Two years ago: Napolia
Hurried footsteps echoed across Napolia's dark, empty streets, which had been vacated for the night by all but the most inebriated of Reim's citizens. A young girl dashed through narrow alleyways, holding up her long skirts to avoid tripping. She could not afford to falter. She was the prey, and the hunters were fast on her tail. Though she had managed to evade them for the moment, they were certain to catch up. Her pursuers were highly trained guards, and she was a twelve-year-old girl who spent more time with her nose in a book than doing anything that could be considered physical activity. Her body was already tiring, her sides aching with every gasping inhale and her legs burning. There was no foreseeable scenario in which she could outrun them, which left her with only one option: she would have to outsmart them.
She stopped to scan her surroundings. Barren fruit and vegetable stands lined the walls of white and red buildings. In front of a plaster wall sat a stack of barrels that would be large enough to hide her small stature. She noted them, ducking behind the fortuitous caskets just as the clatter of armored men's footsteps approached.
Covering her mouth, she tried to mask her wheezing breaths. The guards had paused uncomfortably close to her hiding place to discuss their search.
"Which way did she go?"
Her body tensed as a breeze kicked up, rustling her silken peplos. Had they heard her?
"She can't have gone far. She's just a girl."
Apparently not. She allowed her shoulders to relax.
"You three check the left. We'll look for her near the market."
As their metallic footsteps clamored off in different directions, she breathed a sigh of relief. Now there was time to think clearly.
The young girl took yet another sweeping survey of her surroundings, becoming increasingly unsettled. She had never been to Napolia without her father and several bodyguards, especially not at night. During the day, with bustling streets, buildings gleaming in the sunlight, and plenty of protection, the city seemed like an entirely different world. Now, the buildings felt looming instead of grand, the streets felt desolate instead of lively, and she felt vulnerable.
Rumors of how dangerous the city could be at night flooded her memories, raising the hairs on her neck. There was a reason she'd run into so few witnesses tonight. Tales of murders and robberies were no rarity. Bodies were recovered on nearly a daily basis. From the small kingdom of Attica, where she had grown up, those rumors had seemed nothing more than salacious gossip whispered by the idle nobles and rapacious traders, but now she believed them.
Up until this moment, she had felt like she'd been playing a game of hide and seek. When she had first stowed away on the ship that would carry her away from Attica, there had been a sense of adventure. Even when she recognized her father's men tailing her, she had felt a thrill escaping them. Now, that excitement was transforming into dread.
The girl began to panic, backing out clumsily into the street. Perhaps she'd been too hasty in her decision to run away from home. Perhaps this whole adventure was a mistake. Perhaps she could turn back now. The guards couldn't have gone far. She just needed to go find them—
Suddenly, she bumped into something warm and solid.
"Huh?" a male voice grunted.
Was this one of the guards? Why wasn't he wearing armor?
A large hand wrapped itself around her wrist, jerking her around. Her eyes met with a broad, tunicked chest, following it up to where a menacing grin was unfurling upon a gruff, entirely unfamiliar face. Letting out a whimper, the girl unsuccessfully attempted to jerk her hand away from him. He merely tightened his painful grip. Her breath began to hitch as the reality of her situation washed over her.
This man did not work for her father.
This man did not have good intentions.
Current day: Napolia
Sinbad opened his eyes, groaning as he propped himself up in bed. He felt like shit— heavy limbs, parched mouth, throbbing head. Rubbing his eyes, he tried to remember what had happened last night.
He'd gone to the bar for one drink— just to unwind. Then a fan had offered to buy him another drink, and then another fan had paid for two. The drinks kept flowing, and now he was here in what was hopefully his bed.
Shielding his eyes from the bright sunlight pouring in through the windows, he went over to to the dresser and opened it, inspecting its contents. Inside were his last pair of clean pants and some spare change. This was his dresser, which meant this was his room.
Sighing in relief, Sinbad turned around and picked up last night's outfit off the floor before collapsing back on the bed. He gazed up at the ceiling, formulating his plan for the day.
Ever since he was small, he could read fate, see the natural cause and effect relationship of one event leading to the next. Like the waves of the ocean, he'd always been able to navigate them by following the flow. Today was no different. He could see the path he was supposed to take, the most reasonable course of action. It was to stay in his room and recover.
Maybe even do some laundry, he thought wryly, looking at the heap of clothing stacked on the desk in the corner. He wadded yesterday's outfit into a ball and tossed it into the pile to be washed with the others. When it landed perfectly on target, he started to sit up to cheer, only to have the throbbing in his head worsen.
Right. No sudden movements, he reminded himself, cradling his head until the pain died down again. Everything else could wait. Right now, he needed to deal with his hangover, and the first step was to rehydrate
Two years ago: Napolia
The girl opened her mouth to scream. The guards she was avoiding moments ago would be her saving grace, if only she could alert them. The man was faster than she, though, and had already pulled her against him, muffling her cries with his hand. Fighting and gnashing, she kicked obstinately, but it was no use. No matter how hard she resisted, she couldn't shake him off. He was too strong and she was too small. Whimpering pathetically, the girl ceased her futile struggle. No one had ever dared to treat her like this before, not without her father ordering it.
Without a word, The stranger started walking, and she had no choice but to stagger along with him through the commercial district. The girl began to dare to hope for her rescue. They were close to the market, where half the guards had said they would be looking for her. If they just turned left here—
They turned right. The girl flew into another rage, squirming and releasing muffled curses. Her small fists flew in every direction, trying to land a decent hit on her kidnapper. Through all of it, he remained silent, save for a single amused chuckle.
Eventually, they reached the docks— where her adventure in Napolia had begun. From here, she could even see the merchant ship she had stowed away on, her country's flag waving proudly above it. Things weren't supposed to turn out like this. Things had been going so well, but now…
They boarded an unfamiliar ship, where, finally, the silence was broken.
"Picked up one more on the way!" Her captor shouted to a gang of men aboard the ship. They were of all shapes and sizes, but none of them looked like people she would like to know. Her captor continued, "This one's dressed funny, but she's got a good face. Never seen one like it." He leaned down, beard and breath scratching her ear, and lowered his voice. "Where you from, little girl?" He finally removed his hand from her mouth.
The girl tried her best to channel the regal and imposing posture of her parents and announced, "I am Thalia, princess of Attica and daughter of King Hypatos and Queen Simay. Unhand me at once or I will—"
The man laughed, kicking her in the back of her knees and sending her sprawling on the worn, wooden planks. She was unsure if it was her hands or her pride that stung more.
"Lookie here, boys! This one fancies she's a princess!" Her captor squatted down and pulled her head by the tight plaits of her hair, bringing her gaze to his. He practically spat, his rancid breath invading her nose. "Attica? Even better. Atticans sell for a top price. No matter who you are where you came from, this here is Reim. Foreigners don't have no rights. That means I get to claim you as property." He slammed her head back down to emphasize his point. "get it?"
"Careful, Brutus." Another man, just as big, approached them. "If you damage the merchandise, we won't get the full pay."
He reached out his hand to Thalia with a smile that, in other circumstances, might have been mistaken for kindness. Thalia did not want his kindness. She twisted her head away from him in refusal. In no way would she cooperate with these barbarians.
Her resistance proved to be useless, as proved by someone pulling her to her feet by her braids. She let out an angry yelp, twisting to view the vile filth that dared to harm her. It was the one called Brutus. As he shoved her down the hatch and into the hold, she threw another kick, shouting every expletive she knew.
The hold was dark, the air heavy with must. She gagged at the smell. Never in her life had she been exposed to such filth. Brutus walked to the back of the room to illuminate a lantern. To her horror, the dim light revealed three other children tied up and dressed in rags. Two of them were hunched over, trembling, while the third looked up at Thalia's with calm sage green eyes. For a moment, Thalia forgot where she was. All she saw was the serenity in those eyes.
Then, something sharp pressed against the nape of her neck.
"Undress." Brutus's command was low and even. It was a threat.
Thalia moved her eyes to the side, where Brutus stood, and she caught the glint of a sword in the dim light.
Clutching her shawl more tightly around her shoulders, she stumbled away from the sword. "Excuse me?"
With his free hand, Brutus thrust a rough woolen tunic at her. "Undress and put that on."
She didn't move, half expecting him to leave the room. The point of the sword met once again with the back of her neck, this time with more pressure.
"I won't repeat myself again."
Thalia obeyed, tears stinging her eyes as she removed her coin purse, jewelry, and bright, fine linens and silks one by one, this terrifying man's eyes boring into her exposed flesh the entire time. She quickly slipped on the cheap tunic, grateful for its protection, however scratchy. Then, Brutus tied her wrists and ankles together with rope and blew out the lantern, leaving her and the other children to sit in the dark.
Current day: Napolia
Slipping on his last set of clean clothing, Sinbad headed down to the inn's tavern, his boots clumping heavily with each unenthusiastic step.
The tavern was, thankfully, not nearly as bright as his room. It was dark, lit by small windows, a hearth, and a few well-placed candles. Round wooden tables held a few customers eating breakfast, but Sinbad didn't exactly have an appetite right now. Instead, he slid into a stool at the bar, where a gruff man was washing a mug. Sinbad had gotten to know him pretty well over the last two weeks he'd spent at the inn. This guy worked mornings, while the cute girl Sinbad vaguely remembered flirting with last night took the evening shift.
"You look rough, buddy." The bartender set down the mug and leaned onto the counter. "So what'll it be?"
"Water," Sinbad rasped. "Lots of it."
"Hung over, huh?" Standing up, the bartender crossed his arms and barked out a laugh that irritated Sinbad's migraine. "You know, I've got something that'll take the edge off of that. Of course, it'll cause you five farsu, but if you've got the coin, I've got the cure."
"Really?" Sinbad sat up too quickly and the throbbing worsened again. He'd pay anything to get rid of this damn headache. Five farsu was an absolute deal. He counted out the coins and placed them on the counter. "I'll take it."
"A pint of water and one hangover cure, coming right up."
Two years ago, Napolia
Thalia wasn't sure how long they were left in the dark. They did not receive meals, and only a small amount of water was allotted to them at a time. It wasn't nearly enough. She was so thirsty, she thought she was going to die. To distract herself from her physical discomfort, she occasionally attempted to initiate conversations with the other children. They were fairly open about their circumstances.
The youngest child was named Cassius. He was not sure how old he was, but the way he struggled to pronounce certain letters told her he was still fairly young. From what she could ascertain, he had been living on the streets since his parents died. He'd gotten by mostly with assistance from former friends of his parents.
Six-year-old Dulcia had been orphaned when her parents caught the plague a few months ago. She had been surviving, if you could call it that, by rummaging in people's garbage for leftover food. That certainly explained the way she smelled.
The last child, the one with green eyes, was called Dinarzade. She was the oldest of the children, aside from Thalia. Dinarzade seemed overly optimistic considering her situation, and Thalia could not help but look down on her for it. Her parents had sold her to these men, yet she had the audacity to believe that "things would work out" and "maybe someone will save us." Still, her words tended a small flame that still burned in Thalia's chest. Maybe that kind of audacity is just what she needed to get through this.
Closing her eyes, she stifled tears of her own. She was a princess, but she had been treated so roughly by these men. That Brutus man had called her property? Slaves were property. Did that mean she was going to become a slave?
Righteous indignation flared within her. They could not treat her this way. When her father heard of this, he would not stand by idly!
But she couldn't get word to him from this ship. This whole adventure had been a mistake. She'd tried to escape her responsibilities, and now she was suffering the consequences.
Current Day: Napolia
After downing the water and the hangover cure, Sinbad's headache was gone. He could finally concentrate enough to consider his situation. Today, he was barred from performing at the amphitheater, where he usually put on nightly performances. Apparently there was some kind of dance troupe in town, a group of girls gaining popularity among Reim's elite men for their profound beauty and risqué choreography.
Admittedly, Sinbad couldn't deny that he wanted to see the girls that had managed to displace him, a nightly sell-out. He was trying to build a company, though. He was already behind on obtaining the funds to purchase the building he wanted to be his headquarters thanks to the lost revenue the dance troupe had cost him. There was no way he could afford the exorbitant fees the tickets to see those girls had cost even if they hadn't sold out weeks ago.
He weighed his options: he could do laundry and have clean clothes to wear tomorrow or he could try to recuperate some of his lost revenue by working as a porter. Neither prospect seemed especially appealing to him, not when he could tell it was going to rain today. Besides, nothing short of performing at the colosseum would earn him the funds to buy that building at this point, and the owner had already rejected his negotiations twice.
What Sinbad really wanted to do was get a run through of his performance in before the rain hit. The girls wouldn't be in the theater this early, so he wouldn't be imposing on anyone just stopping by and getting in a practice.
So, he decided that just this once, he would sail against the waves. Surely something as small as visiting the amphitheater wouldn't throw his future off balance.
Two years ago: Ria Venus Island
"Stand up!" Brutus's voice bellowed in Thalia's ear. She yelped as a rough hand dragged her to her feet by her hair. Half-delusional from thirst and hunger, she tried to open her eyes, but the bright light was painful. She hadn't seen the sun in what must have been days, judging by her parched lips and lightheadedness.
Her time spent in the darkness had been a nightmare. Her hands and ankles chafed from the rope, and her body ached to be able to stretch.
Apart from initial introductions, the children had not talked much. In the beginning, the younger ones would scream and cry, but they quickly learned that doing so would only earn them a beating. Instead, soft sobbing and sniffles, along with Dinarzade's occasional quiet singing and muffled murmurs of the men standing guard outside, were the only sounds that graced Thalia's ears. She had drifted in and out of consciousness, unable to stay awake for lack of stimulation. When Brutus had rudely awoken her, she'd been retreating in the sanctuary of her dreams.
Now, sunlight flooded in through the open door, invading every corner of the room. Thalia would have tried to shield her eyes with her hands, but the ties around her wrist had rendered that option effectively useless.
From the sound of it, the other children were also being handled roughly. Through squinting eyes, she desperately tried to see what was going on, but all she could make out were shadows and light. A kick in the back of her leg combined with a shove and another command from Brutus, this time to "get moving", sent her limping in an unknown direction.
Her ankles were no longer bound, she realized. He must have cut her restraints while she was asleep. She could run for it, she thought, if only her legs would straighten— but they were stiff from such a long period of immobility. She shouted at Brutus indignantly as he once again pushed her forward sending her stumbling blindly for a while. Finally, a swift kick in the back of the knees sent her kneeling. The miserable cries and sniffles of the other children soon followed her, and they quickly joined her on the ground.
"Hello, children. It's nice to meet you. You can call me Lady Maader," a feminine voice purred from in front of her. Thalia's vision was returning, and she lifted her head to see the speaker. A beautiful raven-haired woman was smiling down at them kindly. Thalia was relieved to see what seemed to be a friendly face.
Then Lady Maader's eyes un-crinkled and fixed on Thalia, whose heart skipped a beat. This woman's eyes were black as a demon's. She approached Thalia and took her chin between thumb and forefinger, tilting her head for better inspection.
"My, you are quite the pretty one. My men told me as much, but I just had to see for myself. They also tell me you're from Attica? Atticans have many talents. What is yours, young lady?"
Thalia briefly considered lying before deciding the truth was a safer route. "I'm educated in reading, maths, politics, history, and the physical sciences. I can speak and read in Torran. I am also trained in the arts of singing, dance, and the lyre."
The woman's eyes narrowed and she looked up at Brutus. "Where did you say you picked this one up again? She's much better educated than the kind you usually bring in, even for an Attican."
"We picked her up off the streets of Napolia. She tried to claim she was a princess," he guffawed, smacking Thalia on the back as though she were his buddy, in on the joke. She did not laugh.
Lady Maader recoiled from Thalia, the blood draining from her face. Thalia felt a glimmer of hope. This woman believed her. This woman would return her to her parents.
"You fools!" the woman cried. "Do you realize what you've done? This girl could be the destruction of the entire company if she's found!" She paced back and forth, equal parts rage and terror written on her face. When Lady Maader spoke again, her voice was thin. "No matter. It's too late, now. If we let her go, she will report us. It will be an international incident. The company cannot afford such a scandal."
Tears welled in Thalia's eyes. How could this woman not return her? It was the right thing to do. If morals would not move this woman to compassion, perhaps a bribe would convince her to send Thalia home.
"I won't report you," the princess pleaded. "Please return me to my parents. They'll surely reward you. Riches, influence, whatever you want will be yours!"
The woman turned once again to face Thalia and smiled kindly. "There, now, dear. We both know your parents can't afford to give away what little is left of your country's fortune. Welcome to your new home. What is your name?"
When Sinbad withdrew the key to the back entrance, he realized was already ajar. The lock had been smashed in, perhaps by some thug wanting to raid the storage rooms containing hundreds of props and costumes. None of it was particularly valuable, but there were some exceptionally beautiful items. He supposed it was possible that someone had wanted to steal one of those.
The reasoning behind the break in wasn't nearly as important as scaring the thieves off. If they were still around, the amphitheater manager was about to owe Sinbad a huge favor. He smirked. He might even be able to use this as leverage for a higher cut of the proceeds from his shows.
Readying his hand on the hilt of his sword, Sinbad crept into the dark corridor, guided by towering pillars and the soft glow from the outside. None of the storage closets appeared to have been tampered with, he noted, but as he approached the stage itself, he quickly picked up on the distinct sound of voices.
He could make an educated guess on the players in the drama unfolding. Three men seemed to be harassing a fourth female, who was coyly trying to talk them into leaving her alone. As they persisted, her desperation was becoming evident. Sinbad frowned, increasing his speed. A lady was in need of rescue.
Someone grumbled. There was the sound of a struggle— shuffling footsteps and a muffled cry followed by something like a body hitting the ground. Picking up his pace even further, Sinbad barged in on a distressing scene. A girl was laying on the ground lifelessly, surrounded by three men. Slowly, the group closed in on her. The one closest to her kicked her in the ribs. It looked painful, but she didn't react.
"Why ain't she movin'?" the one who'd thrown the kick growled. "I barely touched her!"
A man with a pompous air about him, presumably the leader of this group, spoke. "It's fine. We don't need her conscious."
Sinbad had seen more than enough. He brandished his sword toward the group, scowling furiously.
"What the hell do you three think you're doing?"
The three men's heads snapped up, the leader pulling out a jewel-encrusted knife, the other two arming themselves with their fists. As their eyes drifted to his sword, their aggressive glares melted into wide-eyed horror. Sinbad cocked an eyebrow, challenging them to take him on. A knife and a couple of bare fists against Baal? Good luck.
"Lets go!" the leader barked, glancing at his two lackeys. "She's not worth it."
The trio dropped their fighting stances and scrambled past him, back the way they had apparently come. He thought about running after the bastards, but decided the girl was a more urgent matter. He scrambled to her side, pulling her limp body into his lap.
"Hey!" He shook her violently. "Miss, are you okay?"
The girl didn't respond. Her deep amethyst eyes stared stared vacantly into space, unseeing and unblinking. Gently, Sinbad lowered her back to the ground, hanging his head. He was too late. He hadn't managed to save her, and now she was dead.
As his hand moved to check her pulse and confirm his suspicion, the subtle movement of her chest rising and falling caught his eye. Then, her head finally moved, and those sharp, expressionless eyes focused on him. They were devoid of hope or fear, as though she had been resigned to her fate.
Her gaze locked on him, she slowly propped herself up.
"You saved me."
Sinbad looked her up and down, checking for visible wounds. His eyes lingered on the bangles she was wearing on her ankles, wrists, and neck before snapping back up to her face. "Are you alright? Did they hurt you?"
At first, her silent, dead eyes bore into him unsettlingly. Then, she moved onto her knees, her face twisting into a jarringly serene smile. "I'm fine, sir. A lowly slave like me doesn't deserve your kindness." She lowered her forehead to the ground in a deep bow. "How can I possibly repay you?"
"I'm sorry?" Sinbad gawked at this girl who had shown no signs of emotion moments ago. She seemed to have recovered from her strange form of shock quickly, but… was that really possible? Sinbad wasn't exactly known for opening up to others about his problems, but even he would be visibly shaken after being manhandled like that. Was she putting on a brave face for his sake? He decided to call her on her bluff."You can repay me by dropping the act. You just experienced something traumatic. It's okay to be scared."
"Oh." The fake smile fell from her face, replaced by that eerie, blank expression, and she turned her head away from him. Tentatively, she attempted to stand. It was no good. As soon as she put weight on her right foot, she collapsed.
"You're hurt," he told her gently. "You should rest." He reached out to place a hand on her shoulder, but she shrank away like a wilting flower.
The girl mumbled, refusing to meet his gaze. "Sir, you have saved my life. For that I am grateful, but I'm afraid anything more is unnecessary."
Gingerly lifting herself off the floor, she limped to the center of the stage, attempting to position herself to begin a dance. Once again, as soon as she put strain on her injured foot, she toppled to the ground.
"It looks like you twisted your ankle," Sinbad observed, walking over and picking up her rapidly swelling joint to inspect it. "It will only get worse if you try to dance on it."
Again, she looked away from him, this time a stubborn expression crossing her shame-reddened face. "I have to practice."
He shook his head firmly. "Taking a couple of days off won't hurt you. I promise."
"I have to practice." she repeated, her voice wavering. Sinbad's eyebrows shot up. This was the first display of genuine emotion he'd seen from this strange girl.
Her refusal to listen was confusing and a little irritating. He was offering her sound advice. What was so important that she was willing to risk further injury? It was just so illogical— almost as illogical as the fact that she was showing more fear now than when she'd been attacked. What was going on with her?
"Why?" he demanded, placing his hands on his hips like a scolding parent. "You're clearly hurt. If you insist on practicing, it will just take longer to heal."
Taking in a ragged breath, she began to ramble, "I can't be injured. I just need to walk it off. I need to perform tonight, or—"
Leaning in, he tilted his head expectantly. "Or?"
She shivered and he put the pieces together. Everything suddenly made sense— the ability to hide her emotions, the hopeless expression she had worn, all of it. She had even told him what she was: "a lowly slave." This girl was more terrified of her owner than anything else.
"Or your master will punish you? You said you're a slave, right?" It occurred to him for the first time the bangles he had observed were actually shackles. Relatively nice shackles, but shackles nonetheless.
She buried her head in her hands, and Sinbad's head swivelled around anxiously. He wasn't sure how to comfort a crying girl, but he couldn't leave her like this. Slave or not, she was still a person. She deserved empathy.
"Hey, don't cry. Maybe there's something I can do to help, like go talk to your master, explain what happened…"
"No!" She shook her head forcefully, her shoulders hunching forward apprehensively. "That would only make it worse."
A hard pang of sympathy hit Sinbad in the chest. This girl looked so vulnerable, so scared. Even if she would be in trouble when she returned to her master, there had to be something he could do. She was injured and frightened. No matter how low her status in society was, he had to help her.
Suddenly, he was glad he'd come here today. If he hadn't, those men would have done far worse than hurt her ankle, and she would have been completely alone to deal with the aftermath. This girl had needed him.
He smiled at her kindly, attempting to lower her guard. "At least let me help you."
Despite his earnestness, she laughed bitterly. "How exactly do you propose to do that?"
He raised his hand to his chin in thought. He couldn't do much to solve her problems, but maybe if he could distract her for a while, he could brighten her day. He might even be able to put the hope back in her eyes, the same way his performances lit up the eyes of his audience members.
"You know, normally, I'd be the one filling the theater with tales of my exploits. You've probably heard of me." He struck a heroic pose for emphasis.
His plan worked. Her interest seemed to be piqued, though a certain wariness lingered in her body language. As she leaned toward him, her dark eyes sparked with curiosity.
"Sinbad? The Dungeon Capturer Sinbad?" His chest puffed out proudly when she recognized him. "I've heard patrons talk about your show back on the island, but a lowly slave like me would never dream..."
He extended a hand out toward her. Perhaps she had never dared to dream of watching his show, but she clearly wanted to. "Would you like for me to put on a private performance for you right now?"
She hesitated to take it, confliction evident on her face. Perhaps she was afraid she was burdening him.
"I came to do a runthrough anyway," he assured her. "It really won't be any trouble."
As dark clouds rolled in, her slender hand slid into his. The skin was surprisingly soft for a slave, but then he remembered she was also a dancer. She probably didn't work much with her hands. Helping her to her feet, he support the weight of her rigid body. He wasn't sure if she was still too frightened to relax, or if she was just uncomfortable with his proximity. With great care, he helped her to a seat in the front row and left her to begin his show.
From his place high above the open-air bleachers, he began his tale. "A dungeon. It's a mysterious place thousands have entered, but from which none have returned. After defeating countless baby dragons, the only thing standing in the boy's way was the guardian of the gate, a mighty dragon with breath of lightning!"
He ran through the performance the way he would if there was a full house. Though she was much more reserved than the typical crowd he was used to, every time he looked back at her, she was absolutely enraptured with his performance. Somehow, this lone girl's reactions inflated his ego more than any of the thousands of audience members that had come before her.
Finally, he reached the finale. He combined Baal and Valefor's abilities to create a glittering snowfall. This time, when he glanced in her direction, time seemed to slow. The glowing snowflakes flurried around her, kissing her skin and nestling in her carob hair. Her cheeks flushed pink with pleasure, her delicate lips parting in awe as she reached out a palm to catch the powder.
Even at the young age of fourteen, Sinbad considered himself a connoisseur of women, so how had he not seen it sooner? She was really pretty. No, more than pretty. She was—
The spell she had cast on him shattered when she rose in a clumsy attempt to give a standing ovation, only to wince when she put weight on her ankle again. He rushed to her side and steadied her, eager to ensure she was alright.
"What did you think?" he asked, sitting down and leaning in eagerly.
"Did you really do all that?" she twiddled her fingers anxiously in her lap.
"Of course. Pretty impressive, huh? Though, not as impressive as your performance, I hear." When he noticed she'd turned red, he bit back a chuckle. "You're with the dance troupe that stole my limelight, right?"
She nodded slowly. "What we do… it's nothing compared to your show. You—" She caught herself. "It was amazing. Thank you for letting me watch."
Sinbad winked. "No problem. Maybe you can make it up to me by putting on a performance of your own— sometime when you're not hurt, of course."
Keeping her eyes fixed on her lap, she shook her head. "Oh... I'd rather not. It's humiliating. You've seen the kind of fans it attracts…" He assumed she must be talking about the men from earlier. "I think a gentleman of your standards wouldn't enjoy seeing half-naked girls flounce around on a stage."
She'd obviously thoroughly misjudged him, but he thought better than to try to correct her. It could potentially lump him in with her "fans" in her mind.
She continued, "I came to practice today because I tripped during the performance last night. I can't afford to make mistakes. If my master thinks I can't make her any more money, she'll sell me to one of those disgusting people." Her hands clenched into tight fists for a brief moment before she finally turned to look at him. "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. I guess because you don't know my Lady to tell her I said these things..."
"Even if I did meet her, I wouldn't say a word." He took her hand in his and kissed it, his signature move. "I'm not like other men," he assured her. "Trust me."
He had expected her to swoon. That was the usual reaction he got from girls when he attempted to charm them. This one was different though. She didn't seem to understand that he was flirting. Instead, something flickered behind her dark eyes, a spark of defiance.
"Can I really trust you?"
"O- of course." He hadn't intended for her to take him this seriously, but if she wanted to open up about a secret, he wouldn't deny her.
Limping over to the edge of the stage, she picked up a cloak, wrapping it around herself tightly. "Then I want to introduce myself." She took a deep breath. "My name… my name is..."
"Yes?" He took an encouraging step toward her, but she limped anxiously backwards in response. He'd never seen anyone struggle so hard with a simple introduction, but he decided to chalk it up to her shyness.
She fidgeted nervously, chewing her bottom lip until, finally, she spoke. When she opened her mouth, something about her seemed regal, authoritative. For a brief moment, he forgot he was looking at a slave.
"My name is—"
"I am Princess Thalia Alexandris of Attica." She tried to sound authoritative, defiant, but the words that left her parched mouth fell flat.
The lady smiled once more, only this time it sent chills down Thalia's spine. "Wrong. Your new name is Echo. We can't have anyone discovering who you are, can we?" She turned to the men. "Take her to the punishment room. Don't let her out until she's learned her new name."
"Punishment?! I am an Alexandris!"
Thalia stomped defiantly on Brutus's foot as he grabbed her once again.
"Unhand me, you insolent—!" His hand covered her mouth and her muffled protests quickly died down. She was beginning to understand that fighting someone several times her size was a futile pursuit.
Brutus dragged her into a large, grandiose building, through magnificent corridors where they passed children her age and younger. They stopped their chores to watch her pass, unmoved by her tear-stained face. One of the children obediently opened a large wooden door without Brutus having to communicate anything. The hallways behind this door appeared more like a dungeon. Instead of smooth marble, the wall consisted of concrete slabs. Torches lit the path to another smaller wooden door. He shoved her into that room, a square, slightly flooded chamber lit by a grate in the ceiling, and, after cutting her wrist ties, locked her in there alone.
Her ragged tunic now soaking wet, she lifted herself off the ground and, screaming, pounded against the door until splinters from the wooden door lodged their way into the pads of her fists. At last, voice hoarse from shouting, she backed away from the door. Her efforts were useless. No one was coming.
Over the coming hours, she entertained herself by watching the drops of blood seeping from her splinters mingle with the cold water around her feet. She liked how it diffused into nothingness like her current suffering was so minute, maybe it would become just a drop in the ocean of her life.
When Lady Maader came for her, the stars shone brightly in the night sky through the vent. Thalia was shivering violently, huddled against the rough wall. The sun had been in the west when she was brought in here. How long had it been? Three hours? Five?
"What is your name?" the woman asked.
"Tha—" Thalia stopped, remembering she'd been given a different name.
The first cool droplets of another storm began to fall. She interrupted herself, a defeated look casting a shadow across her face. The royal air about her was gone, replaced by a more suitable posture for someone of her status. "Echo. My name is Echo."
The woman leaned over Thalia, cooing, "That's a good girl. You poor dear. Look what Brutus did to you. Come, let's get you somewhere you can warm up."
Thalia distinctly remembered that her presence here had been at Lady Maader's command, but let the woman escort her to a room with a lit hearth without question. Lady Maader gestured for her to sit down in a large chair.
"Tea?" the woman asked, smiling and holding up a mug. Thalia gratefully accepted the warm beverage, savoring the heat as it warmed her throat
"You don't ever have to go back there again once you become one of my children," the matron told her gently. Thalia frowned, not understanding the woman's words.
"Don't I already belong to you?"
The woman's smile remained in place, but her eyes took on a manic quality that chilled Thalia to her core.
"You're not my child yet, but you will be."
"Echo," he tasted the name on his tongue. It seemed to suit the timid girl. Echoes reflected whatever others projected onto them. Echoes did not speak their minds.