aware,” Lexa replied, clenching her hands behind her back and standing a little taller. She knew it was a noble's stance but at the moment she needed it to stand in the face of the redhead's anger as Clarke's eyebrows lifted. “I heard what you told Monty, and Harper told me about Olen. I put two and two together.”

“You had no right to get involved,” Clarke growled. “They're my people, it's my duty to protect them!”

Now it was Lexa's turn to raise her eyebrows, wondering if Clarke knew how much she sounded like a noble just then. Clearly she's been spending enough time with them lately to have some of their mannerisms rub off on her. “You are all my people,” she reminded her, “that makes it my responsibility to protect you. What I did not only protected Monty but it protected you as well.”

“What if he comes back?” the redhead demanded. “What if the Reapers don't kill him and Dax comes back? I was going to make sure Monty remained safe.”

“He won't come back,” she answered easily, giving a small shrug. What remained of the Reapers were small in number but far too clever for Lexa's liking, using booby traps and dangerous terrain they knew well to pick off the soldiers left to find them. Usually the queen hated having to send anyone south knowing only about half of them ever came home, but in this case she hadn't had any problem with it.

Clarke however didn't seem as sure as she was.

“You don't know that,” she muttered darkly, now not looking away from the brunette. “You can't know they won't come back and if they do Monty is just going to be in danger again. I could have stopped it.”

“If either of them come back then I will find somewhere else to send them,” Lexa replied. “I will send them to do a soldier's work until they don't come back.”

“Do you really think you'll know if they come back?” Clarke demanded, giving her a look. “There are thousands of soldiers in your army, do you really think you'll be able to keep tabs on these two? What happens when one of the noble houses need you to visit their fief? Are you going to leave someone in Polis with orders to be watching for Dax and Connor? You're the queen, do you honestly think that the beating and rape of one whore is going to be important enough to always be at the top of your list?”

Hurt flashed across Lexa's face before she could stop it, her mask slipping for just a second. She lifted her chin a little higher, meeting Clarke's eyes as she replied quietly, “The safety of my people is always the most important thing. I thought you knew that.” For a brief moment she saw guilt clouding the younger woman's eyes but just like that it was gone again and her jaw was clenched. “They deserve to die.”

“What you want is revenge for you friend Clarke, not justice,” she stated, her voice and expression once again carefully even. A renewed fire whipped wildly at the back of Clarke's eyes and it both fascinated and terrified her just a little, not sure what she'd said to cause it. She was suddenly reminded of the uncontrolled fury the redhead had let out the moment she saw her friend lying bruised and bloody in the bed, and for the first time she wondered if Clarke was actually a storm goddess wrapped in skin.

“Sometimes justice doesn't exist,” the younger woman spat, her tone harsh and unyielding. “Sometimes revenge is all there is.” Lexa scanned her face, unhappy to see how much she clearly truly believed that.

“Justice always exists, Clarke,” she replied, shaking her head, “Sometimes it just doesn't feel like enough.” To her surprise the redhead let out a scoff, the sound heavy and dry as she gave the queen a look. “Says the woman who started a war with the people who killed her father. Tell me Your Majesty, was that justice or was it revenge?”

Lexa suddenly felt as though she had been slapped, her jaw dropping just a bit. Clarke's eyes scanned her face and she suddenly felt stripped bare, open and vulnerable in a way she'd never been before. For a moment she thought she saw blue eyes soften but then the dark-haired woman was shaking her head, eyes closing. “Don't lecture me on justice, Your Majesty. Justice is just for the people who can afford it. The rest of us have to make do with whatever we can get for ourselves. It's just one more way our worlds are different.” The older woman didn't know what to say to that, couldn't think of anything to say, and silence stretched out between them before Clarke fell back into a stiff curtsy. “Now if you'll excuse me, I'm here with someone and should really be with them. Thank you for this... talk, Your Majesty.” She turned away then and made her way back to the crowd waiting for her, and as Lexa watched her walk away she wondered just how many more times she would leave the queen standing somewhere speechless. This was becoming far too common an occurrence and she didn't like it.

Finally Lexa tore her gaze off of Clarke, trying not to frown as she pushed the younger woman's words away to go over later. She looked out over the room, searching for the next conversation she could step into that would undoubtedly be far less eye-opening than every one with Clarke seemed to be, and instead found Titus across the room, his eyes narrowed nearly into slits as he stared at the redhead once again smiling and laughing as she flawlessly fell back into her crowd. The queen let out a sigh, no one close enough to hear it luckily, and began making her way towards him. She had no doubt she would be getting a long, long lecture from him later about the proper company of a queen and figured she might as well start trying to appease him now.

It wouldn't prevent the lecture but it might at least shorten it, and at this point Lexa would take anything she could get.

Chapter Text

A headache pounded at Lexa's temples, sharp and steady and unyielding, and it took every bit of control she could muster to keep from rubbing at them. She sat with her back ramrod straight and her shoulders perfectly set but all she wanted was to sink back in her chair. The lecture she would get from her aunt kept her from doing so, but it was a battle she had to fight every second to keep from losing.

She sat at one end of the long dining table, her aunt down at the other end while her brother sat to her right and Roan sat across from him on her left. Anya stood by the wall behind her, her living shadow, while Nia's personal guard stood back behind her. When she bothered to look over her aunt's shoulder she could see Ontari watching the entire table, as present as she knew Anya must be, but she seldom bothered to look. They were on the third course of a five course meal and as much as she normally enjoyed venison, tonight the meat felt far too rich on her pallet, the sauce covering the meat making her stomach roll a little with every bite. It would be impolite not to eat it though, to her guests as well as to her cook, so she speared another small chunk of the venison with her fork and then chewed it slowly.

“Alexandria, when are you going to invite your guests to something outside of the palace?” her aunt asked suddenly, looking down the table at her even as her head was tipped towards her plate. “Your parties are nice but many of them are likely getting tired of staring at the walls. I know I for one am. They want to be able to speak with you without music drowning them out.”

“I meet with members of different houses every day,” she reminded the duchess, making sure to speak calmly and to not give away any hints towards how she was feeling. “The parties are just an opportunity for everyone to come together and talk, but if you have another suggestion I am happy to hear it.”

“How about a hunt?” Roan suggested, turning his head to look at her. “The Trikru forest is beautiful, and it's my understanding there has been plenty of game so far this season. I'm sure many of the lords and some of the ladies as well would enjoy it.” Lexa nodded as she continued to focus on her plate, actually liking the idea. Getting out of the palace sounded like a relief at the moment, though she'd rather not be surrounded by a few dozen nobles when she did. It was a good suggestion though, and one she would seriously consider.

“A hunt would work,” Nia agreed, nodding to her son, and then she looked back at the queen, “but I was thinking perhaps a tournament. There are so many knights and squires here at the moment I'm sure it would draw a crowd.”

“The younger nobility would love it,” Aden added, sitting nearly as straight as his sister. He looked from one end of the table to the other, adding, “I see a lot of them out in the training yards every day working on everything from swords to bows and I know all of them would love to show off what they can do in front of a crowd.”

Lexa listened to all of them, thinking the suggestions over. “A hunt would be easier to plan, but a tournament is possible as well. I could schedule it for the end of the summer.” She looked up again, meeting her aunt's gaze from the other end of the table and nodded, telling her, “I'll think on it. Thank you for the suggestion, Aunt.” The duchess nodded once, giving her a small, simple smile, and then the conversation continued on to other topics, always remaining light. Lexa wondered if everyone else at the table also had a headache since it almost never stayed this civil for this long when she and her aunt were in the same room without an under current of tension. There weren't even any hints of arguments however as the fourth and the fifth courses were served and the queen thanked the gods for it.

Once the meal was over they parted ways, Nia and Roan likely going to the rooms Lexa had given them for their stay and Aden and the queen walking with Anya to one of their small meeting rooms. Titus was already in the room when they arrived, reading through a scroll thoroughly as he picked at a plate of cheese and fruit one of the servants had already put out. Seeing the food made her stomach roll and her headache spike and Lexa bypassed it, instead pouring herself a cup of wine from the skin beside the tray. She watered it down with the pitcher beside it and then took a sip, the cool sweetness cutting through her headache just a little bit. Anya eyed her as she helped herself to a cup as well, not watering the wine down. “What's with you?”

“Nothing,” she replied automatically, skimming over the other few scrolls laid out precisely on the table and not looking up to see the look they were all probably giving her. She didn't sit, her legs stiff and needing the stretch, but was at least glad to hear the scraping of chair legs against the floor as both Anya and Aden did. Reaching out and pulling one of the scrolls over to her she asked offhandedly, “Titus, what would we need to do to have a tournament ready by the end of summer?”

“A tournament?” her adviser repeated and Lexa nodded, finally lifting her eyes from the table to look at him. He tilted his head up and looked at the ceiling, likely going over countless lists in his head. “We'd need to hire more cooks, purchase the food, go over the tourney field and make any repairs needed.” Lexa nodded: it had been years since the last tournament in Polis, back when her father was still alive. She never hosted them as a child and then she'd been too busy uniting her people and destroying her enemy to have any. The fields had been maintained but would still need a little work before anyone would be able to use them. “We would also have to put together a winner's purse, though that shouldn't be too difficult...” He trailed off for a moment before his eyes widened a fraction, enough of a change from his usual expression for all of them to notice. The adviser looked back at Lexa and just from the look she had a feeling she wasn't going to like what he said next. “Perhaps that's how you could pick your husband,” he suggested, trying to sound uninterested but failing entirely. “We could state that only unmarried men could sign up and that the winner would be able to mar-”

“No,” Lexa growled, cutting him off. She didn't even care that it was rude, she refused to let him finish his thought. “Absolutely not. The winner will get a purse and that's it.”

Under normal circumstances Titus would have immediately dropped it but apparently she'd put this off long enough he wasn't willing to tonight.

“You need to decide soon, Your Majesty,” he informed her, not looking away from her. “The Kongeda needs a king and you need an heir. You are twenty-four; when your mother was your age you were five years old. You have a duty to your people and if-”

“I am well aware of my duty, Titus,” she stated loudly, just managing to keep herself from yelling. Her temples throbbed and her jaw clenched, red-hot anger simmering beneath her skin. She was absolutely not in the mood to have this discussion with him yet again, and would not try to tamper her annoyance if he tried to keep speaking about it. “I have never failed to do my duty before and won't fail this time either, but I also will not be a prize in some games. You will put together a purse for the victor and we will plan this tournament for the end of the summer. In two weeks I will also be taking whatever nobles would like to go on a hunt and perhaps whatever we get during that can go towards feeding everyone at the tournament.” He nodded resolutely, his lips pulled back in a thin line and she returned it with her own nod. Her gaze dropped back down to the scrolls on the table and her brow creased, having absolutely no desire to go over it all. She knew she would likely regret this later but the next moment her cup was back on the table and she had turned around, already making her way over to the door. “I will go over all of this in the morning, but for the moment I'm going to bed. I do not want to be disturbed.” She didn't give any of them a chance to argue with her, quickly pushing the door open and slipping back into the hallway.

She hadn't gone more than a few feet when she heard the door open and close again behind her and she looked up in a partial eye roll, already knowing who it was.

“I can walk to my room alone,” she growled, her mood too foul now to bother being polite. Anya fell into step beside her, having no problem keeping up with her as she began walking a little faster and it irked the queen to see the nonchalant look on her best friend's face.

“You can,” she agreed easily beside her, giving a little nod and expression in no way showing anything but cool confidence, “but you're not going to.”

“I'm not a child,” Lexa told her, her tone low and even she could hear her anger licking at her words. “I don't need to be escorted to my own room in my own home.”

“Go ahead, keep growling at me all you want, you're still not getting rid of me until we're at your room and I see the Guards posted outside it,” she replied lightly, eyebrows barely even lifting as she spoke. Her easy mood just made the brunette angrier but she kept her mouth closed, sure that if she allowed herself to speak now her usual control would be entirely gone and she'd say something she immediately regretted. They walked the rest of the way to Lexa's bedchambers in silence, and true to her word Anya only left her once the two Guards outside the doors had bowed to her and the queen was letting herself in the room. Once inside she quickly stripped out of the dress she'd had to wear to dinner and changed into her nightgown, getting into bed within minutes after blowing out the many candles spread out around the room. She hoped her headache and anger might be doused out along with the flames but had no such luck.

Lexa really did have every intention of going to sleep, but after what had to have been at least an hour of tossing and turning she finally gave up, throwing her summer sheets aside and rolling herself back out of bed. Without even thinking about it she stripped out of the nightgown and put on a pair of breeches and a shirt, giving the Guards her now usual library excuse as she left her room. It seemed like her mind didn't even need to tell her feet which way to go at the end of the hall, her body just automatically turning for her and soon she found herself in the small food pantry again, snapping the sword that now seemed to be almost permanently stored there to her belt. Once it and her cloak were on she waited impatiently by the door, taking the first opportunity she saw to sneak into the kitchen and out of the palace.

Somehow the noise in the streets of Polis didn't seem to add to her headache; if anything the further she walked into the city the lighter the ache at her temples became. She suspected it had less to do with the city and more to do with her destination but didn't let herself think on it much. It had been barely forty-eight hours since she last saw Clarke, since the redhead had nearly yelled at and then stormed away from her, but apparently she couldn't stay away any longer. She shouldn't care so much about one woman's opinions on her or her feelings but thinking about Clarke and her anger had made it nearly impossible for her to focus on anything else. If she was going to get anything done for the rest of the week she needed to see her, and that was all there was to it.

For the first time when she walked into The Rig there wasn't anyone waiting to be seen to, the front room empty except for Luna behind her desk and the same man as always standing beside her. The mistress looked up at her, eyebrows lifting for a moment in surprise, but then gestured to the wall at the other side of the room. “She's busy. Should be available soon.”

“Thank you,” the queen replied and then went over to stand in what she was coming to consider her usual spot. She'd only been standing there for a few minutes when two sets of footsteps came padding down the hall and she turned to see Jasper leading a man a few years older than him into the small room. The man didn't say anything as he passed by the boy, nodding over to Luna behind the desk and tucking his shirt into his breeches before leaving, but Jasper looked over at her, lifting an eyebrow in surprise. Lexa tried not to focus on the fact he wasn't wearing a shirt, only a thin pair of breeches covering him and made sure to instead focus on his face.

“Lexa, right?” he asked, eyeing her over, and the brunette nodded. Both eyebrows raised now as he continued to look her over, clearly taking in the quality of her cloak and what he could see of the clothes underneath it. He let out a low whistle, apparently impressed. “You look a little different than you did the other night.” She didn't know what to say to that, didn't know what Clarke might have said about her or what was safe to say, so she remained quiet, just meeting his eyes. “You here for Clarke?”

“I am,” she replied, nodding once and he mirrored it. He seemed to be thinking something over for a second and then she watched as one corner of his mouth curled up into a grin before he gestured back behind him. “Come on, I'll take you to her,” he offered, flashing her more of his smile. “I think she was about to head up to her room when I was coming down.”

“Jasper,” Luna spoke up, looking up at him from her desk but he just turned his grin on her. “No worries Luna, I'll be back in a minute or two, and it's not like you've got a line of people waiting. We'll just be quick.” He didn't wait for his mistress to say anything else, just turned around and began walking down the hall, and Lexa glanced over at the woman for a second, not entirely sure what to do, before following him.

“So you and Clarke are friends now, huh?” he threw over his shoulder, looking back at her. The idea warmed her like it always did but at the same time the memory of the redhead all but storming away from her countered it, and after a moment she answered quietly, “We are... something, yes.” His eyebrows rose again and then lowered as he turned to face forward. “Alright then. Well you're lucky, Clarke isn't friends or something like it with just anyone. If she likes you then it must mean something.”

Lexa bit the inside of her lip, her heart skipping a beat at the idea. She really didn't know what they were but she knew that they were something, and as long as they continued to be something it would be enough for her. As long as Clarke didn't hate her she could be happy.

The usual noises filled the hall as they walked down it, and Lexa thought maybe she'd now been there enough to be used to it, the groans no longer making her throat dry every time she heard them. Maybe that was why she was so entirely unready for it, was thrown so completely when Jasper began to lead her by an open door and she heard a familiar voice. Without thinking she turned towards it and instantly stopped in her tracks, her feet suddenly feeling as though they were stuck to the floor. She looked into the open room and immediately her stomach dropped, heart stopped, and mind went completely blank, forgetting even how to breathe.

The room was furnished to comfortably allow for multiple people, and at the moment three couples were making use of it, but the only one the queen could look at had somehow been placed directly in the line of view of the doorway. Clarke was on her hands and knees on a lounge, her red hair spilling over her shoulders but in no way covering the bounce of her breasts as the man behind her pounded into her. Lexa could see his fingers clutching at the younger woman's hips as he thrust into her over and over, Clarke's body shifting back and forth with each movement and for some reason the pads of her own fingers suddenly tingled. The man was grunting behind her while Clarke moaned and the sound went straight to Lexa's stomach only to then pool between her thighs while her mouth and throat went absolutely bone dry. She could feel not only her cheeks but her entire face heat up, flushing what had to be a deep and impressive red.

For a second she stood planted where she was, unable to look away, and then by some cruel trick of the gods Clarke's head turned, looking towards the doorway and their eyes suddenly met. The younger woman's moan cut off abruptly as her eyes widened in shock but Lexa didn't stick around to see what would happen next. Almost the moment she met blue eyes she was finally able to move again and she fled, nearly running back down the hall she'd just come from. Luna looked up when she heard her coming but Lexa couldn't look anywhere but directly in front of her until she burst out of the front door.

Now outside, the queen forced herself to take long, deep breaths, partially to make herself calm down and partially to make sure she still knew how to breathe. She blinked rapidly, trying to get the images of Clarke's pale skin and beautifully bare body out of her mind, but no matter how many times she blinked the memories were seared into her mind, likely never to be forgotten. She needed water but didn't have any and certainly had no intention of going back inside to find any, so had to settle for trying to swallow over and over again to wet her dry mouth. Looking around she found the bench outside of The Rig empty and went over to it, sitting down heavily. She'd come here to talk to Clarke and couldn't leave until she had, but also knew she wouldn't be able to go back inside until she'd managed to calm down, and judging by the way her heart was currently ramming into her chest she had a feeling that would be a while. She wanted to meditate, to attempt to center herself and clear her mind like Titus had taught her to do when she was young but didn't dare close her eyes with the many people on the street around her. Instead she focused on her breath, counting slowly as she took air in, holding it to another count and then slowly letting it back out. She repeated the steps over and over again until she felt like she'd managed to regain some semblance of control over herself and then kept going, anything to try to keep her mind clear.

Two people left The Rig while she was sitting out there, the first one someone she had never seen before but the second recognizable only because his features kept playing at the edges of her memories. She could see his hands on Clarke's hips, his own hips snapping against her, and as he sauntered away from the building something hot spilled over in her gut and it was only her iron control that kept her from loosening the sword at her waist and making a quick cut at his legs. She'd like to see him saunter away after her blade bit deep into the back of his knees. He disappeared into the crowd and she went back to her counting, having to start over again to rein in the heat in her gut she was trying to tell herself wasn't jealousy. A couple of minutes after he disappeared another person exited The Rig but this person stopped beside her bench and Lexa felt her neck and ears heat up a little as she carefully eyed Clarke in her periphery.

“Jasper shouldn't have done that,” she stated after a few seconds of awkward silence between them. Lexa noticed her fiddling with the sash around the middle of the robe she now wore, probably too embarrassed to stand completely still. “He's a prick. Trust me, I'll be yelling at him later.”

“It's fine,” Lexa tried to assure her, shifting a little on the bench but not quite able to meet her eye. “I was just... surprised, that's all. I'm sorry if I... interrupted.” They stayed there awkwardly for another few seconds before Clarke let out a long sigh, running a hand over her face. “I need a drink.” She turned and looked over her shoulder, nodding for the queen to follow her. “We'll change and then go back to the Dropship.” Lexa nodded and then stood, following her back into The Rig. As they walked she made sure to look nowhere but at the younger woman's back in front of her, trying to pretend she didn't know how pale the skin beneath her robe was.

Clarke stopped when they reached the staircase and gestured up it. “I'll meet you in my room. I have to get a couple of things from the kitchen.” Lexa's eyes scanned over her briefly and then she nodded, passing by the redhead and continuing up the stairs. Clarke turned and made her way to the kitchen, and when she stepped inside and saw who was sitting at the table she glared. Jasper looked up from his stool as she walked in, immediately grinning.

“Clarke!” he exclaimed, waggling his eyebrows at her. “Finished with your guest already? So sorry I interrupted.”

“It's not funny Jasper,” she growled, shooting him a look. “You are absolutely going to pay for that.” Beside him Monty looked up from the dough he was kneading, lifting an eyebrow as he glanced over at his friend. “What did you do and how much trouble are you in?”

“I didn't do anything,” Jasper replied, leaning back on his stool and trying to look indignant. He glanced back over to the redhead as she made her way to the table, grabbing the tea pot set out at its center and pouring herself a cup. “I was trying to be helpful by bringing her new friend Lexa to her, but turns out she was in the middle of seeing to another guest.” Monty shook his head, the corners of his mouth tugging up. “It was nice knowing you, Jasper. I'll miss you.” His best friend spluttered beside him and Clarke hid the hint of a smile behind her mug as she took a sip.

“What?” Jasper demanded, throwing his hands up. “It's not like she hasn't seen you naked before. What, does your noble friend not like sharing so she doesn't want to see you with anyone else? Cuz if that's it, then she's dumb for thinking you're only ever naked with her.”

She could have told him that Lexa had never seen her naked – well, not like that at least – and had definitely never seen her being fucked before, but that would create far more questions than it answered. Clearly he thought she was one of Clarke's nobles and nothing more, and that worked for her. So rather than correct him she just gave him another glare, telling him, “It doesn't matter, you still shouldn't have done that. It wasn't funny.”

“Here Clarke,” Monty broke in, wiping hands covered with flour on the apron tied around his waist and then pushing a plate of bread and hard cheese over to her. He gave her a smile, saying, “If you're gonna kill Jasper you'll need your strength.” The two shared a grin while Clarke helped herself to a slice of bread and cheese while the other boy crossed his arms over his chest and harrumphed.

Two days after Dax's attack when both Monty and Clarke agreed he could start moving around again Luna had assigned him to the kitchens. There he'd helped cook and clean, all work he was already familiar with, and despite being covered with a thin layer of flour ever since, Clarke had to admit he did look like he was getting better. All of his cuts had scabbed over and the smallest of them were now just thin lines, while the bruises had all faded to yellows and greens instead of their dark purples and blues and reds. She and Luna had both told him to take it easy but whenever any of the cooks had an order for him he completed it without any complaints and Clarke was pretty sure they'd be sorry to see him go once he was well enough to start his normal work again.

Clarke ate the bread and cheese quickly, already having had a small dinner, and then grabbed her mug of tea and got up from the table. Before leaving the kitchen she went over to the corner where a bucket of water and some old worn rags were, dunking one in and then ringing it out. She hung it over her arm and then left, waving back to Monty and giving Jasper one final glare. With tea and rag in hand she made her way back to the stairs and then began the climb up them, thoughts quickly turning back to the woman she would find waiting for her in her room. The anger she'd felt two nights ago was still there, still flickered slightly in her chest, but had died down enough since then to look past and now other emotions overwhelmed it. She did her best to ignore them all, pushing them down as she tried to hide from them.

Opening the door to her room, she found the queen standing at the foot of her bed, her stance stiff and a little awkward. Her cloak was already folded up neatly and placed on the end of the mattress, her sword and belt laying beside it, but it was clear she hadn't sat or probably even really moved much since taking them off. Green eyes glanced around the room, undoubtedly taking in the small shelf of herbs that hung on one wall, the bed and small table beside it, and the single piece of art Clarke had put up, a charcoal drawing she'd done herself of the view she once had of the Arkadian forest whenever she looked out the window in her old bedroom. When Clarke stepped into the room those green eyes immediately shifted to her, and for a second she looked away from them, for some reason not able to meet them.

“You could have sat down you know,” she stated after closing the door behind her. Crossing the room she placed the mug of tea on the table to finish after she had changed.

The queen looked at the bed and then back at her, telling her, “I didn't want to impose.” When Clarke finally looked over, lifting an eyebrow, her stiff expression softened a little and her shoulders loosened. “And I've been sitting most of the day so standing for a few minutes felt nice.” It was her turn to quickly look away, a pink blush still splayed across her cheeks Clarke was trying not to notice, and she nodded to the picture. “Did you do this?”

“Mm,” she confirmed, not looking at the image, instead moving over to her closet. Her hand went straight to the brown dress Lexa always wore, the action apparently automatic now, and she handed it and a pair of hose to the other woman. “It's very good,” the queen told her, the sincerity clear in her voice, “You're very talented.”

The younger woman just shrugged as she turned back to the closet. “Thank you,” she replied, mind only partially on the conversation as she started rummaging through until she found a simple dark green dress that would do. As she loosened the sash of her robe and let the material fall away she heard soft movements behind her, and couldn't quite stop herself from peaking over her shoulder. The queen's back was already to her, apparently knowing this time to turn around as soon as she'd been given the dress, and Clarke couldn't quite keep her eyes from sweeping over the brunette's bare back as she neatly folded her shirt. Somehow her skin held a stunning summer tan or maybe was just naturally tanned, and she had to swallow thickly before prying her gaze away and turning back around. With her robe now on the floor she used the damp rag she still held to wipe at her thighs, cleaning the small mess from her night up before she began to pull on the new dress.

Within minutes both women had finished dressing but they still had a hard time looking at each other. Clarke couldn't tell if the strangeness between them came more from their last interaction at the palace or from what the queen had accidentally just seen but it was there and nearly palpable in the air between them. Almost just for something to do she walked over to where she'd set her tea and lifted the cup, gulping down a large swallow. From the corner of her vision she saw the brunette look at her, her hands smoothing down the skirt of her dress for something to do as well. “What's that?” she asked, probably just to try to break up the awkwardness between them. The redhead's eyes fell down to the liquid in her mug before she answered, “Tea. All the women drink it a couple of times a day. It helps prevent pregnancies.” She unnecessarily gestured to her stomach and watched as the queen's face brightened slightly, the pink tinge returning to her cheeks as she looked away quickly. “Oh,” she just said, and then added, “That's very smart.” Clarke nodded and then downed the last of the drink, placing the mug back on the table before turning towards the door. “Right now I could use something stronger. You ready?”

“Of course,” Lexa agreed with a small nod and Clarke glanced at her again out of the corner of her eye before leading her out of the room.

The walk to the Dropship was quiet, at least between them. The streets themselves were anything but, men and women shouting, children laughing and dogs barking, but the noise couldn't quite penetrate their bubble of strangeness. Lexa kept glancing at Clarke as subtly as she could and then looking away again, desperately trying to think of a way to break the tension between them. Nothing came to mind though so she instead tried to focus on everything around her, but when she did guilt weighed heavily along her shoulders. She saw far too many people who were barely more than skin and bones, their eyes sunken into their heads and rags hanging off of too-thin frames, and her second through fifth courses turned to lead in her gut.

When they made it to the Dropship Clarke led them right to an empty table along one wall, far enough away from everyone else so that anything they might say wouldn't easily be overheard but close enough that they could pretend to be watching the dice game in the corner if they couldn't cut through the strangeness. Murphy raised an eyebrow at her from across the room and she held up two fingers, and only a few minutes later he was setting two tankards in front of them, leaving with nothing more than an uninterested, “Mmhm,” when Lexa thanked him. Both women reached out to fiddle with their drinks, Lexa tapping a finger lightly against the cool metal of the cup and Clarke taking an extra long gulp as soon as she had it and then turning it around and around in front of her after she'd placed it back on the table. After minutes of silence, Lexa couldn't take it anymore and decided she had to say something.

“Clarke I'm...” she began, but then trailed off. Part of her wanted to apologize because she thought maybe that's what the other woman wanted, but she knew she had nothing to apologize for, not really. Dax and Connor had needed to be punished somehow for what they did to Monty, but she couldn't just let Clarke go after them, not when she could have been hurt in the process. Even if she hadn't been hurt she would have been taking the law into her own hands, and the queen couldn't just sit back and allow that. She already wasn't sure what to think about her suspicions of Clarke and this Olen person, suspicions the other woman had already all but confirmed. Her brow creased a little as she tried to think of what to say, but then she let out a small sigh, shaking her head. In the end she went with, “Thank you for helping me again. I hope you know how much it means to me.”

Clarke studied the woman across the table, knowing there was more she wanted to say than what had actually come out of her mouth. She understood that, felt her own words locked away somewhere she couldn't quite reach them, and nodded in the meantime. She couldn't decide if she wanted to apologize for getting so angry with her the other night, forgive her for sending Dax and Connor away before she could do something about what they'd done to Monty, or stay angry at her for the very same thing. It all whirled inside her in a never-ending cycle too quickly for her to grasp onto one and stick with it so for now she decided the best thing to do would be to ignore all three until they could sort themselves out. “It isn't a problem,” she replied, lifting her tankard again. “It gets me out of work for a night.” She thought of something and then a smile managed to tug against the corners of her mouth and she looked at the queen over her mug. “Though if you gave me a little warning about when you were going to be by I could try to make sure not to be working then, and especially not so openly.” Lexa's cheeks flushed again and Clarke's smile grew a little, ignoring the voice in the back of her mind telling her how pretty it was.

Lexa looked away and then back again, feeling her cheeks heat up. Quickly she grabbed her tankard and took a sip of the ale, the bitter drink distracting enough to help wash away her embarrassment. She thought it strange that Clarke had been the one caught so... exposed, but she was the one so embarrassed by it. Then again if the other people in that room had been anything to go by, the dark-haired woman clearly was far more used to public displays like that one than the queen was, so perhaps it wasn't strange at all.

“I would, but I don't usually know when I'm going to be coming,” she informed the other woman after swallowing her sip. “Believe it or not, getting here is not always easy and requires the right circumstances.”

“I'm still just surprised you can get here at all,” Clarke told her, fingers spinning her tankard around absentmindedly still. “I'm a little worried about how good your security is, especially now that you've been able to sneak in and out three times.” She made sure that Lexa would be able to hear the teasing in her voice, and was rewarded when the queen gave her a small smile.

“You shouldn't be,” she replied, easing a little more into her seat. Now that they were talking she could feel the stress begin to melt out of her muscles and she relaxed, barely even noticing it as her shoulders began to sink from their signature stiffness. “My security is fine, I've just found a way around it.” She debated for a second, not entirely sure she should say more, but she wanted Clarke to know that she trusted her. Glancing down to her tankard, she grabbed at it again, trying to sound nonchalant as she added, “Nobody really recognizes me in the kitchen, and by the time I leave most of the work there is done for the night so I don't have to worry about too many people still being there.”

Clarke watched the queen carefully as she talked, noticing how her fingers tightened slightly around her tankard when she mentioned the kitchen and how she purposefully didn't look at her. It didn't slip past her what she was doing, the trust she was putting in her: with that information she could easily tell anyone she wanted about the queen's trips to the city, though whether they would believe her was another thing. She understood the trust the brunette was giving her and for some reason her heart suddenly felt a little lighter in her chest. Clarke did her best to ignore the feeling, trying not to think about it as she nodded, raising her eyebrows.

“Smart,” she said lightly, “That explains it.” When the queen looked back over at her she gave her a smile, hoping she would read in it what she couldn't say. Green eyes scanned her face for a moment and then the older woman's lips slowly curled up into a matching smile. Clarke's twitched as she lifted her tankard, looking over it at the queen as she teased, “It's still hard to believe you've been able to get away so much. What does Anya think you're doing?”

“Anya thinks I'm sleeping,” Lexa replied without pause, finding it easier to talk about now that the redhead was smiling at her. “As do Titus and my brother. The only people aware I'm not think I'm reading in the library where I have been known to fall asleep before. No one should suspect anything.”

An image of the brunette curled up in an overly large chair surrounded by books played in Clarke's mind and she felt her smile soften. It was a beautiful picture; she could see Lexa's feet tucked beneath her as she curled further into the chair, one book balanced on her knees while others lay on the arms of the chair and still more were piled on a table beside it. She could even imagine green eyes fighting to stay open and the queen's head bobbing as she slowly succumbed to sleep, and Clarke's heart squeezed in her chest. In the picture Lexa was dressed in the brown dress instead of her royal wardrobe, and the younger woman couldn't help but think it just looked right on her, both now and in the image.

The queen was looking at her across the table and Clarke realized she hadn't said anything, getting lost in the thought. She coughed a little as she shifted in her seat, something catching in the back of her throat, and she shook her head. “Sneaky. I'm impressed.” She watched as Lexa's lips curled into a small smile, her head dipping a little, in thanks or embarrassment Clarke couldn't tell, but either way she found the motion more endearing than it had a right to be. To try to tamper down a strange new buzzing she felt in her stomach she took another swallow of her drink.

Lexa looked up from beneath her eyelashes, chancing a glance at the other woman across the table. Clarke seemed to be more comfortable now than she had been when the tankards had been dropped off, and that thought made the brunette want to relax even more. She couldn't quite relax completely though, a question buzzing at the forefront of her mind, one she was a little afraid to ask.

“How's Monty?” she finally asked hesitantly. She didn't really want to take the chance of triggering the other woman's anger again, not when they were finally seeming to get past what had happened the other night, but she had to know. Too many times over the past couple of days she'd thought about the boy, his bruised and bloodied face flashing through her mind. Clarke's eyes shifted over to her and Lexa felt herself holding her breath. She met them, refusing to look away, and could practically read the debate going on in the redhead's mind. Apparently she decided to let her anger go as the brunette watched a shift take place in her expression. She couldn't tell if she was entirely forgiven for butting in, but she would happily take it nonetheless.

“He's doing alright,” Clarke answered after a moment, looking back down at her drink. “Luna's assigned him to the kitchen while he heals. I think he's enjoyed being back there.”

“Back?” Lexa inquired, raising an eyebrow and she saw something flash again across the younger woman's expression before nodding. “Yeah,” she said, her tone oddly even, “he started in the kitchen when Luna hired him.”

“Why's that?” Lexa wanted to know, and then clarified as she frowned, “I mean, what made him choose to leave the kitchen?” Across the table Clarke's jaw clenched for a second and inside she panicked, afraid she'd asked something she shouldn't have until the other woman started speaking.

“He grew up,” she answered, fighting to keep her tone even. At the edge of her periphery she could see the queen frowning, obviously not understanding, but she couldn't look up again while she told this story. If she did she was afraid she wouldn't be able to contain her anger, and Lexa had seen enough of that already. “Luna found Monty when he was eight. His mother had sold him to another whorehouse when he was younger. She apparently had too many mouths to feed and not enough food to spare and the guy she sold him to paid a decent price for him.”

Lexa stared at Clarke, horror etched into the lines of her mouth. “Eight?” she whispered, desperately hoping she'd heard wrong, but when the younger woman nodded her stomach dropped, the color washing out of her face. “But that, it's, slavery, and, and...” She couldn't even find a word to describe how horrible what she'd just heard was, and from the set of Clarke's jaw she agreed. There were laws in place that were supposed to protect people from this kind of thing, very firm laws against slavery alone and others against using children in such ways, but in Monty's case at least those laws might as well not have existed. “How, how did that happen? There are laws that are supposed to prevent those kinds of things!”

Finally Clarke looked up, finding a pale and horrified woman now gaping at her and for a moment her heart broke. “There are ways around most laws,” she informed the queen quietly. “Technically Monty was paid for what he had to do so his master could say it wasn't slavery, and when he couldn't find ways around the laws...” She shrugged, trailing off. Her stomach rolled whenever she thought about the horrors Monty had endured in his life, and she knew she'd never understand how he had somehow ended up the sweet and caring young man he was. How life hadn't broken him she didn't know, but she thanked the gods every day it hadn't. “Sometimes people think it's worth breaking the law,” she continued finally, “the profit they get outweighs the possible penalty. From what I understand it wasn't exactly easy for Luna to buy him off of his old master.”

“She bought him?” Lexa repeated, bile rising in the back of her throat from the story. Clarke nodded, telling her, “She does that, whenever she can. If she hears about a kid working in another house she'll buy them, hire them, and then give them other work to do until they're fourteen. Monty worked in the kitchen a lot, or cleaned. We have a girl named Charlotte right now who works as our messenger. She's been with us for a year. When they're fourteen Luna either gives them work as a whore or they can leave to try to find other work. Usually they stay.”

As she spoke Lexa began shaking her head, almost numb to the movement. How had she let this happen? It was her responsibility to protect her people, but despite the laws in place horrendous things had happened – were clearly still happening – and the youngest, most innocent of them weren't safe. While she'd been busy trying to unite warring houses and then fighting another kind of war the people she owed the most to had been in danger and she had done nothing to prevent it, hadn't even known about it. Sure, she knew no law was perfect, knew that people even often broke them, but she liked to believe overall her people were safe. Now she knew a boy who'd likely spent years in fear and pain until someone had finally stepped in to save him. All at once Lexa hated herself, despised herself even, and knew she would never be able to see any of this as anything but the absolute worst kind of failure, the kind that could never be forgiven.

Though the queen had gone quiet, Clarke could see the anger brewing in her eyes, noticed the white of her knuckles from how hard she gripped her tankard. She could practically read her mind, knowing exactly what she was thinking after thinking all the same things before about herself, and shook her head. “It's not your fault, you know,” she told her quietly, and suddenly those bright eyes flickered up to meet hers.

“It's my responsibility to protect my people,” Lexa replied between grit teeth, her voice low. “I failed. What happened to Monty...” She trailed off, unable to find a way to express the anguish festering in her chest.

Clarke studied her for a second, trying to shake the strangeness of having her thoughts said out loud to her by someone else. She understood every bit of what the queen was feeling at the moment, had been living with it for seven years, and it had taken her just as long to find ways to get past it all. If she were being honest with herself she still felt it all often enough, this same self-loathing the queen was experiencing, but seeing it in the queen's eyes was somehow worse. “You can't stop what you don't know is happening,” she informed the older woman, her voice soft and Lexa had to look away, her eyes snapping shut. Clarke studied her, wishing she could tell her just how much she understood the war that was raging inside her right now, but instead having to settle for just the soft words.

But now I know, Lexa thought as she bit the inside of her cheek, and now I will stop it. It was too late to do anything to help Monty; Luna had stepped in and done that for her, but the queen would find a way to prevent it from happening to anyone else. Later that night when she was back in her room she would go over the story again, and after likely getting sick from the images it gave her she would plan, would find a way to keep future children safe; she doubted she would sleep until she at least had a few ideas of how to do just that.

The conversation died out for a few minutes, each lost in their own thoughts. Lexa tried to move past the story, tried to tuck it away to go over again later but kept failing, the boiling anger in her chest not yet ready to be pushed aside. Clarke watched the other woman, seeing it all warring behind bright green eyes that tried to hide her feelings away and wished she could do something to help but knew that anger too well to really believe she could do anything to douse it. After the silence had spread between them for a while she saw Emori walk across the room out of the corner of her eye to a table in the far corner, holding a tray of something, and decided the best thing she could do was try to completely change the subject.

“Are you hungry?,” she asked, watching as green eyes focused on her once again. She motioned towards the inn's mistress, saying, “I can find out what Emori's got in the kitchen if you are.”

Lexa could see what Clarke was trying to do and something cracked a little in her chest, but unfortunately the question didn't quite have the affect she knew the redhead was going for. Thoughts of the lavish dinner she'd had flashed through Lexa's mind quickly followed by images of some of the people they'd passed on their way to get here and her stomach turned, guilt rising like bile in her throat to mix with the anger that still sizzled in her chest. “No, thank you,” she replied, doing her best to keep both emotions out of her voice, and gestured to her drink. “The drink is just fine. I ate with my aunt tonight so I've had plenty.”

Mentioning the duchess caused Clarke's expression to change, her brow popping up. A cool interest Lexa immediately recognized flashed across the redhead's face, enough to help her momentarily push her thoughts of Monty and all she'd learned in the past few minutes to the side. The younger woman fiddled with her tankard, one finger drawing nonsensical patterns along its surface as she stated dryly, “I'm sure that was... interesting.”

Lexa let out a small noise, something that Clarke might have called a scoff if it had come from anyone else. It felt strange to the queen, mixing weirdly with the remnants of anger and guilt still in her chest, but she let it help push them away. “It was quiet, for the most part,” she told her, “which is better than how many of our meals turn out. My aunt and I share very different philosophies, and she is one of the few people more than willing to openly argue with me.”

Clarke wondered if she was also on that list but didn't ask to find out; from her very brief interaction with the duchess, she didn't think she wanted to be associated with her in any way, even if it was just on some made up list. Instead she took another swallow of her drink, saying once she'd finished, “Well I'm glad your dinner went well.”

“Mm,” Lexa agreed with a small nod, shifting in her seat a little to look over the room, hoping it would help to push the last bits of negative emotions away. Just like the last time they were here a dice game was being played in one corner of the room, many of the same faces she remembered huddled around the table while a few new ones had joined as well. Four other tables were also occupied, their occupants drinking or eating either in silence or talking loudly. The closest people to their table was a man and a woman two spots over who appeared to be having an argument of some kind, their voices getting louder and then quieting back down before rising again only a moment later. Altogether there were fewer people than there had been the last time she was here but despite it she still had plenty to take in as her eyes flickered around the room to try. As she looked she continued her own conversation, informing her companion, “It was actually a beneficial meal. My aunt suggested we have a tournament at the end of the summer. I have Titus already working on putting it together.” She didn't mention her adviser's suggestion that had been the catalyst that brought her to the city; to the best of her ability, she didn't even want to think about it.

Across the table, Clarke's eyebrows rose and she returned her attention to her own table. “A tournament, huh? That'll be a lot of work to pull off in a month.” Lexa shrugged, telling her, “It will be difficult, yes, but we'll manage it. It helps that just about everyone who will want to participate is already in the city.” She paused for a moment, eyes falling back to her tankard and stared at the dark liquid inside it. Almost against her will a memory played at the back of her mind of the singular tournament she'd ever been to. She had been five and she could still remember the feeling of excitement fluttering in her chest as she tried not to show it. She'd watched from the stands as knights and squires paraded before her, some showing off their skill with the sword, others firing arrow after arrow at targets and still more jousting against each other, their horses' hooves sounding like rolls of thunder as they raced across the dirt. Through it all her father had sat next to her, and she could still remember the grin that had been tucked away at the corners of his mouth whenever he looked over at her, clearly reading her excitement. Later that night she'd proclaimed she wanted to compete in the next tournament and he had just laughed his full-belly laugh while her mother shook her head beside them.

It was a memory she didn't often let herself think about, as were every other memory she had of her parents. Usually it hurt too much, remembering their smiles and the sound of their voices, but in this moment the memory warmed her instead. She didn't know if it was because of the stark difference between it and what they'd just been talking about or if it was because of the company – though she had her suspicions which it was – but rather than fight against it she decided to let herself have this moment.

Clarke watched her from across the table, scanning her face. She could see something soften in the queen's expression, watched as her lips curled up just a little. Suddenly she felt as though she were intruding on something private but she couldn't look away, wondering just how many people had ever been able to see this side of the brunette before. If she had to guess it wouldn't be many, and she knew that like her, any of the people who ever had were luckier than they could imagine. For a second she stayed quiet, not wanting to disturb the look in the queen's eyes, but finally she found herself asking quietly, “What are you thinking about?” Lexa's eyes flickered up to her, widening slightly for just a moment as though she'd been caught and Clarke immediately felt guilty, but then after a flash of hesitation she answered just as quietly, “My parents. My father held the last tournament when I was five. He was very good at putting them together.” She glanced back down at the table, for some reason unable to meet the other woman's eyes as she admitted with a partial smile, “I told him I wanted to compete in the next one. He laughed and told me he would love to see that.” She cleared her throat when she felt heat rising in it, sitting up a little straighter. “I can't, of course,” she added, her voice losing some of its softness as she returned back to the present, “Compete, I mean. No one would really fight against me except maybe Anya, and even if they did I couldn't take the chance of getting hurt. It was a silly child's wish, and one he probably shouldn't have encouraged.”

Lexa's flip back into the ever-serious queen was painful to watch and it made Clarke's heart squeeze in her chest. She knew what it was like to push dreams and happy memories away because of a harsh reality. Unable to sit back and do nothing as the steel began to creep back into the older woman's expression she reached across the table, her hand falling on top of one of the queen's and giving it a squeeze. Lexa's brow rose in surprise and she glanced at the hand and then at the redhead, and Clarke just squeezed a little tighter. “It's a father's job to encourage his daughter. No matter what else your father was, I'm sure he knew that. He just wanted to see you happy, Lexa.”

Emotion swarmed inside the queen's chest, buzzing like a hive of bees, and she quickly grabbed her tankard, taking a big swallow to wash it down. She didn't even realize she grabbed it with her free hand, not so much as moving the hand held in Clarke's. When the sudden burn at the back of her throat had been lessened she nodded, setting her cup back down as she asked softly, “Did your father encourage your dreams?” She noticed a pain she understood all too well flash across blue eyes and the redhead looked away, taking a second before she nodded. “He did. My mother did too, for the most part, but my father just... he had a way of making me believe I could do anything. Everything.”

Lexa nodded, reading how much Clarke's father had meant to her by the softness and pain in her voice. She understood that and knew not to push any further. “What happened to your mother?” she asked instead, her voice quiet. She was sure they'd never talked about the redhead's mother before and she couldn't help but be curious. Clarke looked back at her and Lexa noticed her purse her lips and then swallow, her eyes getting caught on the movement of the other woman's neck. “I lost her,” she answered simply, her voice a little rough, “shortly after I lost my father.” The queen didn't try to pry any further, just turned her hand over beneath Clarke's so she could slip her fingers into the spaces between the other woman's. She squeezed her hand, hoping that the pressure would be enough to tell her how much she meant it as she whispered, “I'm sorry. I know what it's like losing both parents so close together.”

“I know you do,” Clarke replied quietly, returning the squeeze. “I'm sorry for you too.” She could remember the day everyone at Arkadia had learned about the queen's death. She'd only been seven and hadn't entirely understood what was going on, but when her mother had taken her into her arms she'd cried along with her. After a long and grueling pregnancy the queen had given birth to her second child, baby Prince Aden, but the healers had been unable to save her. When she was older she'd learned that the queen's body had been weak ever since giving birth to her first child, which is why almost a decade had gone by between her pregnancies. Less than a year later the king had been killed by the Reapers and an eleven-year-old had taken on the responsibilities of a nation. Clarke looked at Lexa now and read the pain and the guilt that washed across her face, noticed the way she clenched her jaw as she tried desperately not to show any emotion and a vice squeezed at her heart. She understood what it was like to have to grow up all at once but at least she had been a little older when it had happened to her.

Neither woman said anything else for a long while but neither did they let go of the other's hand, silently tethering themselves to this one other person who might actually be able to understand the pain their hearts beat with every day. In the corner of the inn's common room the people playing dice groaned and cheered with every roll, people at the other tables yelled or laughed, but Clarke and Lexa sat in a bubble of silent understanding, wondering how two lives that had turned out so different could actually be so similar.

They didn't know, but neither did they try to question it as they held onto each other and let the relief of being with someone who understood wash through them. The minutes ticked by and neither moved, too content to even think about leaving.

Chapter Text

“Faster!” the Captain of the Guard barked, her sharp eyes taking in every detail of the two dozen people running around the courtyard. “Move! Faster!”

Aden gasped for breath as he ran, staring fixedly at the backs in front of him as he tried desperately to ignore the way his legs wobbled with every step and how a sharp pain sparked at his side. It had suddenly started stabbing at him a few minutes ago when they were on their fifth lap, and no matter how hard he tried to pretend he couldn't feel it he couldn't help but wince every now and then as he took in an especially deep breath. He didn't say anything about it though, just grit his teeth and made himself keep going as he stared straight ahead.

He was learning very quickly that there was a big difference between watching the Guard train and training with the Guard.

“Alright, enough,” Indra finally called after another full lap, and Aden nearly fell to the ground as he finally stopped running, hands bracing themselves on his knees as he bent over, trying to catch his breath. Most of the men and women around him were in much the same state which made him feel a little better, only a few of them managing to remain upright as though they'd only taken a minor jog and not the multi-lap run Indra had sent them on. The stitch at his side flared up as his body rocked with short deep breaths, but at least he was no longer running.

“Not bad, Your Highness,” Lincoln told him, coming up behind him and dropping one hand to his shoulder. Aden hated him a little bit in that moment, solely for the fact that he was one of the ones who looked like they'd barely broken a sweat. His own tunic was sticking to him uncomfortably and he had to tug at it a little before he stood back up. “Not everyone can make it all the way through Indra's laps their first time.”

“Not a... problem,” the prince managed to get out between gasps, forcing a half-smile up at the older man. Lincoln's lips curled up at that, one eyebrow rising a bit. “I see you're just as stubborn as your sister. She always says the same thing.” The others around them began moving again and Lincoln looked up, his grin growing as he squeezed the boy's shoulder. “Come on,” he said, nodding towards the others, “we're not done yet.” Aden wanted to groan but held it in, straightening out and trying to act like his legs weren't practically shaking as he followed the Second in Command.

After the laps Indra broke the Guard and Aden into pairs, setting them up to practice their sword work. The prince wasn't sure if he was getting special treatment or not when he found himself across from Lincoln, but when the bigger man suddenly attacked he realized if he was it wasn't the kind he might have expected. Many people would have held back against the heir to the throne, even thrown the fight, but not Lincoln. When he attacked Aden had to work to fend him off, and trying to find an opening to make his own attack was nearly impossible as the big man bore down on him. He wasn't as fast as Anya but his size and strength were clearly just as dangerous, and soon Aden was sure there wasn't a single dry spot on his tunic as the movements and hot sun beat down on him.

The mock battles continued for what felt like a long time to the prince but in reality he knew it couldn't have been more than a half hour. By the time Indra called the order to halt though his arms felt like lead and as soon as he let his sword fall back to his side he wondered if he'd even be able to lift it again. Lincoln just gave him another easy smile, nodding to him as he re-sheathed his sword at his waist.

“Your training with Anya is coming along well,” he noted as he rolled his shoulders a few times. “There were a few times I thought I had you and you pulled right out of it.”

Aden returned his smile, his tired body worth the praise. “Thanks,” he replied, somehow managing to re-sheathe his sword as well despite the incredible weight of the weapon. “She's taught me a lot.” He gestured to the people around them, adding, “She thinks I can learn more from the Guard while she's busy with Lexa. She says Indra's the toughest trainer out there, that she learned more from her than she did from her own knight-master.”

Lincoln let out a chuckle, the sound pulling from his chest. “She's not wrong about that. Indra's definitely known for her ruthless training.”

“Ruthless is right,” they heard someone mutter near them, but Aden didn't catch whoever it was. The words just made the older soldier grin and Aden couldn't help but wonder if maybe Indra wasn't the only ruthless one.

“Lincoln,” they suddenly heard called, and turned to see the Captain herself standing a few yards away. He straightened, giving the prince another small smile, before jogging over to her. “Show these children what a true fighter looks like,” she told him once he'd reached her, nodding to three Guards standing beside her. Her Second grinned, drawing his sword again, and told her, “Yes Captain.”

Aden would have thought with three opponents that Lincoln would have a challenge, but apparently not. He watched with wide eyes as the three men came at him all at once but the Second countered or avoided each strike. His legs moved as freely as his sword, striking out when one of his opponents got a little too close to his side, and when that man went toppling to the ground Indra just pointed at another member of the Guard watching, ordering, “You: let's see if you can make this a fair fight.” The woman she'd pointed to nodded quickly and grabbed at her sword, but even with her inclusion Lincoln didn't seem to have any problem. Aden watched, entirely fascinated, until Indra finally called a halt to the match and all four of the big man's opponents limped away, gasping for water.

“That was incredible!” Aden exclaimed, handing his own waterskin over to Lincoln. The soldier nodded his thanks and then poured a good portion of it over his head before finally taking a long gulp.

“Not really,” he finally replied, pulling the waterskin away and Aden was relieved to at least see he was winded, his chest rising and falling quickly. He nodded back to the Captain who had already begun calling out orders to another set of Guards. “I've seen her fight seven opponents at once and win.” Aden's eyes bulged, looking at Indra with all new respect. He wasn't even sure Anya could do that, and everything he'd seen up until now made him believe the knight was one of the best fighters there was.

“Not that we're not happy to have you with us, but where is your knight-mistress today?” Lincoln asked as he handed the prince back his waterskin. “She's not one to miss training or an opportunity to beat her squire and maybe a few helpless Guard members into the ground.”

Aden let out a laugh, knowing that was exactly what Anya liked best. She'd scowled the whole time she'd told him to train with the Guard earlier that morning, clearly wishing she could be there too, but he knew her duty to his sister would always come first.

“She's with Lexa,” he answered, looking away from the big Guard to peer around the courtyard. “She had a meeting with Lord Ryder this morning she had to go to.” Lincoln nodded, not asking anymore questions, but from the subtle rise of his eyebrows Aden was pretty sure he had a good idea exactly what kind of meeting it was.

Lexa had done her best to put it off for as long as she could, but finally Titus and Nia wore her down. Yesterday she had spent much of the morning with Lord Nyko and today it was Ryder, and Aden knew she planned to spend each morning with another single eligible lord until she'd seen and spoken with each one. By the end of the summer she would have all the information she needed and would pick one to be her husband. Aden knew she hated it, knew she had no desire at all to get married and would be miserable throughout every meeting, but he also knew she would do it anyway. To his sister nothing was more important than her duty, to her people and her title, and he knew she would never do anything to jeopardize either. He hated thinking about how unhappy she would be, both for the next few weeks and likely once she was married, but they had both learned at a very young age that their individual happiness wasn't nearly as important as what was good for their nation. What their nation needed was a king and heirs, and Aden knew however unhappy it would make her his sister would provide both.

Indra barked a new set of orders and everyone fell to the ground, using their arms to push themselves up to her count. The exercise was meant to strengthen the arms and shoulders and was one Anya had already pounded into Aden's muscles, so despite the fact his arms already ached from his match with Lincoln he managed to keep up, only shaking a little as he continuously pushed himself up and lowered himself down. The Guards around him followed the Captain's orders just as he did, and for a few minutes he was able to lose himself into the rhythmic counting and sounds of two dozen people moving along with it.

“Your Highness,” he suddenly heard beside him, Lincoln's voice breaking through his concentration, and he looked over to the man beside him to see him looking towards the end of the courtyard. Lincoln nodded and Aden followed his gaze, finding Titus standing behind the short granite rise that separated the bailey and the walkways just outside of the palace. His sharp eyes were on the prince and Aden let out a sigh, getting in one more pushup before he stood up and headed towards his sister's adviser.

“Your Highness,” Titus greeted him with a small bow, his hands folded together in front of him. He then looked back up, telling the prince, “Lord Miller and his son have just arrived. It seems they finally made it to the city earlier this morning and wanted to greet the queen as soon as they dropped their bags off at their inn. Since the queen is busy, I thought perhaps you could greet them in her place.”

“Lexa will want to greet them personally,” Aden told him, seeing exactly what the adviser was doing. Titus bowed his head again, telling him, “Her Majesty will have time to greet them after today's audience, but for now she shouldn't be interrupted. Will you see to the Millers?” Aden wanted to sigh but held it in, looking down at his tunic. It was still sweat-soaked and now had dirt all across its front, but finally he nodded.

“Tell Lord Miller I'll be down to see him shortly,” he ordered, glancing back at Titus, and saw the way his lips just barely curled up.

“Yes Your Highness,” he replied with a nod and then turned to do as he'd been ordered. The prince looked up, rolling his neck a little to try to work a kink out of it, and then made his way into the palace. When Lexa found out about this she wouldn't be happy, but until then he had to do his duty.

Quickly he headed to his room, tossing off the dirty tunic and breeches and getting into new ones as soon as he was there. He used a bowl of water setup on the corner of his desk and a cloth to wipe away as much sweat and dirt as he could from his face and then strapped his sword and dagger back on. Now dressed in clean clothes and looking at least somewhat presentable, he left the room, jogging lightly to get to the Great Hall, knowing it was rude to keep guests waiting for too long. He slowed down just outside of it, standing up a little straighter, and then lifted his head as he stepped inside.

Lord Miller and his son were waiting, Titus and a servant with them, the servant holding out a tray with a few wine goblets on it. To Aden's displeasure his aunt also stood with them, in the middle of saying something to them as he walked in but he was too far away to hear exactly what. Both Millers were in the process of selecting a glass from the servant's tray when they turned at the sound of Aden's boots on the stone floor, and then bowed as soon as they saw him. Titus did the same, his head and shoulders lowering slightly, but Nia remained upright, watching him coolly as he approached.

“My lords,” Aden stated, smiling warmly at them as he'd been taught to do almost before he could walk, “welcome. I'm sorry my sister can't see you at the moment, but I'd like to welcome you to Polis in her stead. I hope you had a safe trip.”

The older Miller rose first, smiling politely at the prince. “We did, Your Highness,” he replied. “It's a beautiful ride from Arkadia to Trikru.” Aden returned the smile, helping himself to a glass of the wine as soon as he'd reached them, the two lords only then taking one each as well while Nia stood still, apparently not thirsty. David Miller raised his glass just a hair, his smile still in place as he added, “And please, there's no need to be sorry; we know Her Majesty is a busy woman and are just honored that you are able to greet us, Your Highness.” His son nodded beside him, raising his glass a little too, and behind them Aden could see his aunt's lips purse, her expression just barely shifting. Lord Miller turned to her then and any trace of annoyance had already wiped off her face before he added, “And you as well of course, Your Grace.” She lifted her head a hair higher and nodded, telling him, “Of course, Lord Miller. It's my pleasure.”

“I know you're likely tired after your trip, but my sister will be hosting audiences with some of our people shortly,” Aden told them, politely cutting in. “I'm sure afterward she would love to greet you herself, perhaps even invite you to take dinner with us tonight. There's a lot we have to catch you up on.”

“That sounds wonderful, Your Highness,” Lord Miller agreed, giving him a smile, and then he reached into the pocket of his tunic. Out of the corner of his eyes Aden could see the couple of Guards on duty in the room shift, now watching him closely, but when his hand reappeared he held a sealed letter. “Lady Abby asked me to give you this,” he added. “We stopped at the Griffin estate before leaving Arkadia and she gave it to me. She told me they were planning to leave a few days later.”

“I can give that to Her Majesty,” Nia offered, reaching out for the letter, but Aden quickly intercepted it, giving his aunt an innocent smile.

“Thank you, Aunt, but I'll make sure she gets it,” he told her, already placing it in his tunic. “I'm sure she'll want to read it as soon as she's finished with the audiences today.” He could practically see his aunt's jaw clench but then she smiled, turning back towards the Millers.

“So my lord, have you been able to get settled yet?” she asked, and he nodded before answering. Aden tuned in and out of the conversation, adding to it in places and trying to not let his mind wander but was only so successful. Whenever he shifted another muscle hurt, his time training with the Guard apparently taking its toll, and he just hoped his body would get used to it sooner rather than later; with Lexa's time with the eligible nobles, he had a feeling he would be doing a lot of his training with Indra and Lincoln over the next few weeks.

They stood in the Great Hall, politely talking back and forth as the Millers filled them in on their trip, and before long others began filtering into the room. At some point over the last few weeks it had become custom for all the nobles to attend Lexa's audiences with the commoners who came to speak to her, and Aden knew it was so they could see their queen in action. He knew that many of them judged how she dealt with the different questions and requests, scrutinized how she handled the common people, but his sister had never acted as though she knew what they were doing. She always just sat back with her spine straight and her shoulders squared and given the people her undivided attention, and Aden admired that. He himself had a difficult time focusing on the people who came in to talk with his sister, not because he didn't care but because he would notice some of the nobles begin whispering to each other or shifting in place and knew they were talking about Lexa. He had to work hardest in those moments to remain passive, to not let any of his own thoughts show, and he admired his sister greatly for how well she held it all in. She worked harder than anyone else he knew to keep her thoughts sealed away, and he was always impressed with how well she did.

Just about everyone had arrived, a few people moving to join their conversation and welcome the new lords when Aden looked around, realizing what time it was. The doors would open any minute to admit the commoners and begin the audiences, but his sister still wasn't there. She should be here by now, should have already taken her place in her throne, but it remained empty and no matter how many times he scanned the room he couldn't find her. Panic began to bubble in his chest as he realized if she didn't show up in the next minute or two he would have to run the audience, something he had never done before, and he had to hook his hands behind him like he'd often seen his sister do to keep them from shaking. Lexa was good at listening to the people, good at judging what mattered and what didn't; he wasn't. Sometimes he helped Lexa make decisions, but he'd never had to make them on his own before. He looked around once again, hoping she would suddenly appear but instead found his aunt eyeing the throne and knew if he didn't step up she would. Before she could say or do anything he began making his way over to the raised dais, his heart pounding in his chest as he approached his sister's throne rather than the one on the left just behind it he usually sat in. Titus followed behind him by a few steps to take his place at the right of the great chair but even with him there Aden's heart remained stuck in his throat. He tried not to let it show as he sat down as elegantly as possible, immediately feeling dwarfed by the magnificence of the chair.

“As my sister appears to still be in a meeting, I will run the audience until she arrives,” he announced loudly, glad at least that his voice didn't shake. He could feel the eyes of the nobles on him, judging him already, but tried to ignore it, focused only on the large doors that would be opened momentarily to admit whatever commoners had come to speak with his sister.

“No need, brother,” he heard behind him and he almost let out a sigh of relief as he looked around, finding Lexa and Anya entering the room from a small door at the back of the room behind the thrones. The nobles standing across the room all bowed and curtsied at one as she calmly walked towards the dais, her head held as high as ever. The prince stood back up, happy to leave her throne, and stepped back as he passed her.

“Thank the gods,” he muttered under his breath as she went by, and saw her eyes flick over to him, an amused tug momentarily pulling at her lips.

“Don't worry,” she assured him just as quietly, sinking regally into her chair, posture still perfectly straight, “I won't be this late again. I will be sure of it.”

“She wouldn't have been this late today if Ryder hadn't insisted on a ride through the forest,” Anya stated from her spot on Aden's left, her lips barely moving. He looked over at the queen and noticed for the first time she was still wearing riding clothes, breeches and a tunic, both certainly of good quality but not what she normally wore when she met with the commoners. Titus had noticed too, looking at her out of the corner of his eyes with his lips pursed.

“Perhaps Your Majesty would like to change,” he suggested, speaking just as quietly, to the point where Aden almost didn't hear him. “I'm sure your brother can handle this without you for a few minutes.” The prince blanched in his seat, smaller and far more comfortable to him than Lexa's, but the queen just lifted an eyebrow, not looking at her adviser.

“I don't need dazzling clothes to greet my people, Titus,” she informed him as she looked across the room and caught the eye of the two Guards standing at the door. She nodded to them and they immediately moved, pushing the large door open. “What I'm wearing now is already better than anything any of them are likely to have. They want me to fix their problems, not show off my wealth.”

If the adviser had anything to say to that he held it, head tilting back a little further as he clasped his hands in front of him. Aden glanced over at his sister once again, finding nothing but the cool confidence she always seemed to exude, and did his best to copy it. He wasn't sure he would ever be able to wear his royalty as effortlessly as she could, but he figured that was why she was queen and he was just the heir.

As far as he was concerned, that was exactly the way it should stay.

***

Clarke walked her most recent guest towards the front room, forcing a smile as his hand slid down her back to rest on her butt. When he squeezed it and smirked down at her she had to fight a glare away, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from pushing him away. He'd clearly wanted to go another round when they'd finished minutes ago but she managed to get her robe back on and step away before he could pull her back down on the bed. Now his wandering hand continued to make it obvious he wanted more and all she could do was smile and walk a little faster.

Luna looked up from her book as the two stepped into the front room, scanning the two in less than a second and clearly seeing the look Clarke was holding back. Her expression barely changing she leaned forward, elbows resting on her desk as she gave the guest a polite smile. “Master Downard. I take it you enjoyed your time with Mistress Blake?” The man grinned at her and then Clarke had to bite her cheek harder as his hand slapped against her butt. Her hands curled into fists, her usual patience almost none-existent after dealing with men just like this one all morning. Luna must have seen something flash across her face or was just out of patience herself because her polite smile fell away as her eyebrows rose just a hair. “I'm sorry Master Downard but if you want to touch anymore of my people you're going to have to pay again. I'm sure Clarke has already given you more than your money's worth.” When the man didn't immediately move his hand away from the redhead Derrick shifted in his spot beside the desk, one hand reaching over his shoulder to rest on the pommel of his sword and just like that the man was across the room and leaving The Rig without anything but a nod. Clarke watched him go, her own forced smile quickly falling away as she rolled her neck a couple of times to stretch the muscles.

“Thanks,” she told them, her fingers unclenching and moving to pull the sash around her waist tighter. She'd pulled her robe on quickly and hadn't been able to actually bother with tying it until now. Her mistress shook her head, the slight stiffness that had settled in her posture slipping away as she looked back down at her books. “Of course,” she just said as she picked up a quill and dipped it in a jar of ink beside her. She then nodded towards the door, telling her, “You're all set for the day. Monty and some of the others are out there. Tell Harper she's got the next guest.” Clarke nodded and then made her way to the door, her own posture relaxing now that she didn't have to pretend to be interested in a guest.

Just as Luna had said, she found a small group of her friends loitering around the bench outside and this time Clarke's smile was genuine as she made her way over to them. Harper was sitting on the bench while Monty and Jasper stood in front of it, and when they saw her approaching they all turned their own grins on her.

“You look like you've been having a good day,” Jasper joked, pretending to eye her over. She rolled her eyes at him as she sank down on the bench beside Harper, fully aware of what she must look like. She'd been working all morning with few breaks and was going off of an evening without any sleep; she knew she was likely a mess. “Looks like you've had a decent day yourself,” she told him, looking purposefully at the large mark in the crook of his neck and the matching one below it on his chest. He and Harper were both dressed for work, Jasper just wearing a pair of thin breeches while Harper had a robe on just like Clarke's. He just shrugged, lips still pulled up in a grin, and she shook her head before turning to Harper. “Luna says you have the next one.”

The blonde sighed wistfully beside her, leaning forward and placing her elbows on her legs and letting her chin rest against her palms. “I knew it was coming, but I can't say I'm happy about it,” she said, and then asked, “Is there anyone waiting in there now?” Clarke shook her head and the other girl beamed, sitting back up. “Good. Then turn around and lean back a little.”

Clarke did as she was told after giving her friend a look, and then closed her eyes when she felt Harper's fingers begin to run through her hair, gently loosening the many snags that always happened after hours of lying on her back and having men and women pound into her. She sighed and leaned back a little more, relaxing entirely as the blonde played with her hair.

“I always like it when you darken it,” she heard Harper say behind her, sitting still as she worked at a particularly tangled knot. “It makes you look so mysterious.”

To help hide her identity, Clarke had to dye her hair every few weeks, giving it the deep burgundy color she'd become known for. Between dyes she had to be careful how often she washed it or it would lighten before Niylah could get a new supply of the berries and plants they used, so often times she stuck with special oils the blonde had found for her to keep it clean. The most recent dye job had only been a couple of days ago so she knew she had another day or two of comments from her friends and the other workers in the house to get through before it would all die down again. She knew her friends thought it was strange she bothered with the process so often and that a lot of the other workers in the house just thought it was a vanity thing, but she just accepted the comments whenever they came. After all, it wasn't like she could tell them the truth of how she only did it to make sure Clarke Griffin stayed dead and Clarke Blake was all anyone would ever see.

Jasper laughed at the comment, a single chuckle escaping his chest. “Yeah, because whores really need to be mysterious. The only mystery anyone cares about is what's between our legs, and as long as they have enough coin they figure that out pretty quick.”

“Some people care a little bit about more than just that,” Clarke told him, looking over at him while holding her head still. Harper had managed to get out all of the tangles and was now pulling her hair into a thick braid. Suddenly she was yawning, managing to say through it, “There are people who think with more than just their cocks.”

“Oh yeah?” Jasper asked, raising an eyebrow at her. “Did your noble last night think with more than just his cock?” She had nothing to say to that, no argument she could make, and he nodded, as though he'd won. Monty took pity on her, asking her with a sympathetic smile, “Long night?”

“Very, very long,” she admitted and Harper chuckled behind her as Jasper's grin grew. Clarke just closed her eyes, not needing to see their faces to know what they were thinking and that they were all wrong. Her night had been long, but not for the reason they thought.

Matt Raitt, the son of a lesser lord from the Shallow Valley had hired her to spend the night in his room at one of the better inns in Polis. This time there had been no palace party, he'd hired her simply for a whore's work, but that benefited her just fine. She played her part, batting her eyelashes and stroking his ego, and before long he had passed out, an imprint of her lip paint on his mouth, and she'd been going through his bags searching for anything that might lead her to Emerson. To her great dismay all she'd learned was that the young man was a bookworm; in one large bag she'd found a stack of them and resigned herself to go through each one. It took her the rest of the night but she skimmed every page of each, not finding anything that would give her a clue as to where or who Emerson was. By the time the first rays of dawn were streaming through the window her neck was cramping and eyes were aching, and she'd still had to play the part of happy whore when the young lord woke up. Luckily he hadn't wanted her to stay long after and Clarke had been able to make her getaway, but as soon as she got back to The Rig Luna had put her right to work and she'd had to hide her exhaustion behind coy smiles and exaggerated moans. Now it was finally mid-day and she was resting for the first time since the previous afternoon. Unfortunately for her her friends weren't nearly as tired, and were more than happy to get in the way of her rest.

“You and your lords,” Harper said behind her, and from the tone of her voice Clarke knew she was shaking her head. “Maybe if you shared them with someone else you wouldn't be so tired. I know I'd be happy to help you with them. Especially if they all look as good as your Lady Lexa.”

The queen's nickname made butterflies suddenly swarm in her stomach, a surprising reaction that Clarke immediately tried to quash even as she felt the corners of her mouth fight to lift up. “She's not my lady,” she replied without opening her eyes, hoping her voice sounded as even as she meant it to be. “She's just a lady.” She stopped for a second, the brunette's face appearing against her eyelids, and found herself muttering without entirely meaning to, “And no one looks as good as her.”

“She is really beautiful,” Monty agreed and Clarke opened her eyes, turning just enough to see Harper raise an eyebrow at him. “How would you know? The only time you've seen her is with one eye swollen shut.” He shrugged and grinned, telling her, “I could see enough to know she's pretty.”

“Hm,” Jasper let out, crossing his arms over his chest and Clarke glanced over to him. “Pretty and strange, maybe. I mean what's a noble doing walking around in a whore's dress?” After seeing Lexa the last time she was there he'd questioned the redhead more about her and clearly hadn't gotten enough answers yet to be satisfied. “I saw that cloak she was wearing, it's not like she needs your clothes or anything.”

“She does look really good in that cloak,” Harper agreed and Clarke pretended not to feel the stab of jealousy suddenly flare up in her chest. “Though I remember her looking pretty great in that dress too.” Her fingers continued to work at Clarke's hair but as they moved she leaned forward until the redhead could see her out of her periphery. “Really Clarke, you ever decide you want to share her I am more than happy to help you. I'd appreciate it way more than either of these two.” She nodded over to Jasper and Monty, Monty nodding in agreement as Jasper's brow furrowed.

“What's that 'sposed to mean?” he demanded, shooting her a look, and Harper just looked up at him, both eyebrows lifting as she met his little glare. “It means that unless it's Maya you couldn't care less about helping Clarke with a pretty girl.” All at once his cheeks turned pink and he looked away, suddenly shifting where he stood and they all grinned at him.

“Thanks for the offer Harper, but I'm all set,” Clarke told her after Jasper's cheeks had begun to shift away from pink and towards red. “I don't need help with any of the nobles.” But especially not Lexa, she thought but didn't say as her friend sighed behind her.

“Fine,” Harper said, letting the finished braid drop against Clarke's back and eyeing it over to make sure it looked good. She didn't have anything to tie it off with so Clarke turned back around on the bench, meeting light brown eyes twinkling with amusement. “But if you ever decide you'd like to share, just know I'm here for you.”

“You're a true friend, Harp,” she replied, voice a little dry, and the blonde gave her a wink.

They stayed out there a little longer, talking about nothing until the baker from down the street approached the building, looking them all over before going inside. Harper sighed and then stood up, stretching her arms over her head as she rose. “Welp, guess that means it's time to get back to work. See you guys later?”

“I should probably get back to the kitchen,” Monty said, brushing his hands over a shirt already covered with flour. “They'll be getting dinner ready soon.” He stepped over to join Harper but looked back at Jasper, asking his best friend, “We still going tonight?”

“Definitely,” he agreed with a quick nod, and then looked down at Clarke still on the bench. “We've all got some time off later, so we thought we'd go play a couple games of dice at the Dropship. Wanna come?”

Clarke thought about her bed, soft and waiting for her, but ending up nodding. “Sure. Sounds like fun.” He shot her a smile and then grimaced when Harper shot over her shoulder, “Come on Jasper, I bet Luna's got work for you too.”

“You don't know that,” Clarke heard him reply even as he followed after her and Monty, “maybe she wants me to just relax as long as I can?”

Clarke sat on the bench for another few minutes, just enjoying the light breeze. There was very little afternoon traffic, few people going by the house, so she leaned back against the wall, closing her eyes again. She let her body relax, could feel stiffness easing out of her muscles, and seriously considered making her way up to her room and slipping into bed for a few hours of relatively undisturbed sleep. Unfortunately Wells was expecting her, the two having made plans to meet up today with her afternoon off, and knew that if she didn't show up he'd end up at The Rig, worried that something had happened to her. The few times he'd had to come to the whorehouse it had been obvious to everyone how uncomfortable he was, so Clarke tried her best to make sure he never had to come back. After another few seconds she forced herself up and then headed back inside, needing to change out of her robe and into something more suitable if she was going to make the mile walk to the inn without running into any trouble. Before long she was outside once again, now in one of her simplest dresses, and began making her way down the street.

As she walked Clarke let her mind wander, only half aware of what was going on around her. The summer was already half over, which meant her mother would be in Polis before long and she'd have to stop going to the palace. She didn't look forward to it; not only would that seriously hamper her ability to locate Emerson and his lord, but it also meant she would see Lexa less. Hopefully the queen would still sneak into the city every now and then – she ignored the voice in the back of her mind telling her she shouldn't hope for that – but their time together would be seriously lessened. Now she was going to the palace once a week and Lexa was sneaking out whenever she found the opportunity to, but how often would the same opportunity present itself as life for the queen got busier and busier? With all the nobles around she'd have to spend her days and likely many of her nights with them, rebuilding their nation after years of being divided. Eventually she would have to choose a husband no matter how much Clarke could tell she didn't want to, and after the queen was married would she still have the freedom to sneak out of the palace? Clarke highly doubted it, and had to swallow thickly to push down the sudden wave of sadness she felt at the thought of not seeing the brunette ever again, or even just not knowing when she would see her again. She couldn't pinpoint when exactly, but somehow Lexa had become her friend, a friend unlike any others she had, and for reasons other than just her title. Somehow she felt as though the two of them had connected somewhere along the way, some kind of understanding growing between them neither had with anyone else. It even almost felt as if-

A sudden force against her shoulder broke through her train of thought, and Clarke looked up to see a man rubbing his arm and smiling at her apologetically. His dark hair was curly and only a couple of inches long, and bright blue eyes met her own. His skin was leathery and rough after spending so much time out in the sun and the quality of his clothing told her her had money but certainly not a lot of it. A hat covered his head, the dark curls trying to spring out from beneath it, and he reached up to tip it towards her. “Apologies, miss,” he said, nodding to her, “did'na see ya there.”

She returned the nod and gave him a smile as she replied, “No, I'm sorry, it was my fault. I wasn't paying attention.” He nodded again, tipped his hat a little further, and then stepped by her and they were both on their way again, Clarke making sure to pay attention to where she was walking this time.

The Dropship was quieter than normal as she stepped inside, fewer people hanging around the common room at this time of day. Only three people sat around the usual dice table, the die skidding across the wooden surface as one of them rolled, and then the roller groaned while the other two grinned before one of them grabbed at them for his own roll. Three other tables were occupied, the most crowded one seating five people while the other two just sat one person each, everyone with a tankard in front of them and the largest table with food on it as well. This time both Emori and Murphy were behind the counter and Murphy scowled at her while Emori grinned as she moved over to them.

“What do you want, Blake?” he asked, bored beneath his scowl and his wife rolled her eyes at him. “Don't mind him,” she told Clarke, jabbing her thumb at him, “he's just cranky today.”

“Is that different from most days?” the redhead asked, her voice light, and Murphy's eyes narrowed a little as Emori laughed. “Nope,” she replied at her husband's expense, “he's always cranky. Today he's just bored as well as cranky.”

“I'd offer to help with that boredom, but I'm already here to see someone and I think your wife's much better at dealing with you than I'd be,” she told him, causing Emori to let out another chuckle and him to wrinkle his nose at her. “Yeah, I'm all set,” he said, giving her a look. At that moment one of the men sitting by themselves stood up and made his way to the stairs and Murphy grabbed the cloth laying on the counter in front of him. “I have to work to do anyway,” he continued and then nodded towards the stairs. “And you do too. Don't want to keep your friend waiting.”

Clarke let out a long, playful sigh. “You're right,” she replied, beginning to head towards the stairs, “you know how much he hates waiting. Wouldn't want to make him angry. I hate when men get angry and sullen; they're just so hard to reason with. Right Emori?”

“All I know is angry and sullen,” she joked, giving her husband a wink. “Works for me.” They heard him grumble something under his breath and shared another grin before Clarke left, making her way over to the stairs. As she walked down the hallway of the second floor she heard a door close and didn't think anything of it, stopping only when she'd reached Wells's room. She knocked once, waited a second, and then let herself in.

Wells looked up from where he'd been leaning back against the headboard of his bed, a book in his hands. Clarke met his eyes and smiled and he returned it, quickly shifting and standing to meet her. “Hello my-”

Before he could get anything else out Clarke was stumbling forward, her eyes wide when she felt something large slam into her from behind. Before she could catch her footing or fall on her face a hand grabbed her roughly by the back of her dress, another arm quickly snaking across her chest and pressing against her windpipe. She hadn't heard anything a moment ago but now there were footsteps, first one set and then a moment later a second as she was shoved into the room and the door was slammed behind her. Wells's eyes widened and she saw them flick to the corner of the room where his sword was, but apparently whoever was behind her saw the same thing because suddenly the blade of a knife was pressing against her neck and she went completely still, not even swallowing.

“Don't do it,” a deep voice warned behind her, the arm pressing against her windpipe tightening just a little. “Take one step and I'll cut 'er throat.” Wells froze, his eyes on first the knife and then trailing up to a face Clarke still couldn't see, and the person holding her shifted over a few steps, dragging her with him. The second set of footsteps moved forward and Clarke looked over, now able to see one of their assailants and she grit her teeth when she recognized the man who had bumped into her in the street. He also held a knife now just like his companion, but he also carried a large coil of rope with him. He approached Wells slowly, obviously taking in his fighter's physique, and ordered, “Hold out yer arms, straight like. Remember, make one wrong move and my friend'll kill yer girl.” Wells looked over to Clarke and their eyes met. She almost yelled at him not to listen but bit her tongue, knowing full well he'd never do anything that might risk her life. Just as she knew he'd do he held up his arms and didn't move as the man quickly bound his wrists together and then grabbed the knife at his belt, tucking it into his own. When he was done he cut off what rope was left and tossed it to the second man who caught it, his knife briefly leaving her neck. Clarke tried to use the moment to wriggle out of his grasp but his other arm slid down her body to pin her arms to her sides, and no matter how much she squirmed she couldn't get loose. Her fingers grasped for the knife she had hidden away in her pocket but she was pinned too tight, unable to slip her hand into the hidden opening.

“Wriggly thing, ain't ya?” the man behind her mumbled, trying to get the rope around one of her wrists one handed. “Let me go!” she growled, trying to squirm harder but his grip around her got tighter and tighter until she felt like she might break in two if he held her any harder. His friend moved over to them, keeping one eye on Wells and helped him get her wrists tied together, her hands now hanging uselessly in front of her. She'd never be able to get her knife out now without drawing obvious attention at what she was doing, and she bit her lip hard as the man holding her finally let go, shoving her hard on the back and sending her stumbling across the room. Wells reached out, catching her before she could fall.

“Are you okay?” he whispered, looking over her shoulder and not taking his eyes off of the two men. She nodded though wanted to tell him no, obviously she wasn't okay, but then stood up straight, turning around so she could also watch the two men. For the first time she got a good look at the one who'd grabbed her, quickly taking in his sandy blonde hair, dark eyes, and worn leathery skin that matched his friend. She'd only managed to get a brief look of him earlier, but she quickly recognized him from downstairs and realized he'd been waiting for her, somehow knowing she would show up eventually.

“Sit down,” he demanded, his tone surprisingly even, and after a second she did what he'd said, her knees buckling almost against her will. Wells followed a moment later, sharp eyes watching every movement the two men made, but Clarke could barely focus on anything. Blood pounded in her ears, fear coated her throat and rose up like bile to fill her mouth, and the same thoughts kept playing over and over in her head.

They found us. He found us. How? How did he find us? He couldn't have known it was me, couldn't have recognized me. How did Emerson, how did his master, how did they find me? What did I do wrong? What happened? Who is it, how could he find me when I don't even know who he is? Who is he? How did he find me?

While she internally panicked, desperately trying to figure out how they could have possibly been caught, the two men stood on the other side of the room, muttering back and forth to each other while never fully taking their focus away from the two captives on the bed. Wells eyed them right back, not missing a thing, and when he suddenly spoke up Clarke had to bite the inside of her lip hard enough to bleed in order to make herself focus.

“Who are you?” he asked, his voice loud and clear, and if she didn't know any better she'd never know he was worried. She could see the strain in his shoulders though, felt the same bite of the rope bound to her wrists that he did, and knew he was just stalling for time while they tried to think of a plan. Clarke forced herself to take a deep breath and calm down as well, knowing that if they were going to get out of this she couldn't focus on the million questions streaming through her mind in one continuous loop. The man with the hat met his eyes, an eyebrow lifting as he replied, “That's a question we won't be answerin'.”

“What do you want?” Wells tried instead, now not breaking eye contact with the man with the hat. The man grinned and pointed to their wrists with his knife. “Seems clear 'nough.”

“Why?” Wells asked, holding up his arms, both hands balled into fists. “And try an actual answer this time.” His tone was that of someone used to getting his way, a lesser nobleman or higher class merchant, and the two men glanced at each other. The same man looked back at them and shrugged sympathetically.

“Sorry friend,” he told Wells, taking a step forward, “yer jest unlucky. Turns out ya like the wrong whore.” He looked at Clarke, a grin tugging at his lips even as he shook his head. “Looks like ya cheated the wrong man, sweetheart.”

That made Clarke pause, frowning as she looked them over again. If they knew who she really was, they hid it well, and she had the feeling neither of them was a particularly good actor. That didn't mean Emerson or the man who killed her father didn't send them, but if it was the same person they'd downgraded in their killers. Bennet and Jenson had been professional mercenaries, though certainly not the smartest, but these two didn't look like any kind of mercenary she'd ever seen. Their clothing, while nice enough, had patches in it, and from what she could tell their shoulders and arms weren't built like a fighter's. They didn't carry any swords like most mercenaries either, just the daggers they each held and some rope. Not only that but they kept their distance from her and Wells, as though even tied up they might be intimidated. A real mercenary would have tied their captives' feet together as well as their wrists and truly immobilized them and wouldn't have any concern about keeping their distance. Something about this entire thing felt off, but now at least Clarke was able to ignore the mantra in her mind and actually focus on everything around her.

Beside her, Wells clearly had come to the same conclusion she had that their captors had no idea who they really were. He sat up a little straighter, glared at them both, and then stuck out his chin.

“I paid for this whore,” he growled, eyes narrowing at the two men. The one who'd grabbed Clarke scoffed, one corner of his mouth curling up. “Shouldn'ta paid til after ya was done with 'er,” he advised, grinning as though he were telling the younger man a well-known secret. “Never pay the coin til ya got what ya wanted.” His friend let out a chuckle, brows raising in agreement as his eyes scanned her over, and Clarke held very still. She didn't know exactly what Wells was up to, but she could tell he had an idea, and would just have to play along until she caught on.

“I take it I'm not getting out of this to remember that for next time,” he said, looking between the two of them, and the man with the hat shook his head while the other one just met his look. Out of the corner of her eye Clarke saw Wells look over at her, contempt written across his expression, before turning back to the two men. “At least let me get what I paid for before you kill us. If I'm dying because of her I at least deserve to get my money's worth first.” The two men looked at each other as though they were weighing their options and Clarke tried to look as terrified as she should be while internally she tried to figure out where Wells was going with this. She wracked her brain to figure it out, but still didn't have a clue by the time the two looked back over to the bed, the kind of smirks she was entirely too used to plastered across their faces. “Okay,” the man with the sandy blonde hair finally told him, “git what ya paid fer.” Clarke felt his eyes wash over her, refusing to look up to meet them as he added, “When yer done we might jest have to help ourselves too.”

“Get on your knees, whore,” Wells spat, turning to glare at her, and Clarke swallowed, still letting her fear show in her expression as she quickly moved to do as he said. She made a show of glancing over at the two watching, not missing the way they both took half a step closer as she moved. When she was on her knees Wells scooted further down on the end of the bed, looking down his nose at her. For just a second something flashed in his eyes, something she immediately read as reassurance, and then the next second his left boot was nudging against her leg. “Well, get to it. You know what I like.”

She made it a show. With her tied hands she pushed his shirt up a little, her lips immediately attaching to the exposed strip of skin just above the waistband of his breeches. Her hands then shifted down, cupping him briefly over the material and then trailing down the inside of his leg. The second his boot had tapped her leg she'd known exactly what he had in mind, and now she had to make sure the to men were too focused on her mouth and Wells to notice what her hands were doing.

More proof that they weren't mercenaries: they hadn't patted either of them down. Sure, they'd taken Wells's dagger, but if they were really professional killers they would have known many people didn't stick to just weapons people could see. They hadn't found the knife still tucked away in her pocket, and they hadn't even bothered searching for the knife Wells always had tucked in his boot. It was a trick her father had taught him back when he was the lord's squire, and never before had Clarke been more grateful that Wells always listened to his knight-master.

Wells leaned forward and bent down a little, his hands slipping between them as though he were trying to get a feel for her under her dress. Instead now her body blocked them, and while their captors watched Clarke work intently against his breeches her fingers slipped into the space between his ankle and boot, searching blindly for only a moment before she felt the tips of her fingers brush against the handle of the hidden knife. She sat up higher on her knees and let out a moan as though he'd just grabbed her beneath her dress, but in reality she tugged the knife free, as carefully as she could flipping it around. She didn't bother trying to untie herself, knowing that of the two of them Wells had the better chance of protecting them, and fumbled around until she found his hands hanging between their bodies. As carefully as she could she stuck the blade of the knife between his wrists but winced when a little pressure against the blade told her she'd unintentionally nicked him.

“Yeah, just like that,” Wells groaned, adding to the show but also trying to encourage her, and she tried again, this time managing to get the blade where it needed to be without injuring him. Quickly she began sawing upward and felt the knife catch on the rope and her heart began hammering in her chest.

“Hey, what're ya-” they heard behind them suddenly and one of the men stepped forward, but Clarke didn't look back to see which one. She put all her purpose into freeing Wells and let everything else drop away, leaning back enough to see. Madly she sawed at the rope, the last few twines holding on, and just as she felt a hand on her shoulder the rope snapped. Immediately Wells jumped into action, grabbing the knife from her and she curled in on herself and rolled out of the way as he slashed wildly at the man.

“Fuck!” she heard one of them say and looked up from her spot on the floor to see the man who'd grabbed her holding his hand back, blood trickling down his palm. Wells stood now in a wide stance, covering her and looking back and forth between the man right in front of him and the other one. The one with the hat scrambled forward as he realized what had happened and they both held out their knives, trying to overwhelm Wells. The blonde slashed out with his knife while the one with the dark curls lunged in from the opposite direction, and Wells only just managed to catch the first strike with his own blade and then duck out of the way of the second.

Clarke's fingers shook as she yanked at her dress, adrenaline coursing through her. With her wrists still tied it was almost impossible to get into her pocket but after fighting with the material for a few precious seconds her fist finally closed around the hilt of her knife. She yanked it out from its hiding spot as she clamored to her feet, quickly scanning the room and searching for any kind of advantage they could take over their captors. Her eyes caught on Wells's sword still sitting untouched, but she'd rolled the opposite way from it. The bed now stood between her and it with Wells fighting off both of the men at its end, and Clarke did the only thing she could think of. Without wasting a second she ran at the bed and heaved herself over it in a mad dash for the big weapon.

Unfortunately for her the man she'd met in the streets seemed to instantly pick up on where she was going. He slashed at Wells and then as his friend followed it with his own attack he managed to get around the big man, cutting her off. Clarke managed to get her knife up just in time to block the down swing of his blade but barely had any mobility with her hands tied to give any kind of counter attack.

“...don't think so,” the man muttered, no longer smiling. Sweat now beaded along his forehead, dripping into his eyes and Clarke hoped the sting would slow him down some. He took a step forward and she stepped back, just glad he wasn't choosing to go for the sword too. His knife stabbed against the air and she managed to dodge it, her own knocking it away. She immediately tried for a counter attack and jabbed with her knife, and though he caught it with his blade she got the sense that he wasn't used to fighting with daggers. He swung wildly for her shoulder and she just managed to step out of the way, but before he could bring the weapon back she struck, her knife raking down the outside of his arm.

“Fuck!” he hissed from between clenched teeth but apparently knew better than to stop to see to the wound. If anything the injury only added to his energy, a new kind of fury burning in his eyes. Clarke had to think fast to avoid a stab to her neck but then as she managed to dodge it his knee suddenly caught her in the stomach, knocking the wind out of her. She stumbled back, trying to keep her knife up between them, but the back of her knees slammed against the bed and she lost her balance. He struck out and she fell back to avoid his knife and then she was lying back on the bed, and before she could move he fell on top of her, smacking the knife out of her hand. He let all of his weight come crashing down on her and no matter how hard she thrashed she couldn't knock him off of her.

“Clarke!” she heard Wells yell but then it followed with the sound of metal clashing against metal. She managed to turn her head and saw him still fighting against the other man, the two having moved further away from the bed during their own fight. He was too busy to help her so she forced herself to turn back to the man on top of her. His springy curls were now loose, his hat having fallen off at some point during their fight, and his blue eyes were now dark with anger and what she was pretty sure was a little bit of terror. He sat back enough to lift his knife, probably to deliver what he thought would be the final blow, but as soon as she had enough space to move she rammed her knee up between his legs, smashing against the spot she knew would hurt him the most. He groaned and dropped his knife as he doubled over and she scrambled for it. The tips of her fingers just managed to brush against the handle before he grabbed at her arms, trying to force them up over her head. She squirmed beneath him, fighting against it, and out of the corner of her eye she saw the knife fall over the edge of the mattress to clatter against the floor.

Neither of them could afford to think about the lost blade. He wrestled with her arms and she thrashed beneath him, trying desperately to keep them close to her. When he tried to bear more of his weight against her in the hopes of overpowering her, instead she lunged forward, her teeth clamping around his right earlobe. He howled and tried to tear his head away but she held on tighter, refusing to let go. Soon blood flooded her mouth and she almost gagged as a chunk of his ear ripped from the side of his head. She had to spit the flesh from her mouth and then shook her head as droplets of blood splashed down on her as the man above her roared in pain.

“You fucking bitch!” he screamed and before Clarke could get her arms up to block him his hands were grasping around her neck, his fingers slipping in his own little droplets of blood before locking around her throat. He squeezed and she croaked, fighting for breath, her bound hands grasping at one of his arms. Her fingernails dug through his shirt to bury themselves in his flesh and he hissed as she raked them down his skin but didn't let go, his thumbs pressing incessantly against her windpipe. When that didn't work she released his arm and felt her way down his chest, desperately searching for anything that would help her. Clarke's lungs screamed for air, her heart racing in her chest, and she blinked rapidly as she felt black begin to grow around the edge of her vision. She had no idea what she was looking for until the tips of her fingers hit against something hard at the man's belt, and without thinking about it she grabbed it. With a swift yank she freed the knife he'd taken from Wells and then she buried it into his side, a sharp breath punching from the man's lungs as the blade bit into his skin. His grip barely loosened and she stabbed him again, hot blood quickly pouring down the weapon to stain her fingers. He groaned again and suddenly his fingers loosened around her neck just long enough for her to draw a single painful gulp of air in before they squeezed once again.

Clarke didn't know why she did it, maybe the lack of oxygen to her brain was starting to take effect, but when she yanked the knife out of his side the second time the weapon slipped from her fingers, falling to the bed. As more and more black began to seep into her vision, bright bursting lights joining it, her hands moved back up their bodies, slipping between his arms. Her fingers spread across his face and he tried to turn away from them but with their bodies so close he couldn't. She felt his lips, felt the blood from his torn ear seeping down the right side of his face, and felt his nose. Suddenly she felt his eyes and without even realizing what she was doing her thumbs pressed against them, digging themselves into the sockets. All at once fluid began to stream down her thumbs into her palms and then the hands disappeared from around her neck to claw at her wrists but the rope still binding them protected her skin. A noise filled the room, one she couldn't immediately identify with her mind still cloudy and sight not yet clear, but after a moment realized it was the man on top of her shrieking in agony. She blinked continually until her vision had cleared and then looked up to see blood and other fluid streaming from the man's eyes, the same mixture now coating her thumbs, still pressing into the sockets. Before she could make the conscious effort to move them a hand appeared at the peripheral of her vision and fingers grabbed the man's curls, wrenching him back and off of her. She looked over to see Wells now standing over the man now whimpering on the floor, his sword in one hand and dagger in the other. His own opponent lay a few feet away, a deep gash cutting him from neck to navel that continued to bleed heavily despite the fact that the man had obviously stopped breathing.

“Who sent you?!” Wells demanded, leveling his sword at the man curled up on the floor, not a single ounce of mercy anywhere in his expression. When the man just continued to weep he kicked the man's side right where Clarke had stabbed him, earning another sharp cry from him. “Answer me!”

“He didn't give us a name!” the man cried, huddling into himself. “Jest told us to get rid a the whore!”

“Who is he?!” Wells tried again, obviously not believing him, and the man just shook his head, curling into himself even more.

“Was he a noble?” Clarke croaked, her voice breaking. Speaking hurt, the force he'd used to try to strangle her affecting her vocal cords, and she had no doubt she already had some pretty impressive bruises forming. More fury washed over Wells's face from the sound of her voice and he pressed just the very tip of his sword to the man's chin. “Answer the lady's question.”

“Y-Yeah, he was a noble,” he quickly agreed, nodding, “but we didn't get 'is name. We, we met 'im at the palace when we was goin' ta speak ta the, the queen.”

“What did he look like?” Clarke asked, pushing herself off the bed to stand next to Wells. Her heart continued to ram against her chest, but now she knew it was from the remaining adrenaline as well as what she was hearing. Finally she might just be getting the answers she'd been looking for.

“He was bald,” he answered, trying to look up at her but Clarke wasn't entirely sure he could see anymore with how much fluid was running down his face. It was hard to look at the mess that had only minutes ago been bright blue eyes but she made herself, this information too important for her to be squeamish. “Big. Had dark eyes and, and a big nose. Paid us ta watch ya fer a while, then told us ta kill ya. That's all I know!” Wells looked over to Clarke, searching for the order, and when she nodded he drew the blade of his sword across the man's throat. He gurgled for a moment, fingers grasping at his torn flesh, and then he was lying just as still as his friend.

Clarke began to raise her hands to wipe at her face, mind once again whirling, when a sudden banging against the door had her heart nearly stopping in her chest, fresh terror washing over her. She scanned the room in search of something to defend herself with, and found one of the knives that had fallen to the floor during their fight not far from her feet. Quickly she bent down and grabbed it, holding it up in front of her while Wells cautiously approached the door. He looked back over at her and waited for her nod, his own fingers clenching tightly around the hilt of his sword, before he threw the door open, his weapon immediately coming up in case they were in for another attack.

“What the fuck is-” Murphy growled, the scowl that had been etched into his expression morphing into surprise when he found the end of a sword only inches from his face. He glanced quickly at the man holding it, Wells not dropping the weapon yet in case this was a trap, and then looked around him, finding the mess in the room behind him. His eyes flickered over the bodies lying on the floor feet apart and the blood pooling around them, then over to Clarke, standing back near the bed with her wrists still bound but arms out in front of her, knife held up in defense. The second she recognized him she lowered the blade, the fear that had gripped her at his knock immediately washing away and being replaced with a debilitating exhaustion.

“Wells, it's fine, you can put that down,” she said, dropping her arms and stumbling back until she could sit on the bed, all energy completely draining out of her. Her friend didn't listen for a second, hard eyes not looking away from the inn owner, but when Murphy didn't move or say anything he finally let his sword slowly fall down to his side. He stepped away from the door and moved over towards Clarke, keeping himself between her and Murphy the entire time.

For his part, Murphy didn't say anything for a few seconds. With the sword no longer leveled with his nose he looked around the room again, taking in even more details. There were blood stains on the bedspread beneath Clarke, one particular spot where there must have been heavy bleeding and other spots where he could barely even see the small dots of red. The floor also had places where blood had fallen, nowhere as heavy as the area beneath the two obviously dead bodies, but little splashes covered the floor. Clarke met his eyes when he looked back at her and didn't look away, sure she looked just as bad as the room did. Her fingers were sticky with blood and other viscous fluid, sticky enough it was almost hard to loosen her grip around the knife she still held, and that blood continued down her hands and over the rope at her wrists. She knew it would be difficult to get all of the blood stains out of her dress, difficult enough that she might just need to burn it instead of even try, and her neck practically burned with how much it hurt. Thinking about her neck she swallowed, and then almost had it come right back up as she realized how much iron she could taste, blood coating her lips and teeth. She had to breathe through her mouth a few times to calm her stomach down, the smell of so much blood causing the same reaction.

“I'll get you something to clean all this up with,” Murphy finally just said as he reached out and grabbed the doorknob. He looked back at her once more, apparently noticing her inability to swallow and added, “And I'll get you some drinks.” Without another word he turned around and pulled the door shut behind him, leaving them alone again.

For a moment after the door closed they waited there in silence, each of them probably trying to process everything that had just happened. Clarke looked down at her hands, swallowing again when she saw the red coating them, and tried to turn the knife around to cut through the ropes. Wells noticed her struggle and then moved over, setting his sword on the other end of the bed. “Here my lady, let me help.” Considering how much her fingers were shaking Clarke decided not to argue, just released her grip on the knife and let him have it and sat still while he carefully cut through the bindings.

Too many thoughts swirled through her mind again making it hard for her to focus, but when he stood right in front of her her eyes were drawn to his chest, finding a shallow cut running horizontally just beneath his left shoulder. Once her hands were freed she reached out with stiff fingers, pulling the material of his shirt away from it to get a better look. Blood had soaked into the fabric and stuck to his skin but she finally managed to get a good look at it. “When did this happen?”

He nodded back to the man lying behind them, his once-blonde hair now almost black where blood had seeped into it. “He got a hit in before I got my sword.” Carefully he reached up and just barely ran the tip of a finger over her neck, worry bright in his eyes. “Are you okay? Did he get you anywhere else?” His eyes scanned her face, probably trying to figure out if any of the red staining her chin was her own and she grabbed his hand, giving it a squeeze. “I'm okay,” she assured him, her rough voice making that hard for even her to believe, but she forced something like a smile to try to prove it anyway. “We're both alive, that's all I care about.”

“Mm,” Wells agreed, flashing her a small smile in reply, and then stepped back, looking over the two bodies again. All at once his expression settled again, brow drawn as he studied them. “How did they find us? They must have known you were here even before I did.”

“I ran into him on my way over,” she told him, pointing to the man who was still curled in on himself even in death. “And I saw the other one downstairs when I got here. He said they were paid to watch me, so they must have realized I come here often and just waited for me to come back.” She forced herself to stand up, her limbs suddenly feeling as though they each weighed a hundred pounds, but she made her way over to the body of the man Wells had killed. Despite the fact that she could practically see some of his insides Wells moved up behind her, gripping his sword a little tighter as she sank down next to his body. The smell of blood and death swarmed over her, so much more powerful now that she was right next to him and her stomach rolled once again. She bit her lip hard to get it under control and then breathed through her mouth as she began rummaging through his pockets. In one she found a deck of cards and in another she found three silver pieces, probably more than the man had seen at one time ever before in his life. Grabbing the cards and the coins she dragged herself up and over to the other body, turning the second one over so she could go through his pockets too. All he had were two silver pieces and with them added to the collection she walked back over to the bed, dropping it all on its surface. She grabbed the cards and began to go through them to make sure they weren't anything more than what they looked like, and then returned them to the corpse when she confirmed they were just a set of playing cards.

“They weren't professionals,” she heard Wells murmur, and turned around to see him staring at the bed, brow pulled down as he thought. He must have moved while she returned the cards because now both of the men's knives laid on the mattress beside the coins, and Clarke's laid on the other side of them. He had his own in his hand and was busy wiping it off against his pant leg as he thought. “Why would he send anything less than the best after you?”

Clarke knew who the “he” was without having to ask, and shook her head. “No idea,” she just said, moving back to join him. “I'm wondering the same thing.” She reached out and picked up her own knife, wiping the little bit of blood along its blade off on a clean spot on her dress. “And why would he personally talk to these two and have Emerson deal with the real mercenaries? Or is the bald guy Emerson, and Jenson was wrong and there is no middle man?”

There were too many questions and no answers for them, but at the very least they now had a description of one of the men they were looking for. Whether it was Emerson or his master didn't matter, it was a step closer than they had been an hour ago. It had only almost cost them their lives to get it.

They let the silence grow between them again, each too lost in their thoughts to even know where to begin, until another knock sounded at the door. This time it didn't wait for an answer and Murphy let himself in, carrying a large basin of soapy water and a number of rags. Emori followed just behind him with two tankards in one hand and sheets and a dress draped over the opposite arm, and when she saw the state of the room her eyebrows shot up before she let out a long whistle.

“You weren't kidding,” she stated, obviously speaking to her husband, “this is a mess.”

“Hmf,” he grunted, setting the basin and rags down on a clean spot of the floor while she kicked the door closed behind her. “Yeah, and one that needs to get cleaned up.” He looked over at Clarke and Wells, the redhead standing up from her spot on the bed. “I take it you don't want the City Guard knowing about this?” She shook her head and he glanced back down at the two bodies, letting out an annoyed sigh. “Good, cuz that would just be even more trouble.” Turning to go back to the door he looked over his shoulder at them, telling them, “I'll have a wagon waiting by the back entrance an hour after dark. You got some place you can put 'em?”

“Yes,” Wells answered for them, meeting the other man's eyes, and Murphy scanned over his expression for a second before nodding. “Good,” he just said and then left the room again, quickly closing the door behind him.

“Here,” Emori said, dropping the sheets near the basin and then handing a tankard first to Wells and then to Clarke, “it looks like you could both use a drink.” They accepted the mugs with nods of thanks and Clarke downed a third of the drink in a few consecutive long gulps. The hardy ale helped to wash the taste of blood from her mouth and she closed her eyes, finally able to breathe just a little better. As they drank Emori shook out the dress she still held and then as soon as Clarke lowered the tankard she held it out to her. “You're going to need this. Your friend here doesn't look too bad but there's no way you can go anywhere in that dress.”

“Thanks,” Clarke told her, reaching out to accept the dress. “I'll get it back to you soon.” She waved her hand, apparently not worried about it, and then leaned a little closer, wincing as she got a better look at the younger woman's neck. “One of 'em got you good, looks like.”

“She got him better,” Wells replied for her, nodding to the man Clarke had fought. Emori followed the motion to him, actually looking at the body now where before she'd glanced over it, and paled a little bit when she saw his face. Clarke didn't look, not needing to again see what she'd done, but when Emori turned back to her she met her eyes. For a second she couldn't quite read what she saw in the older woman's expression, but then a second later she shook her head, one corner of her mouth tugging up. “Remind me not to piss you off,” she just said and Clarke shared her smile. The next moment Emori was rolling up her sleeves, telling them, “Alright, let's get this cleaned up.”

They worked for hours. Emori shook out the sheets she'd brought with her and laid them out as best she could on the floor, and then Clarke and Wells rolled the bodies onto them and they all worked to wrap them up. Once the corpses were wrapped up they got to work scrubbing down the room, trying to find every drop of blood and wash it away. Before long Clarke's back ached from being bent over so long and her arms hurt from how hard she was scrubbing, but she never complained. Before they stripped the mattress she pocketed the silver pieces, and when Emori's eyebrows rose again at seeing them she slipped three of them over to the other woman, deciding she and her husband had earned them. If they'd wanted to they easily could have summoned the City Guard on them and then they would have had one more – very big – problem to deal with. Eventually the room was as clean as they could get it and Emori left, telling them she would check on how Murphy was handling things downstairs and get them a couple of fresh drinks. Outside the sun was only just starting to set, so when the other woman slipped out of the room Clarke slid down along the opposite wall to the floor, resting her head back. She closed her eyes, fully aware she should change into the dress Emori had given her, but no longer having the energy to move. Footsteps and a small thud told her that Wells had come over to join her.

“We have to be more careful now,” she said suddenly, still not opening her eyes. “If he knows we're alive and they told him where we are, he could send others after us. You should find another place to stay, and we shouldn't meet anymore than we have to.”

Wells was quiet for a moment and she was beginning to think maybe he had just silently agreed with her when he finally spoke up, his voice quiet. “You shouldn't go back.”

“What?” she asked, eyes opening just enough to look over at him. He wasn't looking at her, just staring ahead, but she could see the purse of his lips and knew whatever he was thinking wasn't good.

“You shouldn't go back,” he repeated, glancing over at her out of the corner of his eye. “To The Rig or the palace, you shouldn't go back. You need to find somewhere to hide too.”

Now her eyes widened, taken aback by the suggestion. “Of course I'm going back,” she told him. “I have to. I have to keep playing my part if we're going to find him.”

“It's too dangerous, Clarke,” he told her, looking more fully at her now, and just the fact that he'd used her name told her how serious he was. “If he knows you're alive and knows who you are then it isn't safe. What if he tries to attack you at one of the queen's parties?” He nodded to the wrapped up body of the man who had attacked her. “He said he met them at the palace; what's to stop him from doing away with the middleman and going after you himself? Or he could send the next killers after you when you're going to another customer. We're lucky these two attacked when you were coming to see me but we might not always be so lucky.”

“Wells I can't just stop,” she insisted, turning towards him. “You talk to the servants, I talk to the nobles, and between the two of us we have to find him, eventually; that's the plan. I have to go back.”

“It isn't safe, Clarke,” he argued, shaking his head. “If he knows who you are then any noble you go to could be him, or could just be a trap. Finding him won't matter if he kills you as soon as you do!”

“I'm not stopping now, Wells,” she told him, expression setting into a little glare. “I can't. We're too close for me to start hiding now.” He opened his mouth to say something and then snapped his jaw shut, fully aware of how stubborn she was and how he wouldn't be able to talk her out of this no matter what he said. She saw his hands curl into fists on his lap and could practically see him biting his tongue to hold back whatever he wanted to say and she eased up a little, glare softening. She knew all he cared about was her safety, knew he wouldn't be saying any of this if he wasn't afraid for her, and reached over, placing a hand over his fist. When his eyes flickered over to her she met them, telling him quietly, “I will be careful, Wells. My mom will be here soon, so it's not like I'll be able to go to many more parties at the palace anyway. That doesn't mean I'll lose contact with all the nobles, hopefully, but I will be careful. I'll talk to Luna, tell her I can't visit any customers outside of The Rig other than my nobles anymore, so that will limit my chances of getting hurt.” She squeezed his hand a little tighter, and watched as his shoulders relaxed just a little. “I can't just stop, but I can be more cautious. Trust me, I have absolutely no intention on letting this man kill me, or anyone he sends after me.”

“He won't,” Wells promised her, hand uncurling and turning over to slip his fingers into the spaces between her own before squeezing her hand tightly. “I'll fight with you. Every day until we get him.”

She nodded and then let her head rest against his shoulder, eyes closing again. Surviving like this – constantly on the look out, worried that anyone might be someone ready to kill her – was exhausting, but having her friend beside her made it a little more bearable, and she knew that someday soon they would finally find the man they were looking for and she'd finally get to truly rest.

Her exhaustion must have hit Clarke all at once, because the next thing she knew she heard voices. One of them was Wells, her friend still next to her with his shoulder still being used as a pillow, and the other was Emori, but Clarke couldn't remember her returning to the room. She cracked her eyes open, finding the other woman placing something beside the dress still sitting on the bed. After a moment she looked over her shoulder, seeing the redhead's eyes open, and told her, “I found you an old cloak. Didn't think you'd want to be walking through the streets looking like that. Might draw some attention to yourself.” Clarke reached up, carefully padding her fingers over her neck, and winced at the slight pressure. “Thanks,” she just said and the other woman nodded.

Despite how tired she still was, Clarke pushed herself up off the floor, limping tiredly over to the bed. She hadn't hurt either leg but apparently her body had decided to protest any movement at this point. Emori didn't look back as she moved towards her, just pointed to the little table beside the bed. “Brought you a couple more drinks too.” Clarke squeezed her arm in thanks and then grabbed the tankards, handing one to Wells who'd followed her up from the floor, and then no one said anything else as the two slowly downed the ale.

“The wagon should be here any time,” Emori stated after a little while, glancing towards the window and sure enough when Clarke followed the look she found darkness seeping in. “Better change, and then we can get these bodies down to it.” The younger woman nodded and stiffly stripped out of her dress, letting the blood-soaked material fall to the floor, and slowly began pulling on the one Emori had given her.

Once Clarke had changed and pulled the cloak on over her new dress, she and Wells moved to one of the bodies, waiting until Emori gave them the all clear to lift it, grunting beneath the weight, and carry it out of the room and towards the servants' stairs. Out in the back alley just as Murphy had promised they found a cart waiting for them, and they quickly heaved the body over its side before turning around to make the next trip. Emori stayed with them the whole time, keeping her eye out, until the second body was finally loaded and they could leave. She gave them a grin, nodding towards the cart, and told them, “Good luck. Glad it's their bodies we're getting rid of and not yours.” Clarke returned it with a tired grin of her own and then the older woman disappeared back inside her inn, closing the door behind her.

“I'm taking you back,” Wells declared, moving to the front of the cart, and Clarke looked at him in surprise.

“You don't need to do that,” she told him, following him, “I can get back myself. I doubt anyone else is watching right now.”

“But you don't know that,” he said as he pulled himself up on the front seat and then he turned around to look down at her. “I'm going to make sure you get back alright, and then I'll take care of them.”

“And then you're going to move, right?” she wanted to know, not yet getting into the cart. When he gave her another look she raised her eyebrow at him and he just sighed before nodding once.

“Sure,” he agreed, but then held out his hand to her, “I'll find another inn to stay at, but I'm taking you back first and you're going to talk to Luna, tell her what happened. At least some of it.” Clarke thought about it for a second, part of her wanting to insist that the bodies be taken care of as soon as possible so there would be less of a chance that someone might see them, but her body and mind were both exhausted, enough that she wasn't entirely sure she'd even be able to walk all the way back to The Rig by herself. Finally she gave in and grabbed his hand, letting him pull her up onto the seat beside him, and then sat back as he took the reins and began to lead the horse tied to the cart out of the alley. As the wagon rolled forward she pulled her cloak further around her, clutching at the fabric of its neck to keep it closed. Neither of them said anything as they rolled into the street, a few people quickly stepping out of the cart's path, probably both too tired to. As much as Clarke knew she should probably be thinking about what had just happened and what they'd learned, instead her mind felt fuzzy, and her head kept falling forward a little before snapping back as she fought to stay awake.

The crowded streets made it a long trip back to her home, but she doubted she would have gotten there any faster on foot. Finally they pulled up in front of the large building and Wells helped her get down from the cart, her legs shaky beneath her once she was again on solid ground. She looked back up at him, studying his face for a moment, before she murmured, “Good luck, and be careful.”

He nodded, eyes softer than usual but no less serious. “I will be. You too. I'll find a way to send word about where I am after I get settled in a new place. We'll... we'll figure it out from there.”

“We will,” she agreed, trying to give him a smile but she wasn't entirely sure she was successful. Nevertheless he returned it and then urged the horse forward, continuing down the street and she let out a long sigh before turning her attention to The Rig and beginning to make her way towards the door. Inside she found Luna at her desk as usual with Derrick just behind her, and she headed straight to them, ignoring the two guests waiting against the opposite wall.

Her mistress glanced up from her books as the redhead approached, frowning when she noticed the cloak covering her. Clarke noticed Derrick shift, probably not immediately recognizing her with her hood still on, and she quickly lowered it before he could go for his sword. One hand remained up by her neck, holding the fabric closed over it so none of the bruising would show, but from the way Luna was watching her she must have known something was wrong.

“I need to talk to you,” Clarke just said, not looking away from the older woman as she stopped in front of her desk. “It's important.” When Luna just lifted an eyebrow, apparently wanting more, Clarke loosened her grip on the cloak, letting it open a little more and revealing a bit of her neck, and she saw the mistress's eyes immediately widen. So did Derrick's, the big man automatically reaching for his sword, probably ready to go after whoever had done this to her, but Luna stopped him.

“Derrick, I need you to work the desk for a few minutes,” she stated, not even looking at the big man. “Clarke and I need to talk.”

“But-” he tried to say but Luna had already moved around the desk, lightly grabbing one of Clarke's arms as the redhead returned her grip on her cloak. “Just do as I say, Derrick, and if anyone asks she was tired and decided to go to bed. Say nothing else.”

Clarke let her mistress lead her through the house and towards her own room, her exhaustion once again taking over. The idea of going to bed sounded absolutely wonderful, and she had every intention of doing just that as soon as she possibly could. Luna needed to know what had happened and they would need to talk about who she would be allowed to see in the foreseeable future, but after that all Clarke wanted to do was fall in bed and finally let herself sleep. She would take care of her injuries tomorrow and figure out what she was going to tell her friends in the morning, but for now all she wanted was to crawl into bed.

She yawned as Luna pulled her into her room and shut the door behind them, the movement making her throat hurt, but at the moment she really couldn't care, sleep the only thing on her mind.

Chapter Text

“I'm guaranteed to win the archery contest,” Evan Riddell, a son of one of the lesser lords of the Ingrona Plains bragged, tilting back his head. “I'm the best shot in all the Plains.” Philip Hyll from the Boudalan Mountains chuckled, not even trying to hide it as he took a sip from his wine glass. “Is that supposed to mean something?” he wanted to know once he'd swallowed, lifting an eyebrow, and the other lesser lord grit his teeth, his fingers curling more tightly around his own glass.

“I'm sure you're a wonderful shot,” Sara Mines from the Blue Cliffs told Evan, gently pressing her hand to his arm. Everyone knew she was trying to talk her parents into a marriage with the Ingrona lord and Clarke looked down into her wine to hide a knowing look as the two smiled at each other. She was fairly sure Sara had learned that little arm trick from her and it nearly always worked to get a man's attention.

Another party was well under way, and it seemed like all anyone could talk about was the queen's tournament that had been announced only days earlier. The few who weren't talking about it were busy discussing the hunt the queen would be leading in about a week and a half instead, which meant the entire Great Hall was abuzz with conversation. Clarke pretended to listen to all of it, already tired of hearing one lord after another brag about his impressive fighting skills, and did her best to spend most of her time scanning the crowd, looking for anyone who might match the description she'd been given of the man who wanted her dead. So far she'd noticed no less than eight bald men with big noses and found herself wishing a dead man could have been more specific before he died. She could name five of them, and tried to keep each of them plus the other three within her sight. Needless to say, in a crowded room where she was supposed to be paying attention to the people around her that was only so easy. As she looked around her free hand fiddled absentmindedly with the scarf she had tied around her neck, fingers twiddling with its ends.

“Will you be coming to the tournament, Mistress Blake?” Philip asked suddenly and Clarke forced her attention back to the group around her, finding all eyes on her. She smiled coyly, not missing a beat before she gave a little shrug, telling him, “I'm not sure. I suppose that will depend on what I'm doing that day.” She raised her brow teasingly as she looked away and then back again, and found most of the men around her grinning and even many of the women smiling and sharing in her joke. An arm slipped around her waist and she looked over at Lady Monroe, her companion for the night once again, and returned her smile. “I think I can safely say we'd all love to have you there,” she said, a playful grin just barely hiding at the corners of her mouth. “I know I always do better with a beautiful woman cheering me on.” Clarke ducked her head exactly as she was meant to, looking up at Monroe from beneath her eyelashes. “You flatter me, my lady. I'm sure you would fight just as well without anyone cheering you on, but you know I'm always happy to do so.”

The conversation continued, men arguing about which event would be the hardest with a few of the women adding their opinions in every now and then, and Clarke went quiet again. She took the moment to look around the circle, finding just about everyone excited and eager to add to the conversation, but at the back of the ring Finn stood quietly, adding nothing and just nodding along whenever anyone looked over at him. To Clarke he seemed to have become more quiet and withdrawn ever since their last talk, but since he hadn't approached her since then she'd decided not to worry about it. Keeping her distance would only help him to get over her, and as far as she was concerned that was exactly what he needed to do. With everyone distracted again she let her focus wander back out over the room, tracking down as many bald men as she could while not moving from her spot.

“Clarke, would you like some more wine?” Monroe asked a few minutes later, noticing her glass was empty. The redhead smiled over at her and nodded, saying, “I'd love some, my lady.” The noblewoman held out her arm and Clarke took it, letting her lead the way to the nearest servant holding a tray of glasses. He bowed as Monroe plucked two from the tray and Clarke thanked them both before taking a small sip.

“Mistress Blake?” she heard behind her and turned around to find the Second in Command of the Guard standing beside her, a light smile on his face. She wracked her brain for a quick second and then returned the smile as she remembered it. “Lincoln, right? It's nice to see you again.”

He nodded, bowing a little to her, a motion no one else in the room had ever even considered doing. “It's nice to see you again too. I'm glad you've been able to make it back to the palace. You make these parties just a little more entertaining.”

“That's true,” Monroe agreed beside her, hiding a smile behind her drink, and Clarke let herself blush lightly. Ignoring it she gestured to the other woman, telling Lincoln, “Lincoln, this is Lady Monroe, my companion for the evening. Lady Monroe, this is Lincoln-” She paused, brow furrowing as she realized she didn't know his last name. “Birch,” he supplied and she smiled at him, before continuing, “Lincoln Birch, the Second in Command of the Palace Guard.”

“My lady,” he greeted with another, slightly more formal bow. Monroe grinned at him, saying, “Please, just call me Monroe. I've always liked it better than 'my lady'.” She made a face at the title and his brow rose a little before the corners of his mouth twitched. “Alright,” he said, “Monroe.”

“I've seen you out in the courtyard, training with the Guard,” she said, “your skills are very impressive.” He ducked his head, telling her, “Thank you. I've been lucky to have some good teachers.” He looked back over the room to where many of the other young nobles were standing still and added, “I've seen you out there as well. Your sword work is excellent. I assume you'll be joining in the tournament?”

Monroe nodded. “I will be,” she told him, and then grinned a little as she glanced over at the redhead still beside her. “We were just trying to convince Mistress Blake here to come to the tournament. I'm hoping she'll be there to cheer me on. I could use the luck.”

Clarke returned the grin with her own, gesturing to Lincoln as she replied, “It doesn't sound like you need luck, my lady. I have every confidence in you.”

She couldn't tell them there was no way she could go to the tournament; the chances of running into someone who would recognize her from her old life were far too great, so she couldn't risk it. Besides, she didn't care about fancy sword work or who could shoot more bullseyes than anyone else, all she cared about was finishing what had been started the night her father was killed.

“It certainly should be interesting,” Lincoln said, his voice almost a little too polite, and Clarke could tell he wasn't exactly looking forward to it. Only knights and squires would be allowed to participate but the events themselves would be sure to draw some major crowds, which probably meant he'd be working non-stop before and after it. With that many people around anything could happen, so he and the rest of the Guard would have to be constantly ready for any kind of problem. After a season where they'd already had to deal with more nobles at once than ever before, she didn't envy them that work.

“Would you be up for a friendly duel sometime?” Monroe suddenly asked him, tilting her head a little to the side, and Clarke noticed Lincoln's eyes briefly widen in surprise. “Like I said, I've seen you training, and I'd love to see if I can match you.”

“Me, my lady?” he asked, everything but the bit of surprise guarded in his expression. “Knights don't usually choose to test their skills against soldiers.” She shrugged, telling him, “I like to go against the best. From what I've seen, you're one of the best. Definitely more impressive than most of them.” She nodded towards the group of nobles they'd just come from and Lincoln glanced over to them, face carefully blank in the way Clarke had quickly learned to read long ago. He seemed to think about it for a second, weighing his answer, and then looked back at her and said, “I'd be honored.”

“Wonderful. Maybe tomorrow? Whenever you're free.” He seemed to be studying her again, eyes scanning her face, but then he nodded once. “Tomorrow,” he agreed, “I train with the Guard mid-morning but we could go after that.” She grinned and nodded, and Clarke almost wished she could see that fight. She'd heard Monroe's stories from the war and knew how sharp her skills were, but Lincoln had the physique of a natural fighter, someone who had been doing it his entire life. One thing was for sure, it would be quite the match to see.

“Monroe, Clarke,” they suddenly heard and both turned to see a couple of the people in their group gesturing towards them, trying to draw them back. Lincoln nodded his head to them, saying, “I see you're wanted, I won't keep you any longer.” He looked at Clarke, lips twitching up and the smile showing in his eyes. “I just wanted to speak with you again, tell you it's good to see you.” He then turned to Monroe, his expression just barely changing, only a hair more guarded than it had been. “And it was nice to officially meet you, Lady Monroe. I look forward to tomorrow.”

“Until tomorrow,” she agreed, flashing him a smile and Clarke did the same. “It was good to see you again, Lincoln. Thank you for coming over.” He nodded and then left, quickly melting back into the crowd, and the two young women made their way back to their circle, wine glasses in hand.

As soon as they'd stepped back into their spots, Philip reached over, tugging playfully on the scarf Clarke had around her neck. “We thought we'd lost you,” he joked, his lips curling into a half-smirk. “You disappear from us so easy, and we wouldn't want you getting into any trouble.” He finished with a wink and Clarke made sure to look away and then back, letting her lips twitch as though amused. Her fingers came up to smooth out her scarf, being careful not to move it too much as she replied coyly, “I'm sure I couldn't get myself into any trouble that one of you couldn't get me out of.” Many of the men around her puffed out their chests at that and she wanted to roll her eyes, just barely holding the response in. Conversation continued around her almost as though she'd never left and once again Clarke began to tune them out, eyes scanning over the room while she nodded as though she were listening.

Lord Rivo, one of her bald men, stood over by the tables, speaking with a couple from the Ingrona Plains. Lord Costa and his wife were dancing, the two locked together, and two of the men she couldn't name were helping themselves to food. She couldn't immediately spot any of the others she'd been tracking throughout the evening and shifted a little where she stood to get a broader look at the room. Enough people filled the space that it was hard to see everyone, and she searched for a long moment hoping to find them. Over in the corner she saw Lexa speaking with a few nobles and for a second her gaze stopped, caught on the queen before she could force it to keep moving. Anya stood nearby, her eyes drifting almost lazily between the queen and the others around her, and Clarke found the prince a little ways away, appearing a little trapped in a conversation with his aunt and one of the lesser lords of the Blue Cliffs. Titus was talking with Lord Dante on the other side of the room and he-

Clarke's shifting gaze suddenly froze, honing in on the queen's adviser. The man seemed to be focused on his conversation, but the dark-haired woman could see his eyes going over to the queen every now and then, never seeming to stay off of her for long. Between looks at the queen and acting interested in the lord beside him, she caught him scanning the room, much in the same way she had been doing, and suddenly the realization clicked into place.

“Excuse me,” she murmured to Monroe, pushing her wine glass into the woman's free hand, and didn't wait for her to say anything before she was stepping out of their circle once again. She didn't look at anyone or anything other than the adviser, anger burning a hole in her chest. It made so much sense but she hadn't even considered it until this very moment, and she had to grit her teeth to keep her anger from leaking into her expression.

Dante noticed her first as she approached, smiling as he broke off whatever he'd been in the middle of saying. “Mistress Blake,” he greeted happily, “it's always a pleasure to see you again.” Titus turned around, his shoulders stiffening, and from the set of the lips the feeling clearly wasn't mutual.

“Lord Dante,” Clarke said, having to work to keep her tone light. “It's always an honor to see you as well.” She turned to the adviser, being careful to make sure to give him nothing less than a sweet smile. “And Lord Titus. I'm afraid we've never had much of an opportunity to talk. I was hoping we might be able to fix that. Would you do me the honor of a dance?”

The adviser's expression noticeably soured, the corners of his lips curling down but only just. She thought she saw something in his eyes as he looked down his nose at her but whatever it was he hid it well, the only thing really showing being a general dislike of the suggestion.

“I don't often dance, Mistress Blake,” he replied, head tilting up just a hair. She would have continued to push him into it but didn't have to as Dante lightly elbowed his arm. “My Lord Titus, when a beautiful woman asks you to dance, you dance. That's only more true when that beautiful woman is our Clarke.” He winked at her and she smiled at him but then turned back to Titus, raising her brow as she waited for him to give in. He held off for another long second, nose briefly scrunching up, but then finally nodded. “Very well,” he finally agreed and before he could say anything else Clarke took his arm, leading him to the dance floor.

As they walked, Clarke slipped her hand in one of her hidden pockets, palming its contents. Fury boiled at the back of her throat and filled her chest but she made sure not to let it show on her face, just nodding and smiling to anyone who bothered to give her a look as she walked by. Titus was no happier about this than she was, walking stiffly beside her and clearly wishing he could pull his arm out of her hold but disciplined enough not to. When they reached the area where a few others were already dancing to the soft music filling the hall, Clarke released her grip on his arm and turned to face him, curtsying lightly in the process. Stiffly he nodded his head to her, as close as he would ever come to a bow she was sure, and then they moved together, one of his hands moving to her waist while one of hers settled lightly on his shoulder. Their free hands came together, and for the first time he slipped up, surprise clearly showing on his face as he felt what she'd just pressed into his palm.

“That's all that was left,” she informed him lightly, doing her best to keep the polite smile on her face. “If there was more, I'm afraid they'd already spent it by the time you had them grab me.” She raised her eyebrows, continuing, “Honestly though, I think you're lucky even that was left; I'm sure that was more silver than either of those men had seen in a very long time, if ever.”

Titus didn't say anything, just stared over her head, his eyes just barely narrowing, and it was all she needed to know she'd guessed right. The two silver pieces felt hot pressed between their hands, suddenly almost heavier, and she was happy to be rid of them. They danced a few steps without him looking at her and with her staring up at him, and finally she squeezed his hand tightly, her anger boiling over. He glanced down at her and she didn't try to hide, didn't stifle her fury, glaring up at him.

“You almost killed an innocent man,” she murmured, her voice quiet but dangerous and something about it must have gotten the adviser's attention because he frowned, dark eyes meeting her own. “A good man. You want to kill me? That's fine, you aren't the first. But if one of my friends gets hurt because of it, I will make sure you pay for it.”

“You realize who you're threatening,” he replied just as quietly, a warning in his tone that Clarke completely ignored. She nodded once, and said, “I do, and it doesn't matter. If you hurt someone I care about I will make sure you regret it.” They were close enough she could see his jaw clench but he didn't say anything else so neither did she, their eye contact not breaking as they stared at each other in a silent battle of wills. The second the song ended Titus dropped her hand and stepped away, immediately turning and leaving her. She doubted anyone else noticed him slip the coins in his pocket as he moved but for her part she didn't take her eyes off of him until he'd disappeared into the crowd, probably trying to put as much distance between them as possible. As the next song started up she made her way off of the dance floor, moving back in the direction of her group. A big part of her wanted to follow him, to actually make him pay for what he'd put her and Wells through and maybe even get a little bit of justice for the two men who had died, but she held herself back. The open room was far too crowded to make him pay for it all in blood, and she doubted Titus often left the palace, so she would have to let this go with just the warning. As long as he didn't try anything again, she decided him knowing she knew what he'd done was enough. From the little bit she knew about him she was relatively sure just knowing that would likely eat away at him enough as it was, and if Lexa didn't need to know about this, the better; no matter what else he was, the adviser was her father-figure, and Clarke had no desire to say or do anything that would hurt the queen.

Many of the young nobles looked at her strangely as she rejoined their circle, Monroe and Philip making room for her once again. “What?” she asked lightly, doing her best to play off what had just happened, ignoring the fizzling anger she could still feel buzzing beneath her skin.

“Is everything alright?” Monroe wanted to know, reaching out and placing her hand on the redhead's arm. She glanced back over Clarke's shoulder, adding, “I uh, I didn't realize you and Titus ever really... spoke.”

“Oh no, Lord Titus is usually too busy to have time for someone like me,” Clarke replied, giving them her dazzling smile as she waved a hand in front of her and played the silly whore, stamping down the residual anger she felt still burning just beneath her skin. “I just thought I should greet Lord Dante and I guess Lord Titus wanted to extend that greeting. He really was too kind.”

“Sure, Titus is kind,” Evan scoffed, “and my horse has wings.” He grinned as a few of them laughed at his joke, noticeably proud of himself and then took a long sip of his wine. Clarke didn't let her expression waver, making sure not to lose the dazzling smile she knew would distract them all in no time.

“Well if you want more of a greeting, I'd be happy to give it to you,” Philip told her with a smirk, “and I'm sure you remember how much fun it would be.” He winked at her and she just continued to smile, not letting it grow or shrink so as not to let him think she wanted any of that kind of attention from him.

“Leave her alone, Hyll,” they heard, and the young lord turned to find Finn glaring at him. Internally Clarke winced but refused to look at him, worried it would only encourage him.

“What's the matter Collins, too upset she's not giving you all her attention?” Philip returned, a bite in his tone. He took a step closer to Clarke and she just stood still, worried any kind of movement would only make the whole situation worse. She was trying to decide on the best way to diffuse this before a real fight broke out when Monroe did it for her.

“Well I'm tired of just standing around,” she stated, loudly enough to cut off Finn before he could say anything back. Turning to Clarke she held out her hand, giving her a lopsided grin. “You looked so beautiful dancing Mistress Blake, I'd be honored if you'd dance with me.” Clarke gave her a relieved smile, sure it must have showed in her expression but didn't care as she accepted the offered hand. “I would love to, my lady.” Monroe led her back over to the dance floor and the older woman let out an inner sigh of relief, glad to be away from all of them.

“Sorry about that,” Monroe told her when they were dancing. “Philip doesn't know when to keep his mouth shut and Finn is way too easy to antagonize.” Clarke just flashed her another smile, telling her, “Don't worry about it, my lady. I deal with men like them every day.”

Monroe let out a noise, something that was almost a laugh. “I'm sure you do. Still, might as well avoid it whenever you can.” All of a sudden she stepped back and twirled Clarke, catching the redhead by surprise and making her laugh, the sound genuine and a shock more to herself than the young knight. She spun her back and her hand returned to Clarke's waist, and the redhead found herself shaking her head. “You're a very good person, you know that?” she asked, meaning it as she looked at the other woman, and Monroe just grinned. “Eh, I have my moments.”

For a while they danced together, the noblewoman interested more in having fun than with following the correct steps, and Clarke laughed as she followed along, letting Monroe take lead. She could almost forget about her problems while the younger woman told her jokes and stories and whirled her around, and Clarke lost track of how much time had gone by as they moved together. When someone approached them as one song ended however, her entire attention instantly shifted, and the dark-haired woman's smile softened before she even realized it.

“Do you mind if I cut in?” Lexa asked elegantly, honoring Monroe with a small smile as the younger woman shook her head. “Of course not Your Majesty,” she replied and let go of Clarke, giving her a little grin before hooking her thumb behind her. “I'm going to head back over to the others, make sure Finn and Philip haven't actually started throwing any punches yet.” Clarke just nodded, barely hearing what she said, but Lexa frowned as the other woman began walking away.

“Something's going on with Finn and Philip?” she asked, looking at Clarke, and the redhead shook her head. “It's nothing, Your Majesty. I'm sure they've gotten over it by now.” Lexa gave her a look as though she didn't believe her, probably guessing exactly what it was they had started to fight about, but Clarke changed the subject, not wanting to get into it. “It sounds like everyone liked the idea of the tournament. It's all anyone can talk about.”

Lexa nodded as she moved closer to the younger woman, easily setting one hand against her waist and lightly grasping one of Clarke's with her other. The redhead tried not to think about how natural the queen's hand felt in her own, or how her skin tingled beneath her dress as though her palm was pressed directly against her waist.

“It's made everyone happy,” Lexa agreed, briefly glancing around the room before letting her eyes drift back to Clarke. It was hard to look away, the redhead as beautiful as always in a dark blue dress that fit her just as perfectly as any other she'd seen her in and her dark hair tumbling around her shoulders. Her necklace hung around her neck as always, the pendant resting against her chest, but today she also wore a scarf tied against her neck, the fabric a matching blue. It was tied securely around her neck so as not to move much but its ends hung freely, dangling a few inches past the knot. It wasn't quite like any style the queen had ever seen before but somehow it worked, though she thought maybe that had more to do with the woman wearing it than the scarf itself.

Clarke found it equally as difficult to look away from the brunette. Tonight instead of a dress the queen wore a tunic, but it had to be the finest tunic she'd ever seen. On her legs were black hose and she wore a pair of dark brown boots over them that cut off just below her knees. The tunic was fine silk dyed a deep, dark green many shades darker than her eyes, and beneath it she wore a bronze silk shirt. A belt was strapped around her waist and her sword hung off of it, bumping lightly against her leg as they danced, and looking down at it Clarke couldn't quite hold in her smile. “Do you think we're going to be attacked, Your Majesty?” she teased. “Should I find a strong knight to hide behind?”

Lexa's lips twitched, eyes catching the redhead's again and she lifted an eyebrow.

“I think we both know that if we were attacked you wouldn't need to hide behind anyone,” she just said, sharing in her joke. “You are very capable of taking care of yourself.” She paused, another thought tumbling around her mind, and then couldn't keep herself from adding, “Though if you would like to hide behind me, I hope you know you are more than welcome to. I enjoy your company.”

Clarke's smile softened, her heart skipping a beat or two at the words. “I enjoy your company too, Your Majesty.” She pretended not to notice how the response made Lexa's lips curl up a little further, or that her hand held a little more tightly to the redhead's.

“I'm glad,” Lexa murmured, voice quiet, and for a few seconds they just danced together, entirely comfortable in their silence. It was the first moment of the evening where either of them had been able to fully relax and they reveled in it, happy to get lost in the steps of the dance and each other's presence. Finally Lexa forced her gaze away again, afraid of drawing too much attention to them with their silence, and looked over the other woman's shoulder. She glanced around and took note of a number of people pretending not to watch them as well as others genuinely focused on their own conversations, and remembered why she'd come over here originally when she found one person in particular.

“Did I see you dancing with Titus earlier?” she asked, looking back at the woman in front of her, letting her surprise carry through in her tone. It was almost a rhetorical question, entirely sure of what she'd seen, but even so it was still hard for her to believe. Clarke just nodded once, a little piece of her mask slipping across her face and the queen immediately regretted the question, wanting to wipe it away again.

“You did,” the redhead answered simply. “There was just something we needed to talk about.” Lexa raised an eyebrow, silently asking what that was, and Clarke gave her a slight shrug. “He thinks I'm corrupting you,” she told her, giving her a piece of the truth without telling her the whole thing. “I think he would prefer I kept my distance.”

The queen frowned, coming as close to a scowl as she dared with a room full of people around them. “Titus shouldn't bother you with any of that,” she said, tone low, anger flickering at its edges. “It isn't up to him. He doesn't understand.”

Clarke lightly squeezed Lexa's hand, giving her another little smile. “I know,” she replied, catching green eyes that glanced up at her, “he doesn't. Don't worry, he won't keep me from dancing with you.” Something buzzed in Lexa's chest and her mouth got a little dry, enough that she had to swallow thickly to get over it. For a moment it was difficult to draw in a breath, her chest too full to allow room for her lungs to expand, and she had to look away from the other woman's face in order to get herself back under control. Automatically she glanced down, eyes falling on the scarf again, and she seized the distraction.

“This is interesting,” she stated, letting go of Clarke's hand for a moment to hover over it, “I'm not sure I've ever seen a look quite like it.” She ran the tips of her fingers over the scarf's ends as the dark-haired woman told her, “It's just something I thought I would try tonight. People seem to like it.” Lexa nodded, about to tell her how nice it looked, but just as she was about to she looked a little closer, suddenly frowning. Initially she hadn't noticed anything off about the scarf other than just how Clarke was wearing it, but now she thought she saw something peaking out from beneath it. Her fingers shifted from its ends to the scarf itself, and carefully she tugged a bit of it down to reveal more of the younger woman's neck.

The queen's hand shifted half a second too quickly for Clarke to realize what she was doing in time to stop her. The moment she did she tried to keep her from seeing wait laid beneath the scarf, even got so far as grabbing her wrist to pull her hand away, but it was too late: Lexa froze in front of her, her eyes instantly wide and staring at the bit of skin she'd just exposed. Clarke froze as well, staring at the queen's face and watching as sudden fury darkened her eyes. There was no mask staring at her now, no calm or cool interest peaking at the corners of the queen's eyes, but dark fury that snapped her eyebrows up and then immediately down in a harsh glare and the ferocious sight took the dark-haired woman's breath away, her heart beating quickly now for a multitude of reasons.

“What happened?” Lexa demanded, her voice low and dangerous. It felt as though her heart had stopped beating as soon as she saw the bruising, but now it pounded in her chest, blood rushing throughout her body. Her palms tingled, itching to draw her sword and make whoever had done this to her friend pay for it. The little bit of skin she had revealed was dark purple and blue, so deep it nearly matched the fabric over it, and Lexa could tell it continued beneath the scarf, likely wrapping around her neck. She could only think of one way a person could get bruised in such a way, and the idea of someone wrapping their hands or anything else around Clarke's beautiful neck made the edges of her vision begin to go black. Suddenly she remembered the first night she'd explored the city with the other woman, remembered seeing the blood on her hand and the way the redhead had shifted nervously when she saw it, and black rage rolled up her spine to pool into her limbs like molten lava. “Someone's hurting you.” The fact she hadn't seen it before this moment, hadn't done something to stop it before someone's hands ended up around that slim and beautiful neck made the queen's fury double, much of it directed at herself. “Tell me who it is, Clarke. Tell me who's hurting you, and I will make them suffer.” She gave the words as a promise to the redhead and a threat to the one who had done this, mind already whirling for a suitable punishment for this atrocity but the idea of plunging her own sword into the chest of whoever it was kept playing in her mind. She finally forced herself to look away from Clarke's neck, catching blue eyes already staring at her.

Clarke shook her head even as she quickly fixed the scarf, doing her best to hide the bruising once again with fingers that shook. Silently she swore at herself as her heart raced. “No one's hurting me,” she answered, trying to keep her tone and expression even as she lied. She had a feeling the slightest unnecessary twitch would tell the brunette of her lie, so she made sure not to look away. “Really Your Majesty, it's nothing, don't worry.”

“That's not nothing, Clarke,” Lexa growled furiously and the younger woman saw her eyes flash dangerously. “Someone hurt you and I want to know who. Tell me.”

“It's not as bad as it looks,” Clarke tried, dropping her tone a bit to try to be more soothing. Just over the queen's shoulder she could see Titus out of the corner of her eye on the other side of the room, and she purposefully made sure not to look at him. It would kill the queen if she learned that one of the people she trusted the most had decided to disregard the law and had hired men to kill her. Quickly she spun the lie she'd given to her friends at The Rig when they demanded to know what had happened, one corner of her mouth lifting as she added, “One of my guests from a couple days ago likes to get a little rough, that's all. It wasn't unexpected.”

That took the queen by surprise, her brow shooting up as she began to blink quickly. The anger in her expression didn't entirely disappear all at once, but now the surprise seemed to be overshadowing it. “I'm sorry?” she asked, “I don't...”

“Some men and women pay a little extra to get a little rough,” Clarke continued, shrugging one shoulder, acting as nonchalant about it as she could. She pretended not to notice the glances they were getting, the others dancing around them hearing bits of their conversation or just staring as they wondered why the two had stopped moving. “I hadn't yet been invited to tonight's party by then, so I let them.” She let her smile grow completely, as though she were letting the queen in on a secret. “Of course when Lady Monroe did reach out, I knew it would be best to hide the evidence of that night. I already draw enough attention to myself, don't you think?”

Lexa opened her mouth to say something and then closed it again, biting her lip, but Clarke's gaze dropped to it. She didn't quite understand why the little motion made her breath hitch but it did, and she had to swallow once before looking back up and meeting hesitant green eyes again. “You're sure you're alright?” Lexa asked, the fury that had been in her voice slowly being replaced by quiet uncertainty. “No one's hurting you? You're safe?”

The concern in the queen's voice made Clarke's throat suddenly burn and she could feel tears trying to build up at the back of her eyes. It had been a long time since anyone other than Wells had looked at her like that, had cared as much as the brunette so obviously cared, and it made it difficult for her to keep her expression even. She had to bite her tongue for a second to try to clear the emotion away, and then only when she was sure she could speak without giving anything away did she nod. “I'm sure, Your Majesty. I'm fine.” Lexa studied her face for a long moment, probably trying to read everything there, before she returned the nod. She still wasn't entirely sure how she should feel about this, how she was expected to just accept that this had happened willingly, but the last thing she wanted was to distress Clarke. She couldn't think of any reason why the younger woman would lie about something like this, why she wouldn't say anything if she truly was in danger, so decided that for now she'd do as Clarke wanted and would let it go. “Alright,” she just said, and the redhead gave her a smile.

Without speaking they finally began dancing again, falling back against each other as though it were second nature. Clarke knew that entire confrontation hadn't gone unnoticed but for the moment she didn't let herself worry about it, content to just hold onto the older woman and let themselves move to the music. Lexa's hand had slipped back into hers and now she seemed to hold it a little tighter, and no matter what she'd said Clarke knew she wasn't yet entirely over what she'd just seen. To try to reassure her the redhead squeezed her hand and flashed the queen a small smile when she looked over to meet her eyes, and after a second Lexa's lips mirrored the movement. They kept dancing in silence, each letting the other woman's presence calm them, and all but forgot about everyone else in the room.

One song had ended and another had begun by the time Clarke was able to force her gaze away from the queen, knowing they had to have an audience watching them by this point. She scanned the room over the brunette's shoulder, not expecting to find anything nearly as interesting as the queen but knowing it would look better to anyone watching, but then nearly jumped when she saw an unexpected but familiar face talking with the prince across the room.

“L-Lord Miller?” she nearly gasped out loud, feeling her stomach suddenly drop, and in front of her one of Lexa's eyebrows twitched up before she glanced over her shoulder.

“Yes. He and his party arrived a couple of days ago,” she informed her, looking over at the lesser lord with very little interest. “He brought word that the rest of the Arkadian nobles should be here within the week, probably sooner now.” She shifted her focus back over to Clarke, finding the younger woman still staring at the lord, shock obvious in her expression. Gesturing back a little, she asked, “Would you like me to introduce you? I should go over and greet him anyway, so I'd be happy to.”

“No,” Clarke answered almost a little too quickly. She made herself look back at the queen, doing her best to keep the way her heart was now pounding against her chest from her expression, and forced an apologetic smile. “No, thank you Your Majesty. I should honestly be getting back to Lady Monroe now.” She stepped back, releasing her hold on the brunette, and fell into the customary curtsy. “Thank you for another lovely dance; as always, you honor me.”

“It was my pleasure,” Lexa replied, giving the other woman an odd look before wiping it away as though it had never been there. She nodded solemnly, telling her, “It is always a delight, getting to see and dance with you, Clarke.” Her own name on the queen's tongue managed to break Clarke's panic for a millisecond, her smile warming as she looked at the other woman, but then she was turning around and making her way back over to the corner of the room where Monroe and their group was, thankfully on the other side of the room from Lord Miller, and that panic set back in again.

Seeing Diana Sydney had been one thing; the other woman hadn't seen her since she was a young girl, there was absolutely no reason she might recognize her. Seeing either of the Millers was an entirely other thing. Lord Miller and his son had been two of the last people to see her and her father alive, and after five consecutive days spent together it was entirely possible either one might see her and know who she was. It was also entirely possible they might not – after all, seven years was a long time to be dead, and it wasn't like they'd known her particularly well before her week at their fief – but even just the possibility they might see her and recognize her had her heart ramming against her ribcage. She needed to leave before either of them could spot her, which meant she had to get out now.

Roughly the same group of nobles stood in a circle where she had left them, only a few notable absences, one of them being Finn. She assumed he and Philip must have gotten into it and he had left, but didn't have the freedom to wonder what exactly had happened. She had to come up with a plan to leave and fast, but couldn't just go without her night's companion. Quickly she made a decision and then moved up behind Monroe, pressing her front to the younger woman's back and wrapping her arms lightly around her waist. She felt the knight jump slightly, surprised by her sudden appearance and bold move, but then saw her smirk over her shoulder at her.

“Hi,” she just said, lifting an eyebrow at the redhead. “Did you have a nice dance with the queen?” Clarke nodded, making sure to give her her best coy smile, and then replied, “I did, but I'm afraid I'm a little tired now. I'm thinking someone should take me back to her bed so I can... rest.” She finished by biting her lip, giving Monroe a very specific look that she'd seen countless whores use before and like with every one of them it worked, the other woman's eyes widening quickly before her smirk just grew. She turned around and stepped out of Clarke's arms, taking one of her hands and lifting it to her lips.

“I would hate to keep you waiting when you're tired,” she joked and then brushed the back of the redhead's hand with her lips. Behind her Clarke could see a number of the others giving the two of them looks, some shocked at how blatant they were being and others showing nothing but jealousy with their scowls. She ignored all of them, too preoccupied with getting out of there to bother with thinking about what anyone might say later. Monroe stood up a little straighter and then began looking around the room, telling her, “I just have one thing I need to do before we go. I promised my father I would talk to him about attending tomorrow's council meeting with him and I won't hear the end of it if I don't.” She made a face, her thoughts about that clear, and Clarke smiled.

“Go,” she agreed, nodding, “I think I'll wait for you in the hall. It's feeling a little stuffy in here.” Monroe gave her a partial grin and returned the nod before stepping away from the group and beginning the search for her father.

Clarke didn't wait a second longer; the moment Monroe started moving, so did she, trying her best to keep her head down as she began making her way through the room and towards the hallway. Every person she passed she worried might be one of the Millers so she kept her eyes down, trying to be as inconspicuous as possible. As she went she reached up and carefully undid the clasp of her necklace, letting the pendant and chain pool in her palm before she slipped it into a pocket. Before her death she'd worn it every day since her tenth birthday when her parents had given it to her, and it hadn't been any different those few days she'd been at the Miller fief. Even if neither of them recognized her they might the necklace and its unique stone, so she hid it away just as she tried to keep her face down.

She'd just managed to step through the doorway into the hall when footsteps hurried up behind her, and then she felt a hand grasp her arm and begin pulling her further down the hall at a quick trot. For the flash of a second her heart stopped, fear creeping up her spine at the thought that maybe Titus had had someone watching her at the party and was about to finish what he had started, but then she looked ahead at the person pulling her and recognized Finn in the flickering firelight of the torches lining the hallway.

“My lord, what-” she began, but he cut her off, shaking his head sharply.

“Come on,” he just said, his grip tightening a little around her wrist. “Keep going.” She didn't like the way he seemed to be looking around him, as though worried they might be followed, and tugged against his hold. “No Finn, stop. Stop!” Despite his firm grip she managed to yank her arm away from him, and as soon as she was free she immediately stopped, forcing him to turn around.

“Please Clarke, come on!” he begged, glancing wildly past her, obviously expecting to see someone and she shook her head.

“What are you doing?” she wanted to know, giving him a look. “You know I'm with Lady Monroe tonight, where are you trying to take me?”

The name of the noblewoman made him glare, his eyes making their way back to her. “You don't have to go with her, Clarke. It's okay, I have a plan.”

“A plan for what?” she asked, almost afraid to know the answer, and that fear grew as he took a step closer to her, taking her hands.

“Us,” he told her, hopeful eyes scanning her face. “A plan for us. I figured out how we can be together. I just need to get you pregnant.”

That made her yank her hands back, her eyebrows practically hitting her hairline as they rose in surprise, and her jaw dropped open before she could stop it. She just started shaking her head, not even sure where to begin with that, but he kept meeting her eyes and nodding.

“It would work, Clarke,” he insisted, taking another step closer and she subconsciously took a step back. “Think about it. If you're pregnant my father would give in, would have to let me see you! I wouldn't abandon my child, abandon you. You wouldn't have to be a whore anymore, you could come back to the Forest with me at the end of the summer. We could be together.”

“I...” Clarke began, still trying to wrap her head around it all, and then she got out the first thought that managed to fully form. “Even with a child, you know your father would never let you marry me.”

Guilt flashed across his face, noticeable even in the dim torchlight, and she saw him look away and then back again. “No, we couldn't get married, but you could still be mine. I'd take care of you, Clarke, you and the child. Whoever I do marry, they wouldn't mean nearly as much to me as you do.”

“You want me to be your mistress?” Clarke asked, fully and completely appalled. Anger began to boil in her gut, slowly at first, but she could feel it quickly growing. “So instead of anyone's whore, I'd just be your whore, is that it? You want to give me a baby so that your father will let you keep me all to yourself?”

He flinched, stung by an accusation she knew was right. “It's not like that, Clarke,” he tried, something like a whine building at the back of his tone. “I love you.”

“Then you're an idiot,” she told him, her voice hard and unwavering. “I'm a whore, Finn; you paid me to come here and then go back to your room with you, but that's all it ever was. I don't belong to you or anyone else, and I certainly have no intention of becoming a mother to your child.”

“You don't mean that,” he said as he shook his head. His expression fell a little, obviously hurt, but Clarke couldn't find it in herself to care.

“Yes I do,” she replied. “You don't get to make this decision for me. Gods Finn, what were you even thinking? Did you really think I'd just go with you? I have a life here in Polis, I'm not going to just leave it all so you can keep your toy for yourself!”

“You have a whore's life,” he reminded her, voice rising just a little and she could see his brow slowly turning down. “What's so good about it? You go from person to person, doing whatever they tell you to do. With me you wouldn't have to do that anymore. We could be together. You'd be safe, I'd keep you safe, and we could be happy. We could start with just the one child, but then we could have more. We could be a family, Clarke.”

Every word he said just baffled her more and more, and soon she was shaking her head slowly, unable to believe what he was saying. His eyes were big and round, pleading with her to understand and to agree to it all, and she honestly wondered how he could be foolish enough to truly believe in this fantasy he'd created in his head. “You want me to come back with you to a place where all I would be is your whore. You want to bury your cock in me over and over until I start popping out children for you, and then when your father tells you to you'll marry some noblewoman and start another family.” She spat the words out, knowing it was exactly what would happen, and grit her jaw. “What would your wife think of me?”

“It doesn't matter,” he insisted, taking another step, this time reaching out and grabbing her hand, and when she tried to pull it away he refused to let go. “All that matters is that we're together. I love you, Clarke, and I know you could love me too. Let me take you away from all of this, save you. I want you, Clarke. I want you to be mine.”

“I don't need saving, Finn,” she nearly growled, biting the inside of her cheek to keep herself from saying more. In the torchlight he had a half-crazed look in his eyes and it might have scared her if she hadn't spent the last seven years of her life tracking down trained killers after seeing her father murdered in front of her. Compared to Jenson and Bennet, to watching her father's head roll away from his body, this romantic, idealistic lordling was nothing. She tried to twist her arm out of his hold but his fingers dug tighter into her skin and she had to take a deep breath to hold in her anger. “Let go, please. Lady Monroe will be here any moment, and I'd rather she didn't see this.”

“She's not good enough for you!” he exclaimed, now full-on glaring at her. “None of them are. I'm the son of the head lord of the Glowing Forest; I'm the best you could ever possibly get. You can't seriously be turning this down.”

Clarke bit her tongue to keep herself from telling him he had no idea who he was talking to, that he was only a third son when she was her household's heir. Instead she managed to get out with some sense of tact, “I understand you weren't expecting this answer, but yes I am. I have no interest in going with you to the Forest, no interest in having your children. I'm sorry Finn, but I have no interest in you.”

Pain and anger flashed across his face, the mask she and Lexa had both developed years ago something he apparently had never needed himself. Rather than let go and move away he just stepped even closer, and when Clarke followed the shift back she felt her back hit up against a stone wall. Her heart beat quickly in her chest, suddenly feeling trapped, and her free hand fell to her pocket, immediately slipping inside to curl around her knife. Even just threatening him with it would get her into more trouble than she would be in if anyone knew about the people she had killed in the past few weeks, but she refused to just stand there and let him do whatever he wanted to her. She wanted to believe that even in anger he would never hurt her, wanted to believe deep down he genuinely was the decent guy she'd thought he was, but she'd seen too many horrible things in the world to blindly trust that hope. She held the knife so tightly she could feel the grooves of the leather wrapped around the hilt against her palm, and waited, hoping she wouldn't have to bring it out.

“You can't-” he began, about to try to move even closer and force her to draw the weapon, when a set of footsteps suddenly stopped only yards away from them.

“Hey!” a voice called and Finn jumped, turning to look at the person who had interrupted and Clarke winced, quickly looking the other way. She recognized the voice and swore under her breath as she tried to obscure her face. “Take your hands off her!”

“This isn't, isn't any of your business, Miller,” Finn grumbled, looking at and then away from the young man walking towards them. Clarke kept her face turned away as he approached, desperately wishing it had been anyone else who had found them.

“I'm making it my business,” the new man responded, and Clarke could hear the subtle warning in his voice. Apparently Finn could too, because almost against his will his grip loosened just a bit on her wrist. “The woman clearly doesn't want you near her. Step back.”

Finn hesitated a moment, probably wondering if he could get away with ignoring the other man, but then did as he'd ordered, releasing her arm entirely and putting a little bit of space between them. He glanced back at Clarke and she met his eyes, seeing the pain still evident on his face. “I love you,” he whispered, voice breaking. “I just wanted us to be together.”

“I know,” she told him, keeping her voice soft, more to try to keep Miller from recognizing it than for his benefit. “But we can't be. I'm sorry.” She wasn't really, would absolutely have used her knife to get out of the situation if Miller hadn't shown up, but the lie made a small bit of his hurt shift away, and if it would get him to leave her alone then the lie was worth it. Finn scanned her face for another few seconds, maybe looking for something he wasn't going to find or just wanting to make sure he'd never forget any detail, and then quickly turned away, not even acknowledging Miller as he made his way back to the Great Hall.

Clarke didn't wait and let there be a chance her face might be seen; as soon as Finn had disappeared she fell into a curtsy, letting her head fall forward. Her hair fell over her shoulders, helping to mask her face even more. “Thank you, my lord,” she said, doing her best to keep her voice a little low. “I appreciate your help.”

“Of course,” Miller replied, taking a couple of steps towards her, and Clarke ducked her head a little bit more. “Did he hurt you at all?”

“No, my lord,” she just answered, not offering anymore. She prayed he would just nod and then be on his way, hopefully back to the party, but apparently the gods weren't in the mood to answer her prayers. Instead a hand suddenly appeared in her vision, clearly meant for her to take, and she internally winced before beginning to stand up out of the curtsy.

“I'm Nathan,” he told her, and out of her periphery she could see him giving her a small, polite smile. “Nathan Miller. You are...?”

“Blake, my lord,” she informed him, reaching out and grasping his inner arm as she knew he expected, “just Mistress Blake. You honor me with your kindness.” She had to look up now or risk looking more suspicious by avoiding eye contact, and did so, finally seeing a face she had only known for a few days but could recognize even in the poor lighting. He continued to smile politely at her and she just hoped her face wasn't as recognizable.

“I was just doing what any decent person would do,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “I don't know Finn very well, but he shouldn't have scared you like that. Are you sure you're not hurt?”

“I'm sure, my lord,” she promised, letting him think she'd been scared and that was why she let her hair hang in her face. Likely he was thinking she was afraid he would act similarly to the other noble, and that worked for her. She could feel him studying her for a moment and her heart stopped, afraid she might have been recognized, when he suddenly gestured back towards the Great Hall. “Can I escort you back to the party?” he just asked, and she shook her head, letting out a silent sigh of relief. For now it seemed she was safe, so she replied lightly, “Thank you but no, my lord. I'm waiting for a friend.” Another pair of footsteps made their way towards them and she looked past him, breathing an inner sigh of relief as she recognized Monroe heading their way. “Here she is now. Again, thank you my lord, but I'm fine now.”

“Alright,” he told her, nodding once as he looked her over again. She looked away, playing at the shy commoner around someone of higher birth, and when Monroe passed him he gave her another nod as he began to turn around. “Good night, Mistress Blake. I'm glad you're alright.”

“Good night, my lord,” she replied, “thank you again for your help.” He flashed her another smile and then began making his way back down the hall and she all but slumped against the wall, breathing out a sigh of relief.

“Is everything alright Clarke?” Monroe asked, giving her a look as she moved up next to her. The redhead managed a nod and then pushed herself back up, giving the noblewoman a smile. “I am now, my lady. Are you ready?”

“I am,” she agreed, holding out her arm and Clarke took it, leaning a little heavily against her shoulder. Monroe's lips quirked up into a little smirk, adding, “If I remember correctly, you were tired and in need of a bed.” The older woman shared her smirk, letting her eyebrows rise as she told her, “I am. Would you happen to know of one I might fall into?”

“I think I do,” Monroe said, giving her a wink, and began leading the two women towards the palace entrance. “I admit, I hope you're not too tired though. I was thinking of one or two things we could do in that bed if you're not.” Clarke chuckled and then batted her eyelashes, looking up through them as she replied, “I think you'll be able to persuade me.”

As they walked down the hall Clarke smiled and laughed, giving Monroe her undivided attention, but beneath the surface her heart continued to beat rapidly, anxiety filling her gut. That had all been too close, far too close, and she couldn't let it happen again. Luck alone had managed to help her keep her secret, and she couldn't let herself count on it again. With the Millers in Polis and the impending arrival of her family, she knew one thing was for sure: her time in the palace was officially over.

Chapter Text

Bellamy's sister shifted in her saddle beside him for the third time in the past half hour, and he rolled his eyes. “O would you knock it off? You're starting to drive me crazy.”

“What?” the brunette demanded, shooting a look over at him, “I'm not doing anything!” Beneath her Charger, her sleek black gelding who had just as much energy as she did, snorted, tossing his own look up at the young man.

“Quit moving so much,” he told her, fully aware she knew exactly what she was doing. “We've only been going for a few hours, you can't be that bored.”

Behind them Bellamy heard a snort, and he turned to find their friend Raven riding a few feet back and between their mounts. When she saw him look at her she raised an eyebrow, grinning at him. “Come on Bellamy, you know your sister better than that. Of course she's bored, we've been riding through trees for days; she's barely been able to run Charger since we left the Hills.”

“She's right,” another voice piped up, and the young soldier looked over to see the young lady of Arkadia riding beside Raven. Madi's grin nearly matched their friend's, her dark blue eyes shining as she added, “Octavia always gets antsy when she can't run, and she's barely been able to get any training in for a while either. I'm surprised she hasn't entirely lost it yet.”

“I'm holding onto my sanity just for you, Madi,” Octavia joked, looking back over to the girl with her own grin. “Otherwise you're right, I probably would have disappeared into these trees by now.”

“Please, you'd love to disappear in the trees,” Raven told her with a roll of her eyes. “Think of all the trouble you could get in when no one could see you.”

“Like you wouldn't be getting into the same trouble,” the other brunette shot right back and Bellamy looked up, once again silently asking the gods how he had gotten stuck with them. He loved his sister and Raven more than just about anything, but there was no question they often pushed him to the edge of his patience.

“How about nobody gets into any trouble?” a new voice suggested, and they all turned together to see Lady Abby riding up behind Raven and her daughter, apparently having caught the end of their conversation. She gave them the look they all knew far too well by now, that amused but also somewhat of a warning look, and they all grinned back at her. Her eyebrows rose a little higher, looking over them again as she added, “And when we get to the city, let's all really stay out of trouble.”

“Whatever you say Abby,” Raven replied with a mock salute, and Bellamy noticed that the noblewoman just shook her head a little, a smile tugging at her lips. Any other noble might consider the response insolent, but not the head of the Griffin household; Abby was well known among her servants for being the most down-to-earth noble out there, and she had easily passed that onto her daughter. Bellamy owed the Griffins his life and his sister's life so he would always do whatever it took to protect them, but it was easy to be loyal to people who so truly earned it.

“Lady Abby,” someone called further back in their train and the woman nodded to them before slowing her horse down and turning, and Bellamy pulled his attention to the front of their caravan once again. Two dozen soldiers were stretched out along the well-used trail, Abby and the other nobles safely in the middle of them all, and the young man found himself peering into the trees, feeling his sword bounce lightly against his thigh. He didn't expect any trouble now that they were only an hour or so outside of the city but that didn't mean he could let his attention waver, his focus always on the ladies' safety first and foremost. Out of the corner of his eye he saw Octavia scanning the woods as well, just as alert for any danger.

For a while they rode in silence, just the sounds of the breeze blowing through the leaves and birds calling to each other interrupting the steady beat of countless hooves plodding along on a worn road. They were easy sounds to get lost in, a rhythm in each one, and for a while Bellamy found himself entirely too caught up in them as their party continued along. Finally however the birds' songs began to dim a little as the trees thinned, and soon they could hear the dull roar of what had to be the city ahead. “Here we go,” he mumbled under his breath, sitting up a little taller in his saddle, and followed the soldiers in front of him out of the trees.

They road through a big gate already hanging open, and as soon as they did Bellamy's eyes widened, instantly amazed at what he found before him. The village he'd spent his childhood in had been small, certainly no more than a few hundred people there if even that, and then moving into the Griffin estate he'd found another style of living, but neither were quite like the city. In just one look he thought maybe he'd seen more people in Polis than he ever had in his little village, and the people in the city didn't seem to have any time to stand still. Men and women shouted over each other as children screamed, as much in laughter as in tears, while dogs barked whenever anyone got too close to them. There was a general mayhem that buzzed through the streets that made it difficult to even think and the soldiers at the edge of their train shifted in a little, drawing closer to the nobles at its center. Apparently the people of Polis were used to nobles riding through their streets though because as Bellamy watched most of them barely spared a glance at the soldiers on horseback, even fewer trying to see through them towards those at its center. Nevertheless Bellamy guided his horse closer to the nobles, too cautious to fully trust in the crowd's disinterest.

“Amazing,” he heard someone say behind him and immediately recognized the voice of Lord Marcus Kane. He was one of the lesser lords of the Arkadian Hills and one of Abby's good friends, which meant he'd been to the Griffin estate more and more over the past couple of years. Everyone knew he was trying to court Lady Griffin but few people ever talked much about it, the lady having yet to show more than mild interest in the man publicly. Bellamy and his friends could see there was a little more to it than Abby purposefully let show, had all seen her open up a little more over the past two years and they all attributed it to the nobleman. He would never be Jake, never be able to stand up to the lady's first husband, but if he made Abby happy then that was good enough for Bellamy.

“It is remarkable,” Lord Thelonius Jaha agreed, his voice also a bit light with awe. The two noblemen rode on either side of Abby, with Madi and her mare tucked between her mother and Jaha. Bellamy was glad to see the two ladies between them: if anything did happen, at least any enemies would have to get through the two noblemen, both trained knights, before they would reach Abby or her daughter.

A touch of awe showed through on Abby's face as well, but she seemed more focused on the crowds than the city itself. Bellamy saw her probably subconsciously nudge her horse a little closer to Madi's and knew the number of people made her uncomfortable. For her part the young lady stared openly around her, eyes wide and jaw hanging just a little open, and Bellamy had to bite back a grin. “Lady Madi, you're staring,” he teased lightly and she looked away from the many people roaming the city just long enough to stick her tongue out at him. He shook his head as his grin grew and then made himself focus again, turning back around in his saddle, eyes constantly scanning around them as their party slowly made its way down the long streets.

The crowd began to thin the closer they got to the palace. The city surrounded the great building but the palace itself sat up away from the city, just barely disconnected from it. The wide-eyed stares from many in the train didn't disappear, if anything only grew, as they made their way towards it. Another large gate similar to the one that separated the forest from the city stood in front of it, already open and slowly they made their way through.

As their horses came to a stop a man walked up to them, dressed in what Bellamy assumed had to be the Palace Guard uniform. Even looking down at him on horseback the man was an impressive size, tall and well-built with the frame of a fighter. His skin was dark and his head shaven, just a fine stubble covering his jaw as though he hadn't cared to shave that morning. A sword hung from his belt and Bellamy had no doubt he knew how to use it.

“Hello,” he greeted them with a nod, scanning over the group until his eyes stuck on Abby. Clearly he read her as the leader of their party because once he saw her he didn't look away, bowing politely to her. “You must be Lady Abigail Griffin of the Arkadian Hills.”

Abby's eyebrows rose a little, surprised to have been recognized so quickly by someone she'd never met before. “We must be the last ones here if you can tell that so easily.” One of the Arkadian soldiers moved over to her and she took his offered hand before slipping from her saddle. Bellamy followed right behind her, moving to stand by his lady with Octavia shifting right behind him. Lords Kane and Jaha followed Abby and took their place beside her, and the man turned his bow to them.

“My lords,” he added, nodding to them, and then looked over to Abby as he stood back up. “I just knew Her Majesty was expecting you soon, my lady. I'm Lieutenant Lincoln Birch, Second in Command of the Palace Guard.” He shifted a little, gesturing back to the palace behind him and told her, “If you aren't too tired from your trip, I would be happy to take you to the queen; I know she would love to welcome you to Polis.”

Out of the corner of his eye Bellamy saw Abby glance over them, uncertainty flashing briefly across her face, probably trying to decide if they were dressed well enough to see the queen. She must have decided it would be better to meet her in travel-worn clothes than put it off and risk offending her because after a moment she nodded. The lady smiled politely at the lieutenant and replied, “We would appreciate that, thank you.” He returned the nod but before he could go anywhere the lady turned to the rest of their party, calling loudly, “Wait here; we'll be back as soon as we can.” She looked behind her at the captain of her own guard, a hard woman named Bryne, and nodded, and the woman stepped forward, quickly taking her place just behind her. Abby then turned to look at Bellamy, Octavia and Raven and nodded to them too. “I'd like you to come with us too.” They all nodded and Bellamy fell into place behind Madi, the girl moving to stand with her mother. As soon as they were all ready Abby turned back to Lincoln and gestured for him to lead the way.

If Bellamy wasn't always worried about something happening to Abby or Madi if he wasn't paying attention, he would have been in awe of the palace as they made their way through it. Sunlight streamed in from large windows, lighting their way, while unlit torches lined the walls. Tapestries hung along the walls the further they went, bright colors against stone fitted together so perfectly it was hard to believe each wall wasn't one large slab that were then just pieced together. Servants walked by them, immediately recognizing Abby and the two men beside her as nobles, bowing or curtsying quickly before returning to their work. Guards stood spaced out along the halls, each nodding to Lincoln as he passed but otherwise ignoring the party, their duty to keep them safe rather than prostrate at their feet. Bellamy couldn't quite believe the size of the building they walked through, and knew anyone looking at him would be able to see how impressed he was. Whenever he glanced at those he walked with he found the same look on their faces too.

The Guardsman brought them to a stop in the middle of one hall, looking into a room whose door hung open. He bowed as soon as he stopped in front of it, saying evenly, “Your Majesty, Lady Griffin has arrived. I've brought her and her party to see you.”

“Thank you, Lincoln,” Bellamy heard before he could see who had said it, but only a few seconds later a young woman emerged from the room, one that he immediately recognized. He'd barely interacted with her the short time she'd been in Arkadia when trying to bring the Kongeda back together, but he doubted anyone that met Queen Alexandria could ever forget her. Today her long brown hair hung down her back, little braids twisting throughout it, and rather than a dress she wore a dark gray silk tunic over black breeches. There was a sword attached to her hip and for a second he wondered if she knew how to use it, but when he glanced back up his doubt washed away: she had the cool look of someone who learned everything possible, and he doubted sword work stood outside of that learning.

Along with the rest of their group, Bellamy fell into a deep bow, the only way to greet the queen of the Kongeda. Abby and Madi's skirts swept lightly against the floor as they curtsied, but Bryne, Octavia and Raven were all in breeches so they too bowed along with the men. Bellamy waited to rise until the nobles all had, and then once he was straight again he noticed another woman had appeared from the room the queen had been in, dressed in much the same way as her. This woman's dark blonde hair looked almost messy, its own braids managing to pull it out of her face, and she looked their group over with hard eyes. She also carried a sword, but Bellamy didn't question for a second whether she knew how to use it.

“Lady Abigail,” the queen greeted, taking another step forward and holding out her arms a little in welcome, “Lady Madelaine. Lords Kane and Jaha; welcome to Polis. I trust you had a safe trip?”

“We did, Your Majesty,” Abby told her. “We were lucky and didn't have any problems.” She sunk into another small curtsy, bowing her head a little. “I'd like to apologize for being here so late; I'm sure we're the last ones to arrive, and that's my fault. Traveling... I don't travel well, I'm afraid.”

Everyone standing around Abby knew why it was she hated traveling, why she had barely left the Griffin estate at all in the past seven years, but no one wanted to think about it. They all spent as little time thinking about it as they possibly could.

It seemed the queen knew as well, the cool confidence that had been in her expression a moment ago shifting slightly, understanding flashing across green eyes. “You have nothing to apologize for, my lady. I understand, and I'm sorry to have made you travel at all.” She looked over at the woman standing behind her, making a little gesture, and then the other woman walked towards the end of the hall, stopping when a servant quickly moved over to her. The queen looked back at their group as she went, telling them, “In fact, I've taken the liberty to have some rooms prepared for you here, Lady Abigail, for you and your daughter. There is also room for a couple of your personal attendants. It's my wish to make you as comfortable as possible in my home.” She then looked over to Kane and Jaha, nodding to them before adding, “I've set up rooms for the rest of your party at one of the local inns, somewhere where I think you will all be equally as comfortable.”

Surprise sparked along Abby's expression, her eyebrows rising momentarily before she could stop the automatic reaction. Clearly she hadn't been expecting the invitation and for a second was lost for words. “I... Thank you, Your Majesty, we're honored. Of course we'll accept.” Madi nodded beside her mother, ever the well brought up heiress, and the queen gave them a small smile.

“Wonderful,” she replied, and as she spoke the woman who had walked away returned, two servants trailing behind her. The queen gestured towards them without turning around, telling them, “Lady Anya and Lincoln will show your people where the rooms are, and we'll have some servants help unload your things from the wagons and bring them inside.” The woman – Lady Anya, Bellamy assumed – didn't looked pleased by the statement but didn't say anything. “While they do that I would be happy to give you a tour of the palace.”

“Thank you, Your Majesty, Lady Anya,” Abby told them, looking to each in turn, “and Lieutenant Birch; I appreciate it.” She then turned to Bryne, Bellamy, Octavia and Raven. “Go with them and help with the bags, please. You can tell our people that the queen has graciously offered rooms to us here, but assure them I'll make sure the rest of them get set up comfortably in the city.”

“Yes my lady,” Bellamy answered for them, bowing politely to her. It took an extra second for Raven and Octavia to follow along, none of them quite used to this level of formality. Out of the corner of his eye Bellamy saw the corners of Bryne's lips turn down as she also bowed, obviously as unhappy with leaving them as Lady Anya was, something that he understood all too well. He didn't like the idea of leaving the ladies on their own, but decided they should be safe enough in a palace full of Guards and two noble knights with them. Abby nodded to them and then they turned around, all making their way back in the direction they'd just come from, Lady Anya, Lincoln and the two servants following behind them.

Back outside, Bryne went over to inform everyone what was going on while the rest of them headed to the wagons. Bellamy climbed up inside and began going through the bags, tossing down the ones that belonged to the two ladies and themselves for Octavia and Raven to catch. The servants then took them, quickly filling their arms, and when they had all they could carry they headed back into the castle and the two young women started grabbing what was left.

“Didn't think we'd be staying in the palace,” Raven said, looking the building over as she slung a pack over one shoulder. “That should be interesting.”

“The queen must have known Abby wouldn't want to be in an inn,” Octavia mused, grabbing her own bag. “That was smart of her.” Raven rolled her eyes, giving the other brunette a look before she said, “I mean sure, but it doesn't exactly take a genius to figure out she probably has issues with inns. Who wouldn't after what happened?”

None of them said anything to that, an all too familiar silence growing between them. Even after seven years they all still felt the loss of Lord Griffin and Clarke every day, enough that whenever anyone began to talk about it everyone else just went quiet. A usual feeling stirred in Bellamy's gut, the hollow ache he'd come to expect appearing out of nowhere. At least his throat no longer immediately burned when he thought about the friend and mentor he had loss, but he knew none of them would ever be able to entirely get over it.

“Let's go,” they heard someone call, breaking through their sudden quiet, and Bellamy looked over from his spot up in the wagon to see Lady Anya and Lincoln standing a few yards away, the woman clearly impatient. “This shouldn't take all day.”

Raven's eyes narrowed, tossing her a look over her shoulder before she replied loudly, “It might be faster if someone wanted to help instead of just stand around and gawk.” As she spoke she grabbed another bag, loading it into one arm, and tossed her head back just enough to look annoyed. Bellamy almost smacked his forehead, suddenly aware he was going to have to watch her and his sister even closer than usual while they were there.

“I apologize for my friend, my lady,” he told the woman still standing back a ways, her eyes now a little wider than they had been a moment ago. He tossed down the last bag and then jumped from the back of the wagon, giving her a sheepish smile as his feet smacked against the ground. “She never quite learned when to hold her tongue.” As he spoke he shouldered Raven lightly, sending her a little glare, one that she returned without an ounce of remorse.

Beside the noblewoman, the Guardsman grinned, letting out a light laugh. “Don't mind Anya,” he told them, stepping forward and grabbing a bag, tossing it over one shoulder. “She just gets cranky whenever she can't keep an eye on the queen.” He shook his head, giving the woman a teasing grin. “As though she could get in trouble in the middle of the palace with the Guard all around her.”

Lady Anya shot a scathing glare at the man, one that Bellamy was pretty sure any sane person would cower under, and then stepped forward angrily, grabbing one of the bags out of Raven's arms. “Give me that,” she muttered before settling the strap around her shoulder. Once it was in place she shot a look between Lincoln and the brunette. “Happy? Can we go now?”

Bellamy grabbed the last couple of bags and then they made their way back into the palace, the Arkadians following the other two through hallways and down corridors and then up a set or two of stairs. He was relatively sure they would get lost when they tried to find their way back out of the palace but decided to wait to worry about that until later. Finally they stopped in a hallway with a couple of doors on either side and Anya set the bag she'd been carrying in front of one.

“This is Lady Abigail's room,” she stated, gesturing to the door. She then gestured to the one beside it, adding, “This one is for Lady Madelaine.” Nodding to the two across the hall, she finished with, “And those are for you. The servants will come through daily to see if you need anything, and the queen can assign someone to the ladies if they require help getting dressed in the morning or undressed in the evening.” She glanced over at Raven, brow rising maybe a millimeter. “I'm sure you can dress yourselves.”

“Been doing it all my life,” the brunette agreed with a sarcastic grin and the lady's brow twitched as Bellamy promised himself he would have to have a long talk with Raven later about how to properly address the nobility while they were in Polis. Luckily Anya just nodded then, turning back around and calling over her shoulder as she began to walk away, “If you need anything, ask one of the servants. They'll be able to help with whatever you need.” With that she was gone, likely to track down the queen if what Lincoln had said earlier was true.

“Well isn't she just a bright ray of sunshine,” Raven remarked as she disappeared, and this time Bellamy covered his eyes with his hand, wishing not for the first time his friend knew how to keep her thoughts to herself. “Knock it off, Raven,” he warned her, “She's a noble; you don't want to piss off a noble.”

“Actually I think she likes you,” Lincoln spoke up, shifting the bag he still held from one shoulder to the other. He nodded towards where the noblewoman had disappeared down the hall, telling them, “Anya isn't like most nobles, despite how many of them she has to deal with. She actually hates being called 'lady'.”

“Noted,” Raven told him, a mischievous smirk growing along her mouth and Bellamy shook his head before beginning to corral her into Abby's room. “Come on, let's just get Abby and Madi's things unpacked. And seriously Raven, try to stay out of trouble while we're here.”

“Don't look at me,” the young woman told him as she set down the bags she was carrying in the middle of Abby's room. She pointed to Octavia, who had been suspiciously quiet for longer than Bellamy could ever remember. “She's the one that's gonna get into trouble. Guarantee it.”

“Ha,” Octavia replied, throwing the other woman a a look, “you're the one already picking fights with the nobility.”

“Creative word play,” Raven corrected her, opening one of the bags and pulling out a few of Abby's dresses. “You're the one who'll draw your sword the minute you think someone's challenging you, no matter who they are. I bet you'd even challenge the queen if you thought she insulted you or something.”

“She would actually probably enjoy that,” Lincoln told them lightly, adding in on the conversation and making Bellamy's job that much harder. When they all looked at him he shrugged, saying, “Her Majesty loves sword work and hasn't been able to get in a lot of training since the nobles began showing up. I'm sure she's itching for a fight.” He then nodded to the sword at Octavia's hip, telling her, “But if you'd like to get in some training with someone other than the queen, I can show you to the bailey when we finish here. That's where the Guard and the knights and squires all train, so there's almost always someone there to test yourself against.”

Octavia's eyes immediately brightened, the usual energy she carried with her flaring up all at once. “That would be great!” she said, smiling at him. “I've barely been able to do anything since we left Arkadia and I think I'm starting to go a little crazy.” The Guard returned her smile, the gesture small as he just nodded. Raven lifted one eyebrow, looking back and forth between the two and then gave Bellamy a look. “See?” she said, tilting her head over towards them. “I told you; trouble.”

They worked to get Abby's room all set up for her and then Madi's, and then dumped their own bags into the other rooms to go through later. Once they'd decided they were done Lincoln led them back through the castle and out to the bailey, the sounds of metal clashing against metal ringing out before they'd even stepped outside. Octavia's eyes were wide as they walked onto the courtyard, taking in the sight before them.

The bailey at the Griffin fief was a good size, had plenty of room for soldiers to train with just about any weapon, but this bailey had to be at least three times as big. At the far end of the field they found dummies set up for bow and arrow work, a few people shooting at them already, and the rest of the space was wide open, clearly meant for combat training. They found six people about half way down the field with swords drawn, two people at a time dueling while the others cheered them on, and closer to them was another group, all wearing uniforms similar to Lincoln's. They had been busy practicing with staffs but stopped when they saw the Second step out onto the bailey, nodding to him and he just nodded back, silently telling them to carry on.

“This is amazing,” Octavia breathed, eyes scanning the field to take it all in. “There's so much space.” She then grinned, looking over at Bellamy out of the corner of her eyes. “What do you think big brother, up for a friendly duel? It's been a while since I've been able to kick your butt.”

“And so it begins,” Raven declared, a smirk tugging at her lips, and then she grabbed Lincoln's arm and pulled him back to the stone parapet cutting off the walkway from the courtyard. “Come on, you don't want to be too close when they get like this.” His brow rose, interest flashing across his face but he followed her without a word, just looking back at the two siblings.

Bellamy rolled his eyes at the both of them, but could feel himself beginning to grin. “You know O, I guess I could go for a quick match. You're gonna be pissed when I win though.” She just scoffed, drawing her sword and he mirrored the action, the two circling each other for a moment before they settled into their stances.

Octavia struck with force, her blade slicing through the air and Bellamy caught it, pushing back against his own blade to deflect the attack. He came in with an immediate counter, slashing downwards at a diagonal but her blade seemed to twist around his own, spinning it away.

“Come on Bell, you'll have to do better than that,” she taunted, grinning at him, and he shook his head. “I'm just getting started, O.” To prove it he brought his weapon down in an arc but the flat of her blade caught it and then pushed it away as she rose up into an arc of her own. Rather than follow through with the obvious attack she spun away, putting a little bit of distance between them, and then stepped quickly towards him, making him turn to stop her sword as it came straight at him. His weapon met it mid-air, the blades screeching against each other, and then he thrust his entire body forward, planning to knock her off balance with his superior weight. She read the plan in his movements though and fell and rolled to the side, managing somehow to keep her sword in hand. He'd never quite been able to do that move successfully, always seeming to get his blade stuck in the dirt when he tried it, but somehow Octavia always made it look so easy. Despite what he said Bellamy was entirely aware his sister was the better fighter between the two of them, but would never admit to it out loud. Almost before he'd even had time to turn to find her she was up on her feet again, sword brandished in front of her, and he caught that ecstatic glint in her eye that always seemed to form whenever she was facing down an opponent.

They were both too focused on their duel to notice the attention it was drawing. The Guardsmen who had been working with their staffs stopped what they were doing to watch these two newcomers fight, and the nobles who had been practicing their own sword work stopped as well, all turning and moving a little closer as the siblings attacked and parried and dodged out of the way. It wasn't until Bellamy had to yet again turn to keep his eyes on his sister that he noticed them, but when he did he pushed it to the back of his mind knowing that anything less than his full focus on the fight would end with a sword at his throat. Across from him he could tell from the way Octavia's eyes never left him that she had barely noticed anything outside of their duel, and the level of intensity his sister had amazed him not for the first time.

It all ended for Bellamy when his sister dodged one of his attacks yet again, moving quickly enough she was able to get behind him, and then all of a sudden he felt a foot connect with his back, pushing him forward. He stumbled as he attempted to turn and when he tried to get his sword up Octavia easily knocked it aside, the point of her own coming to rest at the dip of his neck. He let out an exasperated sigh as he lifted up his hands, yielding the fight.

“Alright so you win this one,” he grumbled before one corner of his mouth tugged up. “Next time though, I'll have you.” Octavia returned his look with a smirk of her own, letting her blade drop as she raised an eyebrow at him. “You just keep telling yourself that, Bell.”

Before either of them could say anything else the sound of slow clapping made its way to them, and they both looked over to see the group of nobles still watching them. One of them had obviously been the one to start the clapping but a couple others had picked it up, and Bellamy stood up a little straighter, uncertainty filling his chest as the entire group moved closer to them.

“That wasn't bad,” the one who had started the clapping told them, a corner of his mouth pulling up. His long sandy blonde hair was pulled back into a loose ponytail, and his brown eyes scanned quickly over them. Looking at Octavia, he added, “You're fast. I would have expected someone as big as him to have you.”

She bristled a little at that, shifting just a little in her stance as she met the young man's eyes. “I've been beating him consistently for a while now,” she told him, her chin jutting out, “doesn't matter that he's big.” The man was amused by the answer if the twitch of his lips was anything to go by, and then he lifted an eyebrow at her.

“You two must be new to the city,” he said and then gestured to himself, “I'm Sir Philip Hyll of the Boudalan Mountains.” He over-pronounced his title, clearly expecting them to pick up on it, and Bellamy made himself dip into the bow the young lord was obviously waiting for. With his head down he shot a look at his sister from the corner of her eye and then she begrudgingly bowed also.

“It's an honor to meet you, my lord,” Bellamy replied for them as he rose back up, trying to show them an easy smile. He could already tell Philip was the kind of noble he hated but knew he had many weeks to get through where he'd have to deal with plenty more just like him so tried push the feeling away. Gesturing to himself and then Octavia, he added, “I'm Bellamy Blake and this is my sister Octavia. We just arrived with Lady Abigail of the Arkadian Hills.”

Lord Philip's eyebrows rose and Bellamy saw something flash across his face, his smile only growing. He turned to look at Octavia, looking her over again, and it took every bit of control Bellamy possessed to keep his grip around his sword from tightening with the way his eyes roamed over her.

“Blake, huh?” the lord said, amusement coloring his tone. “That would make you Mistress Blake then.”

“I like the sound of that,” one of the nobles behind him said with a grin, his eyes also scanning over her. Octavia's eyes narrowed, glaring back and forth between them and her stance shifted ever so slightly, enough that her brother knew if they didn't stop giving her those looks they would both regret it, and then she would too. He stepped forward, placing himself between his sister and them as much for their benefit as for hers, but even as he did someone else did the same thing.

“Knock it off, both of you,” a young woman who had been standing behind Philip told them, breaking out from between him and the other man who had spoken. She moved easily, her shoulders relaxed, but Bellamy easily saw the sword hanging at her hip and the way one hand hovered near it. “It's pretty clear that any Blake is too much for either of you to handle.” She waved her hand at them, telling them, “Go back to pretending you actually earned your knighthood and leave the real fighters alone.”

“How dare you,” Philip growled, eyes closing into thin slits as he took a step towards her, one hand going to the pommel of the sword he had strapped to his belt. The woman didn't seem fazed in the slightest, just shifted a little in her stance and let her hand drop to her own sword. One eyebrow ticked up in mild interest, asking, “Would you like a duel? Because I would be happy to give you one.”

Apparently this noblewoman was as tough as she acted; the Boudalan lord met her eyes, clearly debating on whether he should draw his sword or not, but then let his grip loosen on it, hand falling back to his side. Even as it did his head tilted up, looking down his nose at her as he called to the rest of them, “Let's go; we'll leave the common trash to clean itself up.” Without so much as another glance at any of them he walked forward, his shoulder forcefully bumping into the young woman's as he passed, and then he and his group were leaving the bailey and making their way back into the castle.

A low whistle pierced the air, and Bellamy turned around to see Raven and Lincoln standing not far behind them. The brunette's brow was up, eyeing over the remaining noblewoman with a look that clearly expressed how impressed she was. “Now that's how to tell off a noble. You gonna get in trouble for that?”

The woman's calm expression fell away, a grin breaking through it. “Nah,” she replied, giving a little shrug, “it's about time someone told Hyll to pull his head out of his ass. Just glad I finally got a good excuse to do it.” She reached out her hand then, looking back at Bellamy. “I'm Monroe.”

He took her hand hesitantly, unsure whether he was supposed to kiss it or shake it. “Zoe Monroe?” he tried to clarify, relatively sure he knew the name. “From the Broadlands?” She made a face at that and shook her head. “Just Monroe. I like it better than my first name, and the only title I really care about is my knighthood. Since you're clearly all fighters too, I won't expect you to use it.” She flashed them another grin and Bellamy studied her, not sure he'd ever met anyone quite like her before. After another second he felt a pressure against his hand and realized he was still holding hers and he quickly shook it, deciding the socially expected kiss was not something she wanted.

“Monroe then,” Octavia agreed, reaching out and taking her hand when Bellamy released it and giving it a shake, “glad to know there's at least one noble here that's got some common sense in them, other than just Abby and Madi.” Monroe let out a little laugh at that, her brow twitching in amusement.

“And it's good to know we've got a few more decent fighters here now,” she said, and then she nodded past the Blakes towards Lincoln who was quietly watching the interaction. “I could use someone to train with when Lincoln here is on duty.”

“I've told you you're welcome to join the Guard with their training,” he reminded her, a small smile pulling at his lips. “I'll let Indra know, and you'd get all the training you could handle.”

Apparently the offer was one Monroe had declined before, and they all watched as the noblewoman shivered, shaking her head as her grin fell away a little.

“Yeah, no thanks,” she told him, “I've seen what your Captain puts you through. I'm all for a good workout, but what you all have to do would probably kill the heartiest knight.”

Octavia – never one to back down from a challenge, especially when that challenge included physical labor – turned to give Lincoln a curious look. “When does the Guard train?” He turned to her, a little surprised by the interest, and answered, “Every day, about mid-morning. The groups change depending who's on duty, but Captain Indra and I are always there.”

“Mind if I join?” she asked, and behind her Bellamy could see Raven roll her eyes. “You're just going to jump right in without knowing what you're getting yourself into, aren't you?” It was almost more of a statement than a question and Octavia just flashed her a grin and Bellamy shook his head, wishing it didn't entirely sum up his sister but fully aware it did.

“Good luck,” Monroe told her, sounding a little too serious, but then she gestured to Octavia's sword. “While you still have functioning legs, any chance you'd be up for another friendly duel?” She tilted her head as she gave the brunette a look, and Octavia grinned before she nodded. “Love to,” she agreed, beginning to lift her sword up in a preparation stance, but as she did the noblewoman got a better look at the weapon, her eyes instantly widening.

“Where did you get a sword like that?” she all but demanded, more surprised and impressed than anything else. Octavia's grip on the pommel tightened, subconsciously drawing the blade a little closer to herself as her eyes fell to it. They all knew it was a beautiful weapon, its blade perfectly tempered, the finest leather money could buy wrapped around the pommel, and whenever anyone saw it for the first time they always wanted to know how Octavia had gotten it. It was a sword meant for a noble, meant to be wielded by a fine knight rather than a girl who had spent the first few years of her life living on the streets, and it was by far Octavia's most prized possession. Most people admired it solely for its magnificence, but to her its significance went so much deeper than just how it looked.

“It was a gift,” she just said, the amusement that had been in her voice a moment ago gone now, and Bellamy and Raven knew exactly why as thoughts of the friend who had given it to her flashed through all of their minds. Monroe and Lincoln looked at them, sensing some kind of shift but apparently neither of them thought it a good idea to bring it up, because after a long second the knight just raised her own sword.

“Alright, well let's see what you and that pretty sword can do,” she called, one corner of her mouth pulling up in a challenging smirk. Just like that the somber mood shifted away and was replaced by the buzzing energy of a fight, and Octavia's lips turned up to meet the challenge.

“I'll be glad to show you,” she taunted back, settling into her stance while the other three put a little more distance between themselves and the two duelers. Bellamy and Raven exchanged a look as they stepped back, Bellamy's amused while Raven rolled her eyes, and Lincoln just watched on, his entire focus on the fight as Monroe sprang forward, beginning the duel.

They'd only been at the palace for a couple of hours and already they had made a couple of friends and helped piss off a handful of nobles; Bellamy figured it was probably the best Abby could have expected. After all, she knew them well enough she couldn't expect them to stay completely out of trouble.

***

For once Lexa was actually in the library rather than just pretending to be while she really snuck into the city. She sat in one of the large chairs by the lit hearth, the light from its fire and the many candles spaced throughout the room making it easy to read from the book she had carefully laid out across her lap. It wasn't the most interesting of reads, a large volume filled to the brim with laws regarding land owning and expansion, but she found it hard to look away from nonetheless. Some of the ideas she'd been mulling over for the past few weeks began to form more fully, and she made a few mental notes of thoughts to add to the ever-growing list she kept compiled neatly in her room.

The sound of footsteps approaching her forced her to pull herself from the text, blinking a little as her sight re-adjusted to the real world after staring at scrolling ink for so long. Her brother tilted his head to the side slightly as he made his way towards her, giving her a curious look.

“Titus said you were looking for me?” he said and Lexa nodded, gesturing to an empty chair in front of her on the other side of the hearth. Aden sat in it lightly, his posture perfectly straight, and the brunette cracked a smile at him.

“Relax,” she told him, conveniently forgetting she sat just as straight, despite the library being almost empty of everyone but them. The only other person in there other than servants was Anya, the knight sitting back behind the queen, and despite the fact the last time the queen had looked she'd had a book open in front of her Lexa was half sure she'd fallen asleep. Aden sat further back in his chair, letting his shoulders relax a little as she'd said, though he still gave her the same look. She closed the book in her lap gently, one finger remaining in between the pages so she wouldn't lose her place, and then calmly told him, “I'd like to go over last week's audience with you.”

“Why?” he wanted to know, frowning a little. “You weren't late enough to miss anything.”

The reminder that she'd been later than usual itched at her, unwelcome and unwanted. She shouldn't have let Ryder insist on the excursion to the forest, should have realized that even with trying to pay attention to the time it would make it difficult to be back before the audiences were meant to begin, but she hadn't and almost didn't make it. She'd been furious at herself all day after that but had made sure to keep the anger hidden, locked away where it could burn undisturbed in her chest. Ever since then she had kept her meetings with the eligible nobles confined to the palace, maybe gone on short rides just outside it if they insisted, but never any farther. She took a silent breath, pushing the itch away, and let any and all thoughts regarding the men so foolishly trying to win her hand wipe from her mind.

“You need to be able to run them if I'm not there,” she answered and he frowned. “But you're the queen,” he stated and she nodded. “I am. But you're the prince, and the heir. Your blood is just as royal as mine. If I'm traveling, or held up somewhere else, I want you to be able to run the audience without me.”

“Why not just wait until you can be there?” he asked. “The people want to see you, that's why they come.”

“Hm,” Lexa heard behind her, a quiet scoff telling her Anya in fact wasn't asleep. “You're giving her way too much credit, kid. Most people are too busy, they're not going to drop everything they have going on just to come see the queen.”

“They come because they have problems,” Lexa told him, pointedly ignoring her friend, “problems they need someone to figure out. They assume I can, so they come to the palace.”

“Okay, but some of them just come to see you,” Aden insisted, giving her a look and then giving the same look to Anya behind her, and Lexa conceded, shrugging. “Yes, some people do come to see me. But most of them come because they need help, and they deserve to get that help even if I'm not here. And the people who do come just to see me would still get to see you.” He continued to give her a look, clearly not yet convinced anyone would ever go to him for help like they did her, but then his shoulders just barely lifted, his expression settling again.

“Okay,” he just said as he met her eyes, “what exactly did you want to go over?”

“I want your thoughts on some of the issues they brought up,” she replied, shifting a little in her seat, her own posture relaxing just a little as she leaned back against her chair. “Tell me what you would have said to them if it were you they had gone to.” He gave a little nod and she smiled in return. “Let's start with Master Mosier and his stolen plow.”

With the hearth beside them, the queen and prince went back and forth, going over the problems they'd been presented with during the last audience and then Lexa began making up new ones, issues she'd had to deal with in the past but her brother may not have been as familiar with. At first he mostly repeated what she'd said when the problems had been presented to her, but with a little bit of coaxing Aden began going deeper, his brow furrowing a bit as he thought about them more thoroughly. Anya even spoke up every now and then, adding her two cents on his answers or what she might have said, and soon the three were openly discussing various problems throughout the nation, both large and small. They jumped back and forth from the newly acquired land they now had since the war ended and what to do with it to what they could do when a farmer's lead horse died and he had no money to buy a new one. At some point while they were talking a servant came by with a tray of steaming mugs for them and the warm tea just seemed to drive them more, Aden now sitting forward in his chair and eyes bright as he thought through every scenario Lexa presented him with. His sister watched him carefully, noticing the way his brow furrowed as he thought about a particularly challenging issue and then how his eyes lit up when he came up with an answer. When the fire in the hearth had begun to die down Anya got up, refueling it with a couple of logs in the stand beside it, and then she pulled her chair forward so that she could be better part of the conversation and Lexa felt a warmth spread through her chest. Nights like this one were rare, far too few with her hectic schedule of pandering to dozens of nobles and trying to learn as much as she could about the realities her people lived in, and she treasured it.

They had fallen into a heated debate on the penalties of stealing when they heard someone enter the library behind them. Lexa thought little of it, assuming it must be another servant coming to take away their mugs, but rethought that when Anya's expression shifted. Her best friend had been vehemently arguing a moment ago about how the laws were too lenient when it came to stealing, to the point where Lexa had been sure her next move would be to challenge her to a duel and let their swords finish it for them, but then all at once her disposition changed. Her eyes flickered forward as though she'd been staring into the fire the entire time, and Lexa was sure she saw a little scowl flash across her face before she could hide it. Unsure of what could have caused the sudden shift, the queen turned to see who had just entered, surprise pulling up her brow when she recognized one of the young women who had arrived that morning with Lady Abigail. For her part the woman looked equally surprised to see them there, her glance quickly passing back and forth between them all, and she froze, now standing a little awkwardly by one of the many bookshelves.

“Rr, sorry,” the young woman said, rubbing nervously at the back of her neck. “I uh, I didn't think anyone would be in here.” She seemed to suddenly realize she'd forgotten something and quickly bowed despite the fact she was wearing a long nightgown. The motion tugged at the corner of Lexa's lips but she fought it away, not wanting this women to think she was laughing at her. She rose from her chair and Aden and Anya quickly followed suit, though from the corner of her eye she thought she saw Anya shift a little as she did so. The uncertain movement was odd coming from the knight, but the queen chose not to think on it at in this moment.

“No need to apologize,” she told the woman who still hadn't risen from her bow. Lexa waited until she had to give her a small smile, hoping to make her more at ease, and finally the woman stood back up. “I'm sorry, but I don't think I caught your name earlier.”

“Raven,” the brunette answered quickly, “Raven Reyes, Your Majesty.”

“It's a pleasure to meet you, Raven,” Lexa said, giving her a little nod. “I hope you are settling in well. If you need anything, please just ask.”

“Uh, yeah okay, I will,” Raven replied, her diction telling Lexa she clearly wasn't used to speaking so formally. It made the queen wonder what it was like at the Griffin fief, how Lady Abigail interacted with her people if this woman was trusted enough to have been given one of the spots in the palace rather than sent to the inn she'd got for the rest of the Arkadians.

“What are you doing up?” Anya asked, her tone a little gruff as she shot a look at the brunette. “It's late. Shouldn't you be sleeping?”

Some of Raven's awkwardness melted away, an eyebrow quickly ticking up and Lexa could practically see a fire spark in her eyes as she returned Anya's look without any hesitation. “I could ask you the same thing but I won't. I'm up because Lincoln told us there was a library here. I had to wait for Octavia to stop blathering about training with the Guard in the morning, so I couldn't get away until now. Not that it's any of your business.” Anya's shoulders stiffened a little, something Lexa wasn't entirely sure Raven would notice but she certainly did, and despite herself she found her interest piqued. Somehow it appeared the Arkadian had gotten under the knight's skin.

The queen decided to let herself have a little fun. She gave the younger woman another small smile and then gestured over to her best friend. “Our library is very extensive. I'm sure Anya would be happy to show you around. If you were looking for anything in particular, she can help you find it.” Anya shot her a glare, barely even bothering to try to hide the look, and Lexa pretended not to see it, just continuing to smile politely at the brunette.

Raven's lips curled up into a lazy smile, looking from the queen over to the knight who stood a little too stiffly beside her. She bowed again, this time making more of a show of it, but didn't look away from the annoyed blonde as her shoulders dipped down.

“I think that sounds like a good idea,” she said, lips curling up in a cocky smirk. “I'd love to have your help, my lady.” Anya ground her jaw for a second, clearly not happy, but then just started walking away, calling after her, “Fine, let's get this over with.” Raven grinned, dipping another quick bow to the queen, and then followed behind the knight, and as they began to disappear down an aisle of books Lexa heard her call out, “Alright, so I was thinking we could start with the oldest histories you have, and then maybe we can jump over to some mathematics. Oh, and then I would just love to see what kind of sappy romantic ballads you've got here...”

Lexa could still hear Raven talking by the time Anya had led them out of sight, and by then her own smile had grown, probably a little too pleased with herself. Aden shook his head beside her before flopping back down into his chair, and when she turned to sit back down as well he gave her a look.

“I don't really know what just happened, but you do know she's going to make you pay for that, right?” he wanted to know, eyebrows raised, and Lexa nodded, her smirk still firmly in place. She grabbed the book she'd been reading earlier and resettled it on her lap as she looked over at him.

“It will have been worth it,” she informed him. “I don't think Raven's going to stop talking until she's seen the entire library.”

“Anya's going to kill her,” he muttered. “Or you. One or the other.” She just grinned at him, not in the least concerned, and then leaned forward a little bit. “So, any other thoughts on the laws against stealing?” A corner of his mouth twitched and then he leaned forward as well, mirroring her posture. “Actually I was thinking about it...”

The two sat like that for at least another hour, debating back and forth on numerous laws and Lexa let herself just enjoy the moment, entirely content.

Chapter Text

For the first time, stepping into The Rig didn't immediately cause Lexa's mouth to go dry or her cheeks to flush. The noises were all the same but this time she was instantly able to ignore them, and she was proud of herself for the small victory. Nobody stood against the wall waiting to be seen to but the usual people she expected to see were behind the desk, Luna and the house's guard both looking over at her while two others stood leaning against the desk as though they'd been having a conversation with their mistress. She recognized both but only knew one by name, meeting Niylah's gaze as her eyes quickly scanned the brunette.

“Hello,” she greeted, nodding to them all collectively and Luna just waved dismissively, clearly knowing what she was going to say before she said it. “Hold on,” she said, eyes dropping down to her ledger and beginning to look over it, “let me see if Clarke's busy.”

“She's not,” Niylah answered for her, still watching the brunette. “She's in her room.” She paused for a second as though she were thinking something over and then stood up straight and took a step away from the desk. “Come on, I'll take you to her.”

“That's okay, I uh, I can wait for her here,” Lexa replied, vividly remembering what she'd seen the last time one of Clarke's friends promised to take her to the redhead. Sometimes she still had problems closing her eyes and not seeing her bare body painted out in a little too much detail, and more than once those images had been accompanied with thoughts of her own fingers skimming across that beautiful skin.

Luna seemed to know what she was thinking because she looked up again, nodding towards the blonde. “You can go with her, she's right, Clarke's in her room.” She turned her focus over to Niylah then, telling her, “Come back here when you're done. Maya will take the next guest, but Charlotte said that Mistress Tover is likely to be by tonight, and you know she always requests you.” The younger woman just nodded and then looked back at Lexa, gesturing for her to follow, and after a moment's hesitation the queen did. She kept her sight focused on the blonde's back as she followed her through the hall, afraid that if she looked anywhere else she would end up getting an eye-full of naked Clarke again, something that would only be bad because she'd be unable to stop thinking about it and then feel guilty.

They were climbing the stairs when Niylah broke the silence between them.

“You and Clarke have been spending a lot of time together lately,” she stated, her tone carefully even in the same way Lexa's so often was, and it made the brunette look up towards her face. She could only see bits of her profile with the other woman still in front of her, but even so she could read from the rigidness of her back that there was more to what the woman was thinking than just what she'd said.

“Some, yes,” Lexa answered lightly, looking up past her shoulder, not wanting to get caught staring. She noticed Niylah look back at her over her shoulder, eyeing her over for a second before looking forward again.

“She doesn't talk about you much,” she said and Lexa shrugged. “There isn't much to talk about.”

“Hm,” Niylah hummed, going quiet again for a few seconds and the queen waited to see if she would say anything more. She had a feeling the blonde had something she wanted to get out and wasn't sure how, so she waited. As they stepped off the stairs onto Clarke's floor Niylah stopped, turning around to look at the other woman squarely. “Clarke isn't an easy person to get to know. She doesn't spend much time with a lot of people, but she spends time with you. Time I'm not sure she's even getting paid for, which is even more rare.”

She stopped then, as though she expected Lexa to deny or justify it, and the brunette just met her look, brow rising a fraction. When neither had spoken for a drawn out second, Lexa said, “I'm sorry, I'm not sure what you want me to say to that.” Niylah's brow furrowed and she shook her head, turning around a little.

“I don't want you to say anything,” she murmured, frowning as though she herself wasn't sure what she wanted. She glanced down the hall and Lexa knew she was looking at the door to Clarke's room, likely thinking about the woman behind it and for some reason the look on her face made something hot spring up in her gut. The queen shoved it back instantly, pretending she didn't know it was a spike of jealousy. The expression on the blonde's face softened, not noticing the negative emotion the queen was currently fighting with, and she added quietly, “Clarke's a private person, but it's easy to see she's been... happier lately, I guess. At times. Days after she sees you.” She looked back over at Lexa, eyes scanning her face and the other woman met them, not entirely sure what she was looking for. “Whatever's going on between you two, it makes her happy, and Clarke deserves to be happy. That also doesn't happen often. So just... don't hurt her. If you do you'll regret it.”

It wasn't a threat so much as an assurance, and one Lexa wholeheartedly believed. Even just the thought of Clarke hurt made her queasy, made her stomach roll and heart pound in her chest, and she knew without having to think about it that this other woman was right. She opened her mouth to say something, maybe make a promise or tell her she could never hurt Clarke, but then she closed it again. She had no intention of hurting Clarke, hated even just the thought of it, but this friendship they had built between them was fragile at best. True to her word, the redhead had stopped coming to the palace once the rest of the Arkadians had arrived, so the only times they saw each other now was when Lexa managed to sneak out of the palace. She'd done so again at the end of the previous week, finding the opportunity when Anya hadn't felt well and had gone to bed early for the night, and while she and Clarke had enjoyed more time together exploring the city, they both understood it couldn't last forever. It was an understanding they'd never spoken of out loud but one Lexa read in blue eyes that reminded her of the ocean and the sky all at once, and any time the queen thought about it she had a hard time breathing. Someday that moment would arrive and they would both hurt, and there was nothing the queen could do about it.

After a moment of silence Lexa nodded, not as a promise but as an agreement; when she hurt Clarke, she would regret it.

Niylah returned the nod with her own, and whether she understood what Lexa had been thinking or believed she'd just promised not to hurt their mutual friend the queen wasn't sure, but without another word she began down the hall again. Lexa followed, doing her best to push the thoughts their conversation had stirred up away, having no desire to think about leaving Clarke when she was about to see her again instead, and by the time they'd reached her door she'd been mostly successful. Niylah reached out and knocked and they had to wait for a few seconds before it swung open. The moment it did any discomfort Lexa had been feeling from their conversation was swept away entirely, a small smile taking over her expression as she found Clarke standing in front of her. She wore a robe tied tightly around her middle and Lexa was a little surprised to see the necklace she'd always worn to the palace around her neck, one hand fiddling absentmindedly with the pendant hanging at its end, but all she could really focus on were blue eyes that widened just a bit when she saw who was outside her door.

The redhead looked quickly from Niylah to Lexa, her lips slowly curling up into a larger smile. “My lady, what a surprise,” she said, giving the brunette a look. “At this rate I should just start spending my nights downstairs with Luna, in case you come in to see me.” She gave the queen a flirtatious wink, one that a part of Lexa hoped wasn't just part of her act, and then turned to look back at Niylah. “Thanks for bringing her to me, Niylah. I can take it from here.”

“I'm sure you can,” Niylah replied dryly, the corners of her mouth just twitching as Clarke flashed her brilliant smile at her. She turned to head back towards the stairs, giving Lexa that same look one last time as she walked by her, and then left them. The queen knew she probably should have thanked her for her help but before she could get the words out Clarke was opening her door a little wider and she found herself stepping into her room.

“You know, this is starting to become a bad habit,” the younger woman joked as she closed the door. “I figured you'd be bored of me by now, but this is what, four or five weeks in a row now?”

Lexa's smile twitched, an eyebrow raising at the redhead. “Is there really anyone who can say they've gotten bored of you, Clarke? I might question their sanity, if so.” Clarke just grinned and shrugged at her before she made her way over to her closet. “I'm not sure you're one to talk, Lexa. Some people would probably question your sanity if they knew you were here right now.” She barely had to look through her clothes, so used to this by now that she could toss a teasing look over her shoulder and still grab what she'd started thinking of as Lexa's dress with only a quick glance into the space. The queen had nothing to say in return, just fought to control her grin and accepted the dress and usual pair of hose as they were handed to her. As though she were on autopilot she took them over to the bed, putting them down as she begin to strip out of her clothes. When she heard Clarke moving behind her, likely changing out of the robe she'd been wearing and into a dress of her own, she made sure not to turn, giving the other woman her privacy.

Once they were both dressed Lexa handed her sword over to Clarke, watching her as she hid it behind her clothing in the closet, and then felt herself frown a little bit as the redhead grabbed a scarf as she stepped away again, quickly and easily wrapping it around her neck. She'd had to force herself not to stare at the discoloration on her skin when she made her way into the room, but now she couldn't quite help herself from looking. After a couple of weeks the markings were nearly gone, the skin now a fading yellow and brown instead of the angry purple and blue she'd managed to get a peak of the last time Clarke had been at the palace, but it still unsettled her. The younger woman had insisted she was fine, that it had all been a part of her work, and she believed Luna wouldn't purposefully send any of her people into a dangerous situation, but even so it made her stomach flip. The fact that there was still even a small trace of the bruise this long after told Lexa how tightly her friend's neck had been squeezed, and a ball of hate and anger spun in her gut, searching for some way out. Clarke smiled at her as she pulled the chain of her necklace out from beneath the tied scarf, probably knowing exactly what the brunette must be thinking, and Lexa did her best to squash that anger. Bringing it up would probably just make the younger woman uncomfortable, and the queen would be the first person to admit to not knowing everything that encompassed Clarke's work, so she made herself smile back. When the dark-haired woman stepped forward, her hand falling to squeeze Lexa's encouragingly, that smile became far more believable.

“Come on,” Clarke said, nodding towards the door, “there's a lot more of your city to see.” Lexa nodded and let her pull her out the door, waging an internal war whether to try to ignore the tingling she felt on her palm at Clarke's touch or if she should bother trying to think about anything else.

Clarke led them down a new street tonight, this one not as well-lit as any of the others she'd ever taken her down before. Here Lexa grew sombre, her heart breaking as she walked by the absolutely lowest of the classes, those who she and everyone else with wealth had all but forgotten about. Some of the people they passed were practically naked, what scraps of clothing they did wear so worn or holey that they could hardly be called clothes anymore. Nearly all of them were thin enough that she could count their ribs if she looked hard enough, and she nearly had to cover her nose from the smell of them. Flies buzzed around bodies sitting pressed up against broken down walls and mangy cats and dogs roamed the street or pressed themselves against thin legs. The buildings in this area of the city were run-down, many of the walls either having collapsed or looking like they would do so at any time, but even so as she passed one such building she could see people moving around inside. Others laid out in the streets, thin blankets covering their bodies and Lexa honestly couldn't tell if the people under them were alive or dead.

“Clarke!” she heard called, and a little boy so skinny Lexa wondered how he even had the energy to move ran out of one of the houses, his lips curling up to show a number of missing teeth. Two girls followed quickly behind him, each even younger than he was. The youngest of the three clutched a rag that was likely a prized blanket, almost tripping on it as she raced to keep up with the other two.

“Hey Kinder,” Clarke said with a matching grin, reaching out and wrapping her arm around the boy as he pressed himself to her side in a partial hug. The two girls attached themselves to her other side and she hugged them as well, saying, “Mimmie, Henley; how are you all doing?”

“Good!” Kinder told her, looking up at her and still beaming. “Mama brung us ta the market yesterday. We got some bread!”

“Yeah!” the older of the two girls agreed, also grinning. “She said if we was good, we could go again!”

“Well then you better all be good for your mama,” Clarke told them, holding them a little tighter. She looked over to Lexa, finding the queen watching the interaction with a strange look on her face, and felt her smile grow. “This is my friend Lexa. Lexa, these are my friends Kinder, Mimmie and Henley.” Kinder detached himself from her leg to give the brunette an enthusiastic wave while Mimmie turned her grin on her. Henley, probably no more than two or three, pressed a little closer to Clarke's skirt, apparently shy.

“It's nice to meet you all,” Lexa said, letting her lips curl up in a smile at the enthusiastic greeting she got from two of them. Looking at Henley, she knelt down until she was closer to eye-level and let her smile soften. “Hi Henley. I like your blanket.” She pointed to the rag the little girl was holding, and Henley looked at it for a second before gravely holding it out. Lexa's brow rose a little bit but she accepted it, sure she'd never handled anything filthier or as treasured before in her life. She made it seem like she was looking it over thoroughly and then handed it back, telling her, “It's a very pretty blanket. You must take really good care of it.” That seemed to draw a little smile from the toddler as she gripped the rag close to her and looked away, shy but happy.

“Clarke I been practicin' what you teached me!” Kinder exclaimed excitedly, grabbing and tugging on the redhead's sleeve to draw her attention back to him. “Watch!” He glanced to the ground as though he were searching for something and then bent down and grabbed a rock a little smaller than his fist. Quickly he knelt and began digging in the dirt, and when he moved out of the way Lexa saw Kindɘr spelled out in choppy lines.

“That looks great!” Clarke exclaimed, reaching out and pulling him back to her side to give him another hug. “We'll turn you into a scholar and soon everyone will be hiring you to teach them how to write just as well as you!” He beamed up at her, obviously happy with the praise, and Lexa felt something in her chest break open as she watched the two of them together. Clarke rubbed Mimmie's back, giving her another smile as well, and then told them, “Alright, well Lexa and I have to go, but I'll come back soon and I'll teach you both how to spell Mimmie's name, and maybe even Henley's. How does that sound?”

“Okay!” Kinder and Mimmie both exclaimed, and just a second behind them Henley piped up with an excited, “Yeah!”, her little fists going up in the air as she continued to clench her blanket. Clarke smiled at all of them, her eyes soft as she looked them over, and Lexa found it hard to look anywhere else. As the three kids pulled away however she thought of something, her expression lighting up, and she dug into her pocket.

“Here,” she said, holding out what she'd dug out to Kinder as the boy reached out for it. “This is for your mama for the next time she goes to the market. Remember to be good so you can go with her and pick out something special.” She dropped the coins in his open palms and his eyes suddenly widened, surprise and then excitement clouding them. Quickly his fingers closed around them, pulling them away before she could think better of it and take the money back, and this time his big beam was directed to her.

“Thanks Lexa!” he called, already starting to run back from where they'd come, his sisters hurrying to keep up with him. “Promise we'll be real good!” The three disappeared back into the house they'd come out of and Lexa watched them go, a sad smile on her face. She'd only dropped a few coins into his hands but he'd acted like she'd given him the world, and all she could think about was how she owed him and his family far more.

Finally tearing her eyes away from the building they'd disappeared in, she turned to find Clarke staring at her, something in her eyes that made Lexa's throat close up for just a second.

“That was nice of you,” the redhead just said, her voice a little quiet, and Lexa shrugged. “It was nothing,” she replied, having to look away from the intensity of those blue eyes. “I need to do a lot more.”

“Maybe,” Clarke agreed as she took a step closer to the brunette, “but that doesn't mean it isn't still important. You just made them really happy, and their mother will be even happier when she sees it.” The corners of her lips quirked up, a laugh tucked into them as she added, “Though she'll probably think they stole it.”

The redhead began walking again and Lexa fell into step beside her. She frowned at the woman's words, asking, “They won't get in trouble for it, will they?” Clarke let out a light laugh, glancing at the queen out of the corner of her eye. “When you live like their family does, you never get in trouble for bringing money home, no matter how you got it.” Lexa's brow furrowed, thinking the words over, and then slowly nodded, figuring that made sense.

As they stepped out onto a new street, this one much better lit and crawling with more life than the previous one had, Clarke asked, “Where did you get that money, anyway? Did you ask Anya or Titus for an allowance?” Her tone was light, teasing, and Lexa found herself very nearly sticking her tongue out at her, more at ease than she cared to admit.

“No,” she replied, scrunching up her nose a little before telling her, “I just didn't want to make you pay for everything again tonight, should we end up anywhere that requires money. I thought about going into the treasury, but that would have probably caused questions. Plus it felt a little like I was stealing from myself, which meant I would be stealing from the Kongeda.” Something that sounded like a laugh got caught in Clarke's chest and when Lexa glanced over she found a small grin tugging at her lips, and felt her own twitch up to match it. “Instead I brought a couple of my old shirts with me tonight and sold them at one of the stands I go by to get to The Rig.” The shirts had been old, sure, but they were still great quality, and Lexa knew for a fact she'd been paid far less than what they were worth. She didn't care though, just happy to have coin enough so Clarke wouldn't have to spend any of her own money tonight, and patted her pocket the rest of the coins were in.

The redhead nodded even as an eyebrow rose, apparently impressed. “Good idea,” she told the queen who just returned the nod. “What would you say to a drink or two then? Since you planned ahead so well?”

“I like that idea,” Lexa replied, giving her a smile, and Clarke returned it, quickly steering them in a new direction. It took them a few minutes, and as they walked the queen continued to take in the sights around her, but soon they found themselves once again outside of the Dropship, and Clarke led the way inside.

The common room was crowded tonight, almost every table full. At the usual table a dozen or more people played dice, shouting and swearing and cheering with every roll. Murphy and Emori were clearly busy, each constantly moving around the room taking orders from people and delivering tankards and food, and Lexa stuck close to Clarke as the redhead spotted one of the only empty tables left and led them to it. It sat at the edge of the room, tucked up against the wall, and the two quickly fell into the seats on either side of it, both looking around at the lively space.

“I guess you picked a good night for a drink,” Clarke said, having to raise her voice just a little to make sure the queen heard. Lexa nodded, too focused on taking in the hectic room to look over at her, and Clarke smiled, using the moment to get a good look at the brunette. She looked as good as ever in the brown dress, and the younger woman bit the inside of her cheek as she fought to keep her gaze from dipping to her chest. Tonight the queen's hair tumbled down her back, only a couple of tiny braids woven into it here and there, and she looked more free than Clarke had ever seen her before. Though the noise and number of people seemed to make her just a little more guarded than she'd been on the way here, she still appeared more relaxed than she ever had in the palace. She looked beautiful in the light given off from the torches along the walls and the candles placed sporadically around the room, and Clarke suddenly found it a challenge not to stare.

“Well, haven't seen you here in a while,” a voice broke in, making the young woman shake her head quickly before she turned to see Emori standing by their table, smirking down at her. With Wells now staying at another inn she'd had no reason to come back since the night Titus's men had tried to kill her. She made a mental note to come back tomorrow so she could return Emori's cloak and dress, silently chastising herself for not doing it sooner.

Lexa turned her attention on the innkeeper and Clarke gave Emori a flirtatious smile, falling back into her act without missing a beat. “I know, you must miss me. I'm sure many of your patrons do.” She shot Emori a wink and the older woman just shook her head, lips curling up into a grin.

“Without you to keep them entertained I gotta listen to them fight about those dice all day,” she complained good-naturedly, hooking her thumb over her shoulder towards the most crowded table. “So really, feel free to come by any time.” Someone shouted something at another table and she looked over to it, her attention suddenly split. “What can I get for ya?”

“Two tankards, please,” Lexa told her, reaching into her pocket and pulling out a few copper pieces. She reached out and dropped them into Emori's palm, the older woman glancing over at Clarke and lifting an eyebrow before she tucked the coins away. “Two tankards, coming up. It'll be just a minute.” With that she hurried away to see to the other guests and get them their drinks, and the two were alone again.

“You're so polite,” Clarke stated, giving the brunette a look over the table and Lexa frowned. “Of course,” she just said, seemingly confused by the observation. “Why wouldn't I be?”

Clarke shrugged. “I don't know. I guess you'd just be surprised by how few people actually are.” She gestured to the room around them, saying, “Most of these people probably aren't going to bother with a please or thank you. It's Emori's job to get them what they ask for, after all. And other people, the people you spend most of your time with, would look down on her and expect her to pretty much grovel at their feet.”

Lexa's nose scrunched up at the thought, but knew every word of it was true; too many nobles thought themselves better than commoners simply due to their birth, and while she'd always known it was a problem it was only becoming more and more clear the more time she spent with Clarke. She'd thought of a few possible solutions to the problems she'd so far encountered while exploring her city, but the major divide between the classes was still one she spent her nights wrestling with.

“I'm learning I'm not as alike those people as I once believed,” she replied carefully, going over the words in her mind a few times before she actually said them. Looking across the table and meeting blue eyes already watching her, she felt her expression shift a little, a hint of a smile growing along her lips as she added, “I'm hoping that's a good thing.”

“It is,” Clarke promised her, meaning it more than even she realized. “Not that all of them are bad, because they're not, but none of them are quite like you.” Lexa ducked her head for a second, looking almost as shy as Henley in that moment, and it made some kind of warmth pool pleasantly in the redhead's chest. They were both quiet for a moment, neither breaking the silence, and then Murphy approached their table, dropping off two tankards with a muttered, “Mm” when Lexa thanked him before turning around and going to another table.

Clarke peered at the brunette over her tankard as she took a swallow. Lexa had no idea just how different from other nobles she was, and Clarke wasn't entirely sure she'd ever be able to describe how that made her feel. She had purposefully spent the last six years doing everything she could to fall into the beds of as many nobles as possible, so if ever there was someone who understood them in every way it was her. Just like any group of people, no two nobles were exactly the same, but there were certainly characteristics she'd come to expect from them. Most spent their time thinking they were elevated above everyone, but the single person who truly was elevated over everyone else had just made a three year old happy by telling her her rag of a blanket was pretty. Lexa defied her class, and every moment Clarke spent with her made her want to know more about her. She could feel them beginning to tread into dangerous territory, territory that she knew she should be running away from as fast as possible, but she remained seated, sipping at her tankard as she stared at the conundrum across the table.

“So how have you been?” Lexa asked suddenly, meeting her eyes as she took a drink from her tankard. Her expression didn't shift in the slightest, and if she didn't know any better Clarke would think she'd actually begun to enjoy the ale. She shrugged, fingers moving to play with the pendant of her necklace just for something to do. “Good,” she answered, giving the older woman a smile. “I've been pretty good.”

“You've been missed at the-” Lexa caught herself, glancing for a moment around the room and then corrected herself, “-at my parties. My brother says they're a lot more boring now that he can't watch some his friends fight over you. He was complaining the other day that you made them more fun.” A little grin pulled at her lips, looking over at Clarke as though they shared a secret. “Apparently you are funny and unlike anyone else he's ever met.”

“It's nice to be appreciated,” Clarke joked, lifting her mug up in a sort of mock salute before taking another drink. “He made the parties fun for me too.” She thought about the prince, how quick he was at picking up on many of her jokes and teasing and how every now and then when one of the nobles in their circle was gloating and trying to boost themselves up their eyes would meet. Neither of their expressions would really change but somehow they both seemed to understand what the other one was thinking, and she'd liked that. He wasn't nearly as much of a puzzle to solve as his sister, but Clarke had enjoyed being around him nevertheless.

“There are others who miss you as well, of course,” Lexa continued, looking down into her tankard and tapping her finger lightly against it. “Your usual crowd has looked a little... lost without you there.”

“They'll get over it,” Clarke replied dryly, thinking about how many of them couldn't be missing her too much. Despite her personal exile from the palace or maybe because of it, she had seen a number of young noblemen over the past two weeks. This week alone almost every other night she'd been hired by one of them, and she'd used every single one to her advantage but had yet to find out anything more about Emerson. So far she'd learned that one of the lesser Delphi lords had an opium addiction, that Evan Riddell from the Ingrona Plains and Sara Mines from the Blue Cliffs were already sleeping together despite the fact no marriage arrangements had been made, and she was relatively sure that the heir to the Shallow Valley was in love with his manservant. Just two nights ago Cage Wallace of Mount Weather had hired her and she had to be careful not to make any kind of face as she thought about it. She liked Dante well enough but his son was an entirely different story; it had taken some real work on her part to get him to actually kiss her in order to knock him out. Once she had she'd gone through his things like everyone else and had been disappointed to find nothing more interesting than a small book filled with large sums of numbers and initials by each one. She assumed they must be gambling debts and had nearly whistled when she'd seen them, thinking about how he was lucky he was the heir to the wealthiest family in the Kongeda if he really owed that much.

She shook her head, trying to rid herself of the memories from those nights as well as the panic that began to stir in her gut whenever she thought about how she'd yet to get any closer to the man responsible for her father's death. She made herself smile again, the motion automatically easier as she looked at the woman across from her, and leaned forward just a little bit.

“What about you?” she wanted to know. “How have you been?”

“Also good,” Lexa informed her, nodding her head. “Busy. With everyone here now I'm usually in meetings for most of the day.”

“How did your hunt go?” Clarke asked her and to her surprise the queen actually rolled her eyes. “I should have known better than to bring two dozen people like that into the woods for a three day hunt. We managed to get two boars and three deer, but we easily could have gotten more if half of them had stopped talking for even just part of the time.” Really it hadn't been a terrible trip, and it had gotten her out of her morning meetings with certain lords, but the trip had made it painstakingly clear that some of those lords and ladies were the type to let others do their hunting for them. Her annoyance at the memories of people who didn't know when to stop talking wiped away as Clarke let out a light laugh and her focus crashed back to the present, lips twitching up as she watched the redhead's shoulders move with her laughter.

“Well I'm sorry it didn't go as well as you wanted,” Clarke told her once she'd managed to get control of herself. She had to make herself ignore how cute it was when the queen's eyes had rolled, or how absolutely human the gesture had made her look. “But what about the tournament? How's that coming along? There's just another couple of weeks, right?”

“Yes,” Lexa replied with a small nod, “and it's coming along well. The fields are being cleaned up and the deer and boar will be prepared to serve during it, along with the other food we've ordered. Everyone seems to be excited for it.”

“Good,” Clarke said, “I'm glad it's coming along so well.” The queen gave another nod, doing her best to hide the feelings in the pit of her stomach away from both of them. She was as excited for the tournament as anyone else, but what had to come after it made an uncomfortable pang of anxious nerves stir in her gut whenever she thought of it. The summer was drawing to an end, which meant before long she would have a choice to make.

If Clarke could see the emotions she was desperately trying to hide, she didn't say anything about it. A small silence settled over them as they both took another few drinks from their tankards, and Lexa made herself look around the room again. People were shouting at each other around the dice table but that wasn't anything new, so she began to study the people at the other tables, trying to take in everything about them. Emori was talking to a group of four men at one of the tables, two of whom were shoving each other as they tried to talk over one another, and Murphy stood at another table at the other side of the room where two older women sat. Almost everyone in the room seemed to be talking, and for some reason the noisy chaos helped settle the emotions Lexa had been trying to fight down.

“What do you think their story is?” Clarke asked suddenly, nodding subtly to a young man and woman sitting at the table across from them. Lexa glanced over at them, frowning, and then gave the redhead a look. “What do you mean?”

“What do you think their story is?” she just repeated, eyebrows lifting a little. Lexa watched her look over at them, studying them for a second before she continued, “I think he's a farmer from a small village miles away, maybe just visiting friends. She looks like a city girl, probably born and raised here in Polis. He's fallen madly in love with her, but she just likes the way he looks at her.” She shook her head. “She's definitely going to break his heart.”

Lexa glanced back over at the two, not sure how she'd gotten any of that. She heard the girl laugh and saw the boy grin, and felt her own lips quirk up in response. “I don't think she will,” she decided, head tilting a little to the side. “I think she's going to fall madly in love right back and move back to his village with him. Or maybe he'll choose to stay in the city for her.”

“Hm,” Clarke hummed, a smile tugging at the corner of her lips. “Alright, how about those ones?” she asked, gesturing to another table where three women sat. They were hunkered over their tankards, barely talking, and Lexa only looked at them for a second before she decided, “Two of them are tired from working a long day. The third is plotting how to kill her husband because he doesn't ever help with the washing.”

Clarke had been taking a drink when she started speaking and had to quickly turn back towards her mug, nearly spitting the mouthful back out in surprise. Lexa grinned as she just laughed, full-bellied and long, and the sound made the queen's pulse pick up, heat rising a little to her cheeks. Once the dark-haired woman managed to get control of herself she pointed to another table and the game continued, the two going back and forth as they made up a history for many of the people in the room.

They drank as they played the game, their tankards soon empty, and Murphy came over when Clarke flagged him down, bringing two more large mugs of ale to their table. Lexa knew she should probably be getting ready to leave since it was already late, but she found she was having too good a time to really think about it. The earliest thing she had to be at in the morning was breakfast with Illen, something she really couldn't care less about, so she decided it didn't matter if she was exhausted for it. They continued drinking as they went around the room, and soon Lexa's cheeks hurt a little from smiling so much.

“This is fun,” the queen decided after they'd talked about at least half of the people in the room. She looked back at Clarke, both of them still smiling, and found the redhead nodding.

“It is,” she agreed, dragging her tankard closer to her. “My friends and I play it a lot when we come here. Of course, between the six of us there's always a good chance we actually know a lot of the people in the room, but it still makes us laugh.”

“That must be nice,” Lexa mused, glancing contentedly back around the room. “You all deserve to have some fun every now and then.”

Clarke looked at the brunette, studying the small curl of her lips and the way she sat, her shoulders just a little more relaxed than usual. She knew she was lucky to be seeing it, knew that the queen seldom looked as content as she did now, and silently thanked the gods for the gift.

“What do you do for fun?” she asked, still watching the other woman as she took another sip of her ale. She could feel the beginnings of its effects, the room now a little warmer than it had been when they'd sat down. Lexa looked up, her brow furrowing just a little as she thought, and then she shrugged.

“I don't often have time for fun,” she mused, not seeming disappointed by the thought though it sent a pang of pity ripping through Clarke's chest. “There's always too much to do.” She thought about it for another few seconds, head tilting a little, and then must have come up with something, her brow lifting a bit. “Aden, Anya and I have been meeting a couple of evenings a week recently and debating the affairs of the Kongeda. I'm helping Aden prepare to host the audiences if I ever can't be at one.”

That didn't sound like fun at all to Clarke but she didn't say anything. If she could ever forget exactly who Lexa was, conversations like this would be a painful reminder of just how many responsibilities the queen had. The brunette then smiled suddenly, the motion small but beautiful to the younger woman, and then she added, “Training; that's fun. I haven't been able to do much of it this summer with everything, but that's probably what I enjoy most. Anya's one of the few people that will actually duel with me, but I try to train with the Guard at least once a week as well.” She grimaced then, thinking about how long it had been since she'd actually been able to do that, and muttered, “Indra is going to destroy me the next time I'm actually able to do that.”

“Indra's the Captain of the Guard, right?” Clarke asked, thinking about the fierce looking woman she'd seen every time she'd been to the palace. They'd never spoken, but Clarke had always gotten the impression that the woman was not someone she ever wanted to mess with.

Lexa nodded. “Yes. And she doesn't care who I am, she will be just as hard on me as she is with any of her Guard.” She didn't mention how much she appreciated it, figuring Clarke would already inherently know that. She grinned again, adding, “Aden's fallen asleep more than once in his chair since he started training with her.”

“I thought Anya was teaching him?” Clarke said, looking at the queen from over her tankard, and the brunette's grin fell a little even as she nodded again. “She is,” she answered. “He's her squire, but I've been having meetings every morning for the past couple of weeks so they haven't been able to work together.” She looked into the dark ale, staring at it for a second before she picked her mug up. “I've told her she doesn't need to come with me but she never listens.”

Clarke could tell from the way her tone dropped, from the expression on her face that there was something about these meetings she didn't like. She frowned a little as she studied her, finding the queen still staring into her drink even after taking a sip.

“Is there something about the meetings that worries Anya?” she found herself asking, curious and worried herself. She couldn't think of anything the queen would need to be doing now that would put her in danger, but just the thought of the possibility had her heart beating more quickly in her chest. “Is something going on?”

Lexa let out a small, humorless laugh, mouth curling up but Clarke thought it was more of a sarcastic smile than a genuine one as the brunette looked over at her. “No, nothing's wrong Clarke, please don't worry. Anya is just protective, that's all, and seldom lets me go anywhere without her.” She looked back down into her drink, her back straightening a little again and the younger woman's frown deepened, not liking that she was practically watching the queen's walls go back up. “I have been meeting with certain... men,” she continued, needing to choose her words carefully. “One on one. Or as one on one as Anya and their own guard and a number of servants will let us.” She winced at the last bit, quickly glancing around, but it didn't seem as though anyone was paying any attention to them. Turning back to her own table, she found blue eyes on her, understanding flooding them.

“Oh,” Clarke just said and Lexa nodded. The redhead bit her lip, an unsettling number of emotions swirling through her gut, one of which she identified as envy. She forced it away, reminding herself that she was the only one who actually got to spend any time alone with the brunette, and ignored the voice in her head that reminded her their time together was finite. She scooted a little forward in her chair, trying to smile at the older woman and asked, “How have those meetings been going? Anyone... stand out, I guess?”

“They've been fine,” Lexa answered automatically, and then winced at the own sound of her voice. Sometimes even she was surprised with how little emotion she could show. “Most of them are nice,” she continued, trying her best to sound a little more interested. “Nyko is very wise, and we talked a lot about the healing he's learned over the past thirty years. Penn and I talked a lot about the war, and Ryder has some good plans for the Mountains. And the others are...” She shrugged, not entirely sure what she'd been planning to say, and dwindled off with just a simple, “...nice.”

“They all seem like good men,” Clarke agreed, giving an encouraging nod, “I didn't speak with any of them much, but they wouldn't be bad matches, I don't think.” Lexa began to nod as she knew she was supposed to but suddenly her neck felt stiff, her head too heavy for the motion. She squeezed her eyes shut, so tired of always pretending, and felt her grip around her tankard tighten, her knuckles likely turning white.

“I don't-” she began, and then cut herself off, head shaking. She swallowed thickly, terror building up in her chest like a raging beast, but when she opened her eyes and found that calming blue gaze on her it withdrew just a little. Her throat burned and she bit the inside of her cheek hard to fight it back, needing to glance away from that understanding look. She quickly brought her tankard to her lips, taking a few long gulps in the hope that the ale would help quell the storm now brewing in her chest, but it did nothing but add to the bad taste in her mouth. “They are good men,” she finally managed to say, nodding stiffly as she brought her tankard back to the table. “I'm sure any one of them would be a good husband but I don't... I can't...” She shook her head again, appalled when she felt tears burning in her eyes and had to blink rapidly to fight them away. When she spoke next her voice was small, smaller than she thought it had ever been before, and she knew without having to look at Clarke that her terror was all too obvious in it. “I don't want them. Any of them. The idea of any one of them touching me, of having to make a child with any of them...” Saying the words out loud with the way her stomach rolled nearly made her sick, and she had to clamp her mouth shut, swallowing thickly a few times to fight the feeling back.

A soft hand fell over hers, and Lexa forced herself to look up, finding Clarke's hand squeezing her own. Her gaze continued further, trailing up the younger woman's arm and over her shoulder until she was looking into blue irises brighter than anything Lexa thought she'd ever seen before, and somehow the look alone managed to tether her to the moment. Without realizing what she was doing her hand turned over beneath Clarke's and she was squeezing it back, almost as though this other woman had become her lifeline.

“It's okay,” Clarke murmured softly, knowing that despite the noise around them Lexa had heard. Suddenly it felt as though they were in their own little bubble, like the entire world had paused around them and they were the only ones left moving. “Really Lexa, it is. There's nothing wrong with you.”

“There is,” the queen insisted but she didn't release the younger woman's hand, if anything just holding it tighter. “I'm not supposed to be... like this. I can't be. I have a duty to do. I should be, be attracted to at least one of them. Or at the very least not get sick at the thought of their touch. I can't be like this.”

Clarke thought for a second, trying to come up with the best response she could give. She could see the fear staring back at her in green eyes she'd started dreaming about weeks ago, but far worse was the disgust that almost over-powered that fear. She frowned, pausing for a moment, but then said slowly, “When I was a child, I thought I would end up marrying a man. It was expected of me. There wasn't any other option, really, I never even considered anything else. I knew my parents were looking for the right husband for me, but I didn't have any interest.” A sad smile tugged at her lips as she added, “My father used to tell me I was too smart for my own good, that whatever man I ended up with would constantly be trying to keep up with me.” The memory had her swallowing thickly, fighting back her own tears, but the way the story made the queen's lips twitch made it worth it. “But then my father died and I lost my mother, and everything about my life changed. I began doing things that I, I never would have imagined I'd be doing.” She frowned, looking down at her tankard and found herself shaking her head. “The first time a woman touched me, I was appalled with how it made me feel. I had never really considered before that there was even a possibility that women...” Clarke shook her head again, brow furrowing as she tried to figure out what she was trying to say. “I hadn't realized that I was attracted to women as well as men. It isn't something that would have been allowed in my old life, and there was a part of me that thought because of that, that there must be something wrong with it. But there isn't.” She looked up at Lexa then, finding green eyes so focused on her that she could nearly count the tiny flecks of gold sprinkled throughout them. Clarke squeezed the queen's hand, grasping it tightly as she told her firmly, “Just because it isn't what's expected, or because it's different, that doesn't make it bad, Lexa. There is nothing wrong with you. You are...” She trailed off again, her voice failing her, and her throat closed up for a moment before she could force out, “...so perfect. Don't ever let anyone make you feel like you're anything less than that, because you're not.”

For a moment Lexa couldn't speak, couldn't even begin to find any words to say to any of that. As the redhead had spoken her heart had cracked open, pain and warmth filling her chest, and it was taking every bit of strength she had to keep the tears she could feel threatening to fall from spilling over. She lost the battle for just a second, a single tear slipping down her cheek, and she watched as Clarke's lips shifted into a soft smile. The younger woman leaned over, reaching across the table with her free hand while never releasing Lexa's grip with the other, and gently wiped the tear away. “I mean it, Lexa,” she murmured, her face now just a little bit closer to the brunette's. “You're exactly who you need to be. You have no idea how lucky the Kongeda is to have you. And I'm... I'm just really glad I met you.”

“I'm really glad I met you too, Clarke,” the queen whispered, eyes wide as she stared at the other woman. “You are...” She shook her head without looking away, silently wondering how she had ever been so lucky to have met this incredible person before her. “I'm just really, really glad I met you.” Clarke smiled softly and Lexa felt her own lips mirror the look, a strange fluttering filling her stomach. They sat like that for a few minutes, just looking at each other, until something finally broke through their bubble of isolation.

Two men with fiddles had stood up from the dice table, starting to draw their bows over their strings. A man at another table moved over to them with a grin, a small recorder in his hand. Many others were pushing tables and chairs out of the way, and Lexa frowned when she saw Emori and Murphy standing to the side of the room, the woman grinning as she shook her head while her husband just looked bored.

“What's going on?” she asked, glancing over at Clarke, but before the redhead could say anything someone answered for her.

“Sims and Heathe decided to turn this into a party,” a big man said as he lumbered over towards their table, giving them both a large grin. Lexa recognized the ashy blonde hair and charming smile from the first time Clarke had brought her here, and wracked her brain for a second before remembering his name. Cole stopped at the end of their table just as the instruments began to play in earnest, people rising from their tables to move to the cleared out space at the center of the room. “Thought I'd come over here and see if either of ya pretty ladies wanted a dance,” he continued, flashing his grin at them again, and Lexa peered by him, entirely unsure. The song that was playing was fast and one she didn't recognize, and those who'd moved to what was clearly meant to be a dance floor had started in on a dance she'd never seen before.

“I'm not sure I know the steps,” she began, entirely uneasy, but then Clarke's grip on her hand tugged at her and she forced her focus back to their table. The redhead was in the process of draining her tankard, her head thrown back and Lexa watched her throat work as she swallowed down the ale, her own suddenly a little dry. Clarke smacked her lips when she finished, slamming the tankard back down on the table, and now she was the one grinning at the queen and Lexa found it far more enticing than Cole's.

“Sorry Cole, we've both got a partner,” she told the man, not even looking at him and out of the corner of her eye Lexa saw the big man shrug, still grinning, before moving on to the table where the three women from earlier still sat watching the merriment. Clarke tugged on her hand again and Lexa found herself rising before she'd given her body the order, totally lost in the playful twinkle of blue eyes. “Don't worry,” the younger woman told her as she took a step away from their table, “just follow my lead. I won't let you down.” Lexa studied her for just a second, nerves sizzling beneath her skin as her cheeks heated up, but then it was her turn to grab her tankard and throw it back. There was more left than she'd realized but she went for it anyway, her lungs burning by the time she finally finished the drink and had slammed the mug back on the table, but the grin Clarke was giving her made it entirely worth it. She nodded and then let the younger woman lead her across the room, their fingers sliding into place beside each other.

For a few long minutes Lexa fumbled, trying a little too hard to get the steps of the dance right. She kept glancing at the people around them, trying to copy their movements, and it wasn't until she found two couples moving almost completely differently from each other that she realized almost nobody was in time with anyone else. People were spinning each other, kicking their feet out, even jumping around, and it was so hectic and chaotic that Lexa had to shake her head, feeling fully alienated from everyone else. The dances she was used to were ones she'd been trained in from the moment she could walk, waltzes and polite, almost poetic movements that everyone made together. This was the complete opposite of that, wild and loud and fun, and it made her almost dizzy as she tried to keep up with it. It was only when Clarke pulled her closer, gripped her hand tighter, that she returned her focus to the redhead and the strangeness of it all quickly faded away. Clarke was laughing and singing along with the song, a few others doing the same now, and Lexa's chest filled with the sounds of it all. She copied the younger woman, their connected hands remaining together and their free hands grabbing the loose material of their skirts, the dresses swishing wildly with their movements.

“What is this dance called?” Lexa asked, having to almost shout to be heard over the music and noise around them, and Clarke just shook her head. “Does it matter?” she wanted to know, voice just as loud, and then she tugged at the queen's hand, pulling her close and then spinning her away again. “Just have fun!” A bubble of laughter pealed from Lexa's lips at the sudden movement, and finally she allowed herself to do just that, letting every uncertainty wash away and the music of the instruments and Clarke's laughter fill her.

The dancing continued as the musicians went straight from one song to another and then another. The crowd grew around them, people kicking up their feet and throwing up their hands, and soon people were pulling at new partners. Lexa found herself separated from Clarke, a moment of panic striking up through her new carefree facade, glancing nervously up at Cole who was now grinning down at her. She looked over beside her to find the redhead only feet away, already looking at her and the moment their eyes met Clarke flashed her a smile of encouragement. The queen decided to go with it, letting the man lead her into another dance, hyper aware of his touch, but when he just held her lightly and laughed along with the crowd, she slowly felt herself relax. Before long she was dancing with yet another partner and this time it took even less time for her to relax, managing to fall into the light and buzzing spirit of the crazy dance. When the musicians played a particularly bawdy song she had definitely never heard before she laughed along with everyone else, her eyes only wide for the first two verses. Another bawdy song followed it, this one about the war against the Reapers that she herself starred in, and she was glad to have somehow found herself once again clutching Clarke's hand as two men sang it loudly, crooning beside the musicians.

“I never did any of that,” she informed the redhead, doing her best to keep a straight face, but at the moment it was almost impossible to do. The ale had helped give her the courage to get up and dance, but she had no doubt in her mind that it was Clarke's touch, Clarke's grin that had her cheeks aching so wonderfully. The younger woman let out a short laugh, an eyebrow rising as she shook her head.

“They could only wish,” she agreed, her cheeks flushed. Her skin was warm, the reaction a combination of the dancing and the number of people in the room, but the hottest spot was where her palm pressed tightly against Lexa's, and she knew that had nothing to do with anyone else. She glanced around them, her grin growing before she called out, “Our queen is the most beautiful woman in the world! Those Reapers wish they could have been so lucky to see her like that!” A general cheer went up around them, everyone drunk and buzzing on the high energy in the room, and Clarke smirked at Lexa as the queen herself flushed at the noise.

“You're wrong,” she said, speaking loudly enough that a few of the people closest to them turned, giving her a look. Lexa ignored them all, couldn't even consider looking anywhere but at Clarke as she continued, “The queen can't be the most beautiful woman in the world. I'm looking at her now.” Those who'd looked over laughed, one or two of them even whistling in agreement, but Clarke's eyes just widened a little, her heart rate picking up.

“Stop,” she said playfully, the word almost getting caught in her throat, but when she saw green eyes soften her playfulness washed away and she stopped moving without even realizing it.

“Why?” Lexa wanted to know, stopping as well, and she could feel the nervous fluttering return to her stomach, now just twice as powerful as before. She didn't let it stop her though, just smiled a little as she said, “It's true. You're beautiful, Clarke.”

“Lexa,” Clarke began, starting to shake her head. Suddenly her heart leapt to her throat, making it hard to swallow. She could still hear the music and laughter around them but somehow it had dimmed, barely noticeable. What she did notice was how Lexa took a step closer, their bodies now nearly pressed together. The brunette's free hand moved up, lightly brushing a few strands of hair away from Clarke's cheek, and the light touch burned in a way it shouldn't have. The younger woman felt herself leaning into the touch despite the fact that her rational self told her to pull away, and her eyes closed as she tried to swallow. Opening them again the first things she saw were green eyes, and what she found in them made her hands shake.

“We can't,” she tried to get out, but her throat closed around the words. “Lexa, this, we... it's such a bad idea...”

“I know,” Lexa murmured, her head nodding once, eyes never looking away from Clarke's. “But I don't care.”

The queen leaned forward, the hand that had brushed dark hair away now falling to cup the younger woman's neck, and Clarke fell into the kiss, eyes closing as her breath completely left her.