Actions

Work Header

Courage

Chapter Text

 

 

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.

Got it!

"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.

 

Chapter Text

Two years ago: Attica

As the only legitimate child of Attica's king, Thalia's days were rigidly structured. First, Thalia had awakened at 11, beginning her morning with lessons in mathematics. Then, she had joined her mother to eat lunch in silence, and afterward, she had sat through several more lessons. Because she had studied well today, she had been allowed to neglect her chores and was instead given free time, which she had spent reading a tome about her country's economic history. Thalia's time was precious, and she didn't dare to waste it on anything unproductive.

Thalia's day was winding down, and she was now enjoying the final activities. Currently. she was in the balaneion, the bathing room, taking her evening bath. Sinking deeper into the tub, Thalia allowed her sister's smooth singing drifting in from the palace to carry her into relaxation.

Though Thalia called Kayra her sister, technically she was only Thalia's half-sister. They shared the same mother, but Kayra's father had passed away long before Thalia was born. Kayra and their mother, Simay, both hailed from Parthevia. Thalia had always envied their loose, aubergine curls and the thick lashes that rimmed their honey eyes.

Thalia played with her hair, the dark brown color of wet dirt. She took more after her father, who was a prime example of an Attican citizen. Straight noses, earthy tones, and almond eyes were all hallmarks of the inhabitants of the island kingdom. These features themselves were not less attractive than her mother and sister's Parthevian ones, but Thalia felt she had gotten stuck with an odd mix of Parthevian and Attican traits that seemed poorly cobbled together, like a broken sculpture hastily repaired with the wrong pieces.

In some ways, it felt as though her looks were a metaphor for her birth and the circumstances surrounding it. As the only princess eligible to pass on the throne, Thalia had quite a thorough education on the history of the Attican Empire and its devastating fall at the hands of Reim and Parthevia. Attica had only been allowed to keep its current holdings because of skillful political maneuvers by the previous king. Keeping two warring empires at bay was no small feat, but her grandfather Aegaeon had done just that through a marriage treaty between her mother and father. Thalia didn't know much about her mother's life before her marriage to her father, but Kayra had once uncharacteristically waxed nostalgic about the days in Parthevia when their mother's smile was genuine and she didn't reek of alcohol.

Thalia opened her eyes and stared longingly at a fresco of a mother affectionately embracing her child. She had grown up seeing that wall-painting, believing if she just tried hard enough, one day her mother would hold her like that as well. It had been nothing but a child's dream.

Her eyes drifted to another wall adorned with a loving couple gazing adoringly into each other's eyes. No such couples existed in this palace.

After acquiring his heir, her father had checked out of the marriage entirely. He'd kept many women on the side over the years and seldom visited their mother. When her parents did run into each other in the palace, the shouting could be heard from outside the walls. Though her grandfather had eschewed a war, it seemed even the most peaceful solution had not been without casualties.

The singing stopped, and Thalia snapped back to reality. Her sister usually practiced for an hour in the evenings, which meant Thalia had been in the bath even longer. Her pruney fingers confirmed her observation, and Thalia stepped out of the bath onto the cold, marble floor, accepting a towel from the on-duty slave.

The slave was about the same age as she, twelve years old, and had been working for the family for a few months now. This particular servant was so skilled at drifting into the background that Thalia occasionally forgot she was not alone. She had tried to make conversation with the slave girl before but found her company less than stimulating. As such, Thalia now reserved her energies for her equals, though there were no free persons her age at the palace. Even Kayra was her senior by six years.

Thalia held her arms up for the young slave, who nimbly pinned the sleeves on her peplos. Black markings on the girl's palm caught Thalia's attention.

"What is that?" Thalia asked commandingly.

The slave girl bowed her head in shame.

"I don't dare lie to you, Princess. I've been trying to learn to read. These are letters for me to practice remembering throughout the day. I know a lowly girl such as myself is not supposed to covet knowledge..."

Thalia raised her chin, sending the slave girl cowering.

"That's an admirable pursuit," Thalia assured her. "Learn as much as you can. You'll be better able to serve me."

The girl's eyes widened and she stood a little taller.

"Princess! Thank you for your blessing!"

Thalia nodded, folding her hands in front of her and walking toward the door. This slave… maybe she wasn't quite on Thalia's level, but if she had a hunger for learning, maybe someday she would be good company. The princess stopped and turned to face her servant once again.

"By the way, I don't believe I've ever asked your name."

Apprehension flashed across the girl's face, but she schooled it into a serenely submissive smile.

"Sappho."

"Thank you, Sappho." She reached out and patted her head like a little sister, but quickly withdrew her hand when she noticed Sappho's fragile shoulders tense with discomfort. "For everything you do."

Sappho escorted Thalia through the halls of the palace. Their destination had been Thalia's room in the women's quarters, where Sappho would prepare her for dinner. However, as Thalia wandered past the throne room, she noticed something odd. She could hear both her mother and father's voices, and neither of them was yelling. She strode past the guards and around the corner, then stopped, motioning for Sappho to be silent.

Thalia's parents often told her that those who knew what was spoken behind closed doors in the palace could insulate themselves from most power struggles. She regularly made it her business to find out everything she could through loyal maids and her own reconnaissance. As she stood hunched over with her ear pressed against the wall of the throne room, she knew she would be in trouble if she were caught eavesdropping, but when she had realized her parents were in the same room and not fighting, she knew something gravely serious must be happening.

From the other side of the partition, she heard a lilting voice introduce itself as an oracle.

"I read the rukh," the voice's owner elaborated, "and they tell me the future. I have seen grave danger for your kingdom."

Thalia almost laughed. How did someone who spoke such superstitious nonsense manage to get an audience with her parents? Her mother did not show as much restraint and snorted loudly.

"Who let a charlatan like you in here?" Her words were less slurred than usual. "Guards!"

"Silence, you damnable woman!" Hypatos shouted, "Do not meddle in the affairs of my country." He then directed his words to the oracle "Our kingdom has long depended on the old ways for survival. Please continue."

Even from the other side of the wall, Thalia could hear smugness oozing from the stranger's mouth. "Yes, your majesty. With the death of the patriarch, her highness's family no longer holds the political sway it once did over the Parthevian noble family. The treaty will be broken, and Parthevia will slaughter your entire kingdom."

A heavy silence was broken by her mother's terse response, "Any person with their wits about them could tell as much. Is that the best your future vision can do? Tell us what we already know? Hypatos, just send her away. Why entertain such an obvious fraud?"

Thalia tensed, expecting another outburst from her father. Instead, the "oracle" spoke again.

"I did not come to tell you what already is. I came to tell you how you can save your country."

Her father's voice cracked. "How?"

"You must align yourself with Reim. A marriage between your heir and the prince of Reim will please the rukh and protect your family."

Thalia had met Nerva Julius Caluades once before. She had found his personality so thoroughly repulsive that she'd prayed she would never have to so much as to be in the same room with him again.

Simay came to her defense. "Hypatos and his ancestors have done everything they can to keep this proud nation independent, and you dare come in here and suggest we surrender to Reim?"

She had a point. Simay had been a noble, but she was never going to inherit the throne. Her family had enough political power to force the government to ensure her safety without her having the ability to claim the land as her own. If the heir of the Kingdom of Attica married the heir of Reim, it would be as good as surrendering Attica over to Reim on a silver plate.

The defeated tone in her father's voice told her that however much he wanted to remain independent, he had been backed into a corner. "Call for the Royal Messenger. Send a message to Reim's Emperor offering my daughter Thalia's hand in marriage. Do it quickly."

"But Sire, shouldn't you consult with the priestess of Asena first?" a fourth party asked.

Yes, consult with the priestess. Maybe Thalia could bribe her into convincing him that the marriage was a terrible idea.

"Can't you see the goddess has abandoned us?" her father shouted. "This is all because of my cursed daughter! Asena still hasn't forgiven her for her unnatural—"

Simay cut him off. "You superstitious fool and your damned religion. The only thing unnatural in this palace is your idiocy."

Multiple parts of that conversation made Thalia cringe, but the word 'unnatural' unearthed a sick feeling in her gut. Every time her father called her that, in dredged up echoes of memories she'd spent two years forgetting. She wasn't the same girl now, and his precious goddess didn't exist. Thalia could not be blamed for her relative's demise, but old age certainly could. Her grandfather had been approaching eighty.

"Forget the priestess," Hypatos barked. "Just do as I said. Go send the message."

No…

Thalia's blood ran cold. She refused to marry Nerva Julius Calaudes. He was so much older than her, so pompous. Would they end up like her mother and father? Would she turn to drink while he kept whores on the side?

More importantly, how could she allow her father to hand over Attica so easily? She could not let that happen. Her father and mother had failed to protect both her and her country. She had to take her life and the future of Attica into her own hands. She would run away, only to return when her parents had come up with another solution. There had to be one. She just needed to buy herself time.

Weeks passed, and the marriage plans were finalized. So were her plans to escape. With the reluctant help of Sappho, she stole onto a merchant ship set for Reim, where she would offer her services as a tutor to some noble family. She would have to learn to support herself, but that was alright. For the first time in her life, she was truly free.


One year ago: Ria Venus Island

Thalia's first year as a slave had been tumultuous. At first, she had resented Lady Maader. The woman had tortured Thalia so badly, especially the time she'd tried to escape. She had given a sealed letter containing her identity to a sailor, begging him to take it to Attica. Without even opening it, he'd taken it to Lady Maader, who had been furious. She had ordered Thalia to undergo water curing.

"Water curing." The name of this torture method didn't sound unpleasant at all, but Thalia had quickly learned not to underestimate her mistress's cruelty. Water had been forced down Thalia's throat until she vomited. How could someone who caused pain like that be forgiven?

However, Thalia's relationship with Lady Maader quickly became much more complex. After ordering severe punishments for Thalia, Lady Maader would comfort her with praise and warm embraces. The broken princess began to crave her Lady's affection, going to no small effort to earn approval. During Thalia's childhood, her mother had rarely shown her any form of tenderness. Thalia lapped up this new form of attention eagerly, forgetting any desire to escape.

Thanks to her dedication to Lady Maader, Thalia quickly moved up the ranks as a slave. When Thalia had put on a performance of traditional Attican dance, Lady Maader had been so pleased that she had decided to have Thalia train some of the older girls. They would eventually perform in the colosseum in front of thousands of people, and Thalia was thrilled at the prospect. That was to be in the future, however. Currently, she served snacks and hot tea to important clientele as they waited for a meeting with her Lady.

As she rushed past an older gentleman, a tray of tea in hand, she lightly chided him for the lewd comment he'd tossed in her direction. Incidents like this were becoming more and more common as she got older. She hated it, but Lady Maader said it was normal, and that she should do her best not to make her displeasure known to the customers.

Responding to the clients was a precarious endeavor. If her refusal to acknowledge the remarks offended the patron, she would be punished. If she indulged the comments, she would be seen as immoral, and it would reflect badly on both her reputation and her Lady. She had learned the safest route was to playfully rebuke the comments. So far, it had diffused every situation, but some of the clients were becoming more persistent. She feared for her safety.

She finally caught sight of the women she had been serving. They were a pair of noblewomen who looked to be Parthevians on vacation. Thalia generally did not find these types particularly useful to eavesdrop on. They tended to talk about fashion and scandals, nothing of interest to her. Today, however, their topic piqued her interest.

The woman in a blue dress sighed in frustration. "I almost couldn't afford this vacation. My son's tutor costs our family a fortune. My husband insists on him because he's Attican. You know, it's fashionable to have your children tutored by an Attican nowadays, but I still feel like we're being robbed blind."

The other woman, clad in yellow, responded. "Speaking of Attica, have you heard?

Thalia stopped approaching them and slipped behind a pillar instead. She wanted to listen to the rest of the conversation. It was unusual to hear Parthevians talk about her tiny island country, to say the least.

"Heard what?" The woman in blue sounded thoroughly disinterested.

"They've finally been conquered. Another fine victory for the Parthevian Empire." The speaker let out a satisfied laugh. "General Barbarossa led the attack, but I hear the real hero was our dear Princess Serendine. She earned the nickname 'Venomous Spider Princess' thanks to her contribution to eliminating the royal family. "

Thalia's body went numb. Attica had been conquered?

Serendine… she knew that name. On her frequent visits to Parthevia with her mother and sister, Thalia had often played with her. Growing up together, Thalia had been her shadow. Wherever the Parthevian princess went, Thalia was close behind, watching as her fellow princess handled swords and horses, things Thalia was never allowed to touch. If she tried, one of her retainers would quickly swoop in and scold her, reminding her that only men and barbarian women did such things. But, sometimes, when no one was looking, Serendine would sneak off with her and teach her tidbits about the world beyond the constraints of being an Attican princess.

Thalia's grip on the tray she was holding loosened. As the princesses had grown older, Thalia had lost interest in the forbidden world of men and barbarians, but never interest in Serendine, her closest friend. Thalia had thought the world of her fellow princess. How could Serendine… Had she heard incorrectly?

Metal clattered onto the ground and hot liquid licked at her ankles. The two women stood up and peered around the pillar.

"Oh, dear. It's one of those slave children."

"Doesn't she look Attican? Poor thing must have overheard us..."

"Wretched girl, were you eavesdropping?"

Thalia ignored them and ran as fast as her feet could carry her to Lady Maader's office. She banged on the door until Kil answered.

The short girl looked perturbed. "Are you daft? What do you want? You're disturbing Lady Maader!"

Thalia shoved Kil out of the way, ignoring her snide comments. Lady Maader was sitting at her desk, filling out paperwork.

Thalia took a deep breath, then, in a shaking voice asked, "Is it true?"

Lady Maader's face melted into a confusingly smug expression. Couldn't she see her child was falling apart? Why did Thalia's master look as though this fact gave her pleasure?

"Is what true, my dear girl?"

"Attica… is it… has it been…?" Thalia's whole body shook violently so that she struggled to stay standing.

Her benefactor leaned forward, clearly amused. "If you're asking about whether or not Attica is still a country, the answer is no. Parthevia invaded and took over."

"What about my family? Are they…?" She choked on the dryness of her mouth.

"My dear, I'm your family now. It's unfortunate about the royal family, but it would be too troublesome for Parthevia to keep them alive, don't you think?"

What was Lady Maader saying? Her family's lives were "too troublesome"? Maybe they hadn't shown her affection the way Lady Maader had, but they were her flesh and blood. She was inextricably bound to them. Lady Maader had taken care of Thalia this last year. How could she just mock Thalia's loss like this?

Thalia stiffened. She'd grown complacent in this place and lost her focus on what was important: her duty to her country and her family. Her faith in Lady Maader had been misplaced. This woman did not care for her. She did not show an ounce of sympathy for Thalia's grief. Her birth family had been slaughtered at the hands of a childhood friend, and her home country had been subjugated. All of it had been her fault. If she had just married Nerva Julius Calaudes as her father had requested, if she had been an obedient daughter, none of this would have happened. It was her fault.

A wave of nausea overcame Thalia. She collapsed to the floor as her stomach evacuated its contents all over Lady Maader's priceless carpet. Good, she thought, taking in the mess she had made. I hope it's ruined.

"Oh my…" Lady Maader said with mock pity. "Kil, will you get her out of here? And treat those burns on her feet, will you? No one wants to buy a slave with scars..."


Present Day: Napolia

Sinbad's lips pulled into a frown as his eyes flicked down to the girl's injured ankle. "Can I ask you something, Echo? How are you planning to get back to wherever you're staying?"

She laughed nervously, her small shoulders hunching. "It's an inn just a few blocks away. I'll walk."

Sinbad shook his head. He wasn't about to let an injured girl walk home, especially not after what he'd witnessed earlier.

Kneeling in front of her, he did the only gentlemanly thing to do in a situation like this. He offered to help her.

"Miss Echo, please allow me to carry you."

When she stumbled backward, adorably flustered, he bit back a chuckle.

"You don't have to…" she mumbled, twiddling her fingers. Her cheeks flushed a deep crimson, the most embarrassed he'd seen this shy girl yet.

"I want to." he leaned forward to make it easier for her to climb on his back. After a moment's hesitation, she reluctantly wrapped her arms around his neck, clinging to him tightly. Her breath tickled pleasantly against his neck, and she thoughtfully draped her cloak around him to shield him from the rain.

As they made their way through the city, curious eyes followed them everywhere. Echo buried her face in his neck and pulled her hood higher in an attempt to avoid the prying stares, but Sinbad beamed proudly. It was no shame to be seen in the company of a beautiful girl. Under different circumstances, he would have continued to flirt with her relentlessly. As it was, it seemed what she needed was a bit of kindness.

The longer they walked, the more tightly she clung to him. At this rate, he wasn't going to be able to breathe by the time they reached their destination. He supposed she was terrified of the punishment she would receive when he returned her, but she didn't complain out loud. He was about to croak out a request for her to loosen her grip when she pointed straight ahead to a small shack in front of them.

"We're here."

This is where Reim's premier dance troupe is staying?

The cuffs digging into his neck reminded him that even if she was a dancer, she was still a slave, a piece of property. Of course her master hadn't provided decent lodgings for her. That would require treating her like a person.

"Ah! Echo, you're back!" Sinbad spotted a blonde, freckled girl bounding toward them through the light rain. When his eyes met hers, she stopped, cocking her head to the side curiously. "And you are…?"

Echo didn't give him time to respond. "Dinarzade, will you help me to our room? I hurt my ankle."

The girl named Dinarzade helped Echo down. "Sure, but what happened?"

"Oh, just an overzealous group of fans. I'm fine."

As Echo spoke, Dinarzade's eyes moved from Sinbad to Echo, then back to Sinbad quizzically. They seemed to go in and out of focus like she was struggling to concentrate.

"What on Earth is happening here?" A boy with long, silver hair approached them, whip in hand. He appeared furious. "Echo, where have you been? Who's this? Why are you limping?"

"Fatima, I, I-" Echo stammered as Dinarzade's arms wrapped around her protectively.

The boy raised his weapon threateningly. "You are aware that you are Lady Maader's property, are you not? Allowing someone to harm you is the same as damaging her property. This is unforgivable!"

Sinbad stepped in. Surely this Fatima person would listen to reason. "It's not her fault. She was attacked."

The boy glowered at Sinbad. "Who are you to try to interfere with Lady Maader's matters? Get out of here. Leave."

Tch. Sinbad balled his fists. This guy may not be Echo's master, but he was the one she was frightened of. Sinbad could tell by the way her eyes lingered on the whip, as though she expected it to come down on her at any moment. He wasn't about to go anywhere without making sure she wasn't going to be punished for something that wasn't even her fault.

"He's right, Sinbad," Echo whispered. "You should go."

"But—" Surely she understood he was just trying to protect her.

"Please go" she pleaded. "Don't cause any more trouble for me." He found himself unable to deny her reasoning but too afraid of what might happen to leave her side.

"Go to your room and await your punishment," the boy with the whip commanded. "And you," he turned his attention to Sinbad, "if I see you around here again, she will be the one who suffers for it. Do you understand?"

Sinbad stood frozen, unable to do anything more. As Dinarzade helped Echo walk to the door, Echo looked back and gave him a warm smile. It was convincing enough that, on the surface, it appeared she wasn't afraid. Of course she was. She was so terrified, she'd nearly strangled him moments ago. He wouldn't let her fool him now.

The boy with the whip followed her inside, slamming the door behind him.

Sinbad lingered on the building's premises, imagining Echo's blank face as the whip cut into her skin. He couldn't bring himself to leave. Not yet. He had to know what was going to happen to her. Otherwise, he wasn't sure he'd ever be able to put his worry for this poor slave to rest. He put his ear to the wall of the building to listen.

1… 2… 3… …5…

He counted the cracks of the whip with intensifying horror. It hadn't been Echo's fault. Why was she being punished so severely?

…10…

He heard a muffled cry. The girl who hadn't flinched at being kicked in the ribs had reached her limit. Dinarzade's voice pleaded on Echo's behalf, along with a chorus of other girls.

…15…

He could charge in there and stop it. He could take Echo away and never let anything like this happen to her again. But that solution wasn't realistic. It would be considered theft and his company, all the people who had placed their faith in him, would be the ones to suffer.

…20.

The lashes stopped, and he had done nothing. One girl's sobbing carried through the wall. Another girl chastised Fatima about potential scarring, while a third offered to go buy some medicine to prevent it. He couldn't hear Echo. He imagined her lying there limply, her dead eyes boring into the wall, as though she could see through it, see what a powerless fool he was.

"Can I really trust you?" she had asked.

He had told her she could, and that silly, naive girl had believed him.

As the storm picked up, he backed away from the side of the building, trying to shake his guilt away. What had happened to her wasn't his fault. He wasn't the one who'd hurt her ankle. If anything, he'd saved her from an even worse fate.

Trying to forget Echo, he wandered back to the inn and opened a bottle of spirits. He'd barely gotten half-way through the first glass when he received a communication from the colosseum. They had decided to allow him to perform. As always, fortune had seemed to fall right in his lap. The good news successfully pushed the pretty girl with the dark eyes and the fake smile to the back of his mind.

With the increased seating capacity, his performances earned him an excess of riches. After investing them in the company, he spent the rest on himself, on gaudy jewels and extravagant wines. Some nights, though, when he lay in bed, inspecting one of his precious new items, his mind would wander to how his money would have been put to better use hunting down Echo and buying her from her cruel master. He wasn't powerless anymore. He could set her free.

Then he would toss the jewel into his growing heap of treasures and remind himself he'd barely spent a couple of hours with her. He didn't owe her anything, and it wasn't like he could save every slave he came across.

When Ja'far and the others returned from their journey, Sinbad was able to present to them their new headquarters, one of the most extravagant buildings in Napolia. Soon afterward, Sinbad wrapped up his colosseum performances and embarked on new adventures in Artemyra and Sasan. His memories of that morning with Echo faded quickly. She was only a pretty girl, after all, and he would meet plenty of those to take her place.

Chapter Text

 

Thalia Age 16 by ada-001

Two years later, In the dining hall at the Mariadel Company Headquarters, Thalia bounced a screaming toddler on her knee, cooing happily in his ear until he stopped crying, instead twisting around in her lap and tugging her hair. She breathed a sigh of relief now that this tantrum was over. When she wasn’t performing or practicing, this is how she spent her “free” time. She helped care for the younger children. Even around them, she was putting on a show. She wanted to scream at them, to tell them to let her have a moment of peace. Instead, she smiled and exercised endless patience, something no one in her life had ever afforded her. 

She scanned the crowd of playing children around her. They giggled and tossed balls made of inflated pig’s bladders or kicked little sacks of sand around. It was hectic, but from the outside, it almost looked idyllic. They were well-fed kids having a good time, so what could be wrong with a place that let them live like this?

Thalia could tell you. They were slaves, every one of them. These toys? The laughter and the smiles? Those were just distractions from the dark reality— this place was a holding cell for a slave-trading company.

She pitied every child here— orphaned, impoverished, or abandoned at such a young age and then forced into slavery. They weren’t old enough to understand they were being exploited. They were just happy to receive consistent meals and the morsels of affection Lady Maader would occasionally toss them. Thalia had realized years ago that affection was entirely fake. These children deserved better. She deserved better, she thought, looking at her hands in her lap. 

“Hey!” 

Thalia looked up to find Dinarzade giving her a meaningful look. She returned it with a deceptively bright smile, motioning for the other girl to sit. 

Thalia had complex feelings for Dinarzade. Her sunny disposition and unwavering positivity even in their current situation had earned Thalia’s respect. Unfortunately, Dinarzade was also currently Thalia’s biggest threat on the island. In the past year, Dinarzade’s already lush body had developed even more, as had her dance skills. The result was that increasingly, Thalia was becoming less popular as Dinarzade stole more of the spotlight. Lady Maader had yet to catch onto this trend and was currently considering selling Dinarzade. The faster Dinarzade was out of the picture, the sooner Thalia would be secure in her position again. 

Thalia needed to be the most popular. As long as she was bringing in the most money, Lady Maader would refuse to sell her. This was why, shamefully, she had done whatever she could to expedite the process of selling Dinarzade, including talking the girl up to patrons.

She looked into Dinarzade’s kind, green eyes, the ones that reminded her of a field of sage. Dinarzade would never have tried to do anything like that to Thalia. 

The most important thing is surviving, Thalia reminded herself. Even if I have to step on other people to keep from drowning.

Rival or not, Dinarzade was a fountain of gossip, and occasionally she spewed out useful information. In her previous life, before she was a slave, Thalia had been taught information was power, and here on Ria Venus Island, she needed all the power she could get. Thalia shooed the little boy off to go play so Dinarzade would get to the point. 

“Echo, have you heard?” the other girl asked as the boy scampered away to join his friends.

Thalia didn’t blink at the use of her fake name. People had called her that for so long, she wasn’t sure she would still answer if someone called out her old name. One day, she hoped to be able to reclaim her name. It was the last thing she had that her parents had given her. First, she would have to escape, but so far, opportunities had been elusive. In the meantime, she continued gathering information from whatever sources she could find. It didn’t matter information about what. Anything could be useful in the long run.

She leaned in, curious about whatever Dinarzade had to say. “Heard what?” 

Dinarzade looked around furtively before beginning her spiel. “The president of the Sindria company got into a ton of debt with Lady Maader and couldn’t pay it off. He should have just sold the company, but instead, he made a bet with our Lady. If he loses, he’s going to become her slave.” She scoffed, “What kind of idiot would bet his freedom like that?”

Thalia struggled to keep her expression neutral. She had kept tabs on the boy who used to perform at the Napolia Amphitheater through eavesdropping on patrons. If her intelligence was correct, the president of the Sindria Trading Company was none other than that same Sinbad. 

What kind of idiot indeed, she seethed internally. She’d been silently celebrating his success over the last two years as the gossip surrounding him shifted from his play to the rise of his trading company. Her savior deserved all the good fortune in the world. How could he be so reckless? 

Of course, Thalia wasn’t very worried. He would never lose. She was still dazzled by the memory of his metal vessels during the performance he’d put on for her. Snow and lightning had rained down from the skies, all at his command. She’d believed at that moment, and ever since, that he was invincible. He’d become a god to her.

“That’s unfortunate for him. Of course, he won’t defeat our dear Lady Maader,” Thalia responded dutifully. She had to lie about her true feelings to keep up appearances in front of the other children. No one could know how much she despised this place and the woman who ran it. Fatima already tried to make her life as miserable as possible ever since he’d gotten punished for giving her scars a few years ago. She didn’t need more people trying to sabotage her.

“Right? There’s no way.” Dinarzade cocked her head to one side as if she were deep in thought. “I think it’s a good thing, though. He’s really handsome. It would be nice to have some eye candy around, don’t you think? I could have sworn I’d seen him before somewhere, though...”

“What?” Thalia blurted, panicked. Why was Dinarzade talking as though she’d seen him recently?

Without Thalia having to ask aloud, Dinarzade answered. “He’s here. I saw him gambling in the casino. Maybe if he wins, he’ll buy me with all that gold he won and—”

Thalia didn’t let the blonde finish. She rushed out of the dining room, legs carrying her through the halls and out of the gates. He was here. Her savior was here. 

This whole time, she’d resigned herself to the fact that she’d never see him again. Every day since their encounter, she’d imagined this moment— imagined herself thanking him profusely, bowing to let him know how much his gestures had meant to her. She’d imagined those gentle eyes and that kind smile once again directed at her. Now she would have the chance to thank him, or maybe just look at him from afar. Two long, miserable years had separated them, but he was finally here. Her impossible dream had finally come true. 

She dashed on nimble feet through crowded streets, narrowly avoiding irritated patricians who shouted angrily at her. She didn’t pay them any mind. Nothing mattered but finding the boy from two years ago.

When she finally reached the casino Dinarzade had been referring to, she hesitated outside. Her heart pounded in her chest, sending blood roaring in her ears. On the other side of this door, she could find him, her savior, her god. A thousand scenarios raced through her head, the most realistic of them involving him not even remembering her. Even so, the temptation of what if guided her hand to push open the door. Quietly, she slipped into the crowded building.

The heavy stench of tobacco, the raucous laughter of drunken men, the clink of gold coins against the surface of wooden tables— these weren’t entirely unfamiliar. The casino’s owner had been her friend for the last two years, and Thalia frequented this establishment to visit him, though usually not during peak hours. Today, however, she wasn’t looking for him. Instead, Her eyes scanned the crowd, searching for that familiar violet ponytail.

When she found it, her breath caught. It hung beautifully down his back, every bit as vibrant as she remembered. Sinbad himself had grown as well. He was taller now, leaner and more muscular. His deep, rich voice boomed out merrily when he laughed, raking a mountain of roulette winnings toward him. 

His outrageous luck increasingly drew the attention of the gamblers around him, and Thalia stood among the crowd, paralyzed. She was caught in a riptide of emotions— terror, elation, confusion… when she wasn’t busy reliving the memories of that morning with him, she was desperately trying to forget them. He’d stirred a sleeping dragon in her heart, the desire for freedom and happiness. For two years, she’d been trying to put that dragon back to sleep, to be content with her life again. 

At the sight of its master, the dragon reared its head and roared.

Trembling, Thalia took a step forward.

“Maybe he’ll buy me with all that money he won…” The words had been Dinarzade’s, but now Thalia had claimed that dream as her own. Maybe he would take pity on the pitiful girl he’d saved. Maybe he would buy her and set her free. He was so kind, so empathetic. He’d said she could trust him. He’d said he wanted to help her.

“Hm?” A man beside her noticed her presence and grabbed her wrist, halting her progress. “What’s a pretty thing like you doing in a place like this?”

Thalia glanced anxiously toward her savior, then back at the man who had caught her. Despite his fine clothing, this gentleman’s behavior made him seem like more of a ruffian. Even the most refined of men lost their genteel manners when presented with a target who couldn’t defend herself, as Thalia had learned well over the last few years. The predator’s eyes gleamed, but this was nothing. She dealt with people like him daily. As long as others were present, she wasn’t afraid.

“This island is so small, a place like this is the only place a girl like me can get a change of scenery.” She rebuffed him with her usual appeasing banter, though it was perhaps a little brighter than usual to overcompensate for the turmoil she was feeling.

“Wait, you’re one of those little dancer girls.” Another man had recognized her and began to approach. “Why don’t you come back to my room and show me a few of your moves?”

Like hell. 

She smiled winningly, backing in the direction of the door. “I couldn’t possibly. We wouldn’t want to give anyone the wrong idea.”

Her eyes darted one last time to her savior, still absorbed in his game of roulette, before she found the doorknob behind her and let herself out of the building. If she had stayed any longer, there was a chance she would have caused a commotion.

Letting out a heavy sigh, she leaned back against the wall of the building. Her thoughts returned to her savior. Suddenly, she was glad for the interruption. What if she had gotten his attention? What if he didn’t remember her and she just embarrassed herself? Did she even want him to remember her? She’d returned his kindness with scorn at first. If he still remembered her, maybe it was as the ungrateful bitch who’d been too prideful to accept help. She’d wanted to ask him to buy her? When Dinarzade had said his company had been close to folding? Was she that stupid?

The door to the building creaked, and Thalia caught a figure exiting in the corner of her eye. Great. Someone had followed her. She wasn’t in the mood to deal with pushy perverts. She took in a breath, about to snap at whoever had come to bother her when a familiar voice called out to her.

“Echo.”

Thalia finally bothered to turn her head and look at the boy standing in the middle of the empty cobblestone street.

“Echo, I know you came to see me.”

“Marcus…”

Marcus Alexius was a member of the most influential family in the country and the owner of this casino. He was Reim’s beloved philanthropist, known for giving huge portions of his time and income to charities each year. His big heart, friendly personality, and good looks made him popular. He had plenty of friends and even more suitresses, but for some unfathomable reason, he kept Thalia around.

No, he more than just kept her around. His infatuation with her was something of a scandal on the small island, where everyone here for a substantial amount of time knew each other. She was a slave, and he was one of the most powerful young bachelors in Reim. Yet, for several months now, he had pursued her relentlessly, irritating the patricians who believed their daughters had more of a right to him than a lowly slave.

More scandalous, though, was that Thalia repeatedly refused his advances. Didn’t she know her place? Didn’t she know who she was rejecting? She knew. She just didn’t care. Thalia could deal with all kinds of humiliation. She could scrub floors on her knees, help perfectly capable adults dress, prance around on a stage in front of a crowd of men triple her age.

She could not allow herself to become someone’s plaything.

He closed the distance between them, briefly flashing her a dashing smile before furrowing his eyebrows.

“Why didn’t you use the back entrance?” he scolded her. “You know this happens every time you set foot on the gambling floor.”

Because the person I came to see wouldn’t be in the back.

“I guess I wasn’t thinking straight,” she mumbled. It wasn’t a lie. All she’d been able to think about when entering was the prospect of seeing him.

“Not thinking straight?” When he reached up and attempted to stroke her cheek, Thalia dodged. He was reading into something she’d said and jumping to conclusions again. “What were you thinking about that had you so hot and bothered?”

“I’m not hot and bothered.” She shot him a glare. 

She didn’t want to be with him or anyone in the way he was thinking of. For as long as she could remember, her parents had drilled into her that she must remain a virgin until she was properly married to a man. It wasn’t just her duty as a princess, but also as a respectable Attican woman. She was a vessel of Asena, the goddess that protected her country, and if she allowed herself to be sullied and angered the goddess, the entire country would suffer and her people had already been through enough. 

That was the story she was supposed to believe, at least. Thalia didn’t believe in Asena anymore, but the idea that her chastity and her value were intertwined had never left her. She didn’t want to defend her virginity for some imaginary goddess. She wanted to maintain it because that was what a proper Attican woman did. If she allowed herself to be sullied, what worth did she still have? She would never find a husband, she would bring shame to her parents’ memories, and she would become a pariah.

In any case, she wasn’t interested in the opposite sex anyway. Despite being sixteen, she was a bit of a late bloomer. She didn’t know what it was like to have a crush on a boy, much less want to sleep with him. She purely wasn’t interested. The idea of being with someone, even within the proper constraints of marriage, made her uncomfortable. 

“You say you’re not hot and bothered… ” Marcus grinned. “...but red isn’t your natural skin tone.”

Of course she was red. She had sprinted here. Instead of telling him that and having to make up an explanation for her hurry, she cast her eyes to the ground.

Marcus continued, probably interpreting her lack of eye-contact as a sign she was falling for him. “I haven’t had a meeting with Maader Umm Mariadel for a while, so I haven’t been able to see you, but it sounds like you’re suffering without me.” He took a step toward her, boxing her in against the wall. “I’ll have to come up with more excuses to visit.” 

“A visit would be nice,” she agreed. “It’s just…”

“Just what?” he purred, taking her hand in an attempt to kiss it. She managed to withdraw it before it reached his lips. This was hardly the first time she’d disappointed him this way, but today she thought she saw a flash of irritation cross his face before it returned to his usual friendly expression.

“Marcus…” Right now, he was her oldest friend. Maybe she just needed to be straight with him, and he would back off. “I’m flattered by your affections, but I just don’t feel the same way. I wish you’d stop pursuing me. I liked things better when we were friends.”

He scowled. “Is it because of a guy?”

She shook her head. “I don’t feel that way about anyone. I don’t understand why you’re so set on me. I’m not anything special. There are so many girls that do want you. Why don’t you go after one of them?”

He gave her a charming grin. “Echo, do you remember the day we met?”

She did. It had been one of the worst days of her life. The injuries from the lashing Fatima had given her still ached, and he had just received his own whipping. He’d been livid and shoved her to the ground, causing her to land on her wounds. Then he had kicked her in the side, and all Thalia could think about was how much she wished her god would come to save her. Fatima had left her after that one kick, but she had lain on the ground lifelessly for what felt like an eternity, sobbing and crying until Kil started to yell at her to get off the floor. She’d scrambled onto her knees and ran away on her swollen ankle, off the Mariadel property, until she collapsed on the street outside Marcus’s casino.

“I was crying in the rain, and you gave me a cloak and brought me inside to dry off.”

Marcus smiled and nodded, finally backing up to give her some space. “My cousin was the one who saw you out there. He was planning on bringing you in, but when I looked out the window and saw a girl out there crying, I knew it was because you didn’t have anyone to turn to. You were so helpless and alone. You needed a hero.”

Thalia supposed Marcus was a kind of hero to her. She didn’t worship him the way she worshiped Sinbad, but he’d offered her protection on the days when she hadn’t been able to take any more abuse. He’d been a shoulder to cry on.

“So, I asked him to leave us alone, and I brought you in,” Marcus continued. “I was right. You needed me, Echo. You came back time and time again, seeking me out because I was the only one that made you feel like a person. And you know what? You’re always going to come back to me. Do you know why?”

Thalia shook her head.

“Because you’re so weak and vulnerable. Other people, they’re always going to take advantage of you, and you’re going to let them because you’re too nice. Echo…” He reached out to stroke her cheek again, and this time she let him, warmed by memories of the past when they hadn’t been caught in this game of cat and mouse. “I’m the only one that cares about you. Just be my sweet, obedient Echo and let me buy you. Then everything can go back to how it was. We can joke around with each other again. You miss that! I know you do!”

“I do,” she confessed quietly, “but I can’t let you buy me.”

As a slave, she would be compelled to give herself to her owner if he or she required it of her. Under Lady Maader’s care, she at least knew she was safe. The woman had never asked Thalia to do something so improper.

Marcus was another matter entirely. Thalia knew him. She was well aware that he wanted more from her than she was willing to give, and while she didn’t think he was the kind of guy that would force himself on her or punish her for disobeying, she still didn’t want him to have that kind of power over her. 

In reality, Thalia’s choice in the matter only extended as far as Marcus’s generosity. Though she wasn’t currently for sale, he had more than enough money to turn Lady Maader’s head. Ever since he’d first brought up the idea of buying Thalia, though, Marcus had promised he would never do so without her permission. His willingness to respect her desires and the fact that he had followed through had earned her trust. That’s why the smile she gave him was one of the few genuine ones that graced her face these days.

He grinned again, this time his smile showing a hint of strain. “I’ll respect your wishes, then. At least... for today.”

Thalia groaned internally. How was he so persistent?

“Well, I only stopped by to say hi,” she said in an attempt to cut the conversation short. “I’ll see you some other time, okay?”

He smiled warmly. “Soon.”

“Soon,” she agreed.

She really did want to see him again soon, and this time she hoped he would talk to her the way he used to— as a friend.


 

She slept fitfully that night, as she always did. It was a familiar dream, one where she relived the moment when she had found out about the fate of her family and country. She awoke in cold sweats. Unable to sleep, she wandered outside into the gardens, enjoying the warm air and gentle breeze of a summer night. Midnight strolls had become commonplace for her, but tonight felt different. She looked up at the vast sky, basking in the moonlight and reveling in the shimmering of the stars.

He’s here. Sinbad is here...

She brought a hand to her cheek, surprised that it seemed to be radiating heat. A giggle escaped her lips, paving the way for a laugh of unbridled joy. Tonight, they weren’t just sharing the same night sky. They were on the same island.

For the first time in years, she danced without worrying about what anyone else would think. Twirling, dancing, even singing, she released her uncontainable elation. No string of words could express the rapture she felt at that moment. 

He’d once asked to see her dance, and she imagined him watching now, sitting on a bench and admiring her skill, not her body. He would ask her what her strange dance was, and she would laugh as she plopped down beside him.

“It’s a secret,” she would tell him because she could never reveal the truth— that this sacred dance was to celebrate him, that she was a priestess and he was the god she worshiped.

Her chest heaved as she leaned back against the bench, turning her eyes toward the island’s hotel. She wondered if that was his room on the fourth floor with the light still on, if he was the silhouette sitting in the window and looking her direction. Thalia let out a small squeak, realizing her private moment hadn’t been so private. At least with it being so dark and the hotel being so far away, the onlooker would never know the identity of his strange midnight performer. 

Though she couldn’t be positive the person was looking at her and not in her general direction, she stared straight at him, hoping that they were locking eyes. She told herself it was Sinbad, that he couldn’t sleep either because he was thinking about her too.

Then the figure turned away and the light in his room went out.

Suddenly, despite the summer night, Thalia was bereft of warmth. 

 

Chapter Text

 

The next day, Thalia pushed around the food on her breakfast plate, too excited to eat. She’d heard whispers that Masrur was to be his opponent. Masrur was a good kid. He wasn’t Lady Maader’s child, and she could trust him with her real opinions. She didn’t need to hide how much she hated Lady Maader from him. She didn’t need to pretend she was happy. All she needed to be was herself. He understood… or if he didn’t, he kept it to himself.

She glanced up at the empty spot where Masrur normally would have sat if he weren’t being kept in the colosseum.

Ever since that night in Lady Maader’s office, Thalia had joined Masrur in being kept at arm’s length. In Thalia’s case, Lady Maader simply avoided seeing or interacting with her whenever possible, but she still was treated exceptionally well. Masrur, on the other hand, was undoubtedly treated worse than any other slave on the island.

Except for the scars on her back from a lashing after she’d twisted her ankle two years ago, Thalia’s punishments were never anything that could mar her appearance. That lashing had been an exception. Lady Maader had not been present at the time, and when she discovered the injuries, Fatima had been severely punished.

Masrur had no such protection. His value was in his brute strength, not his appearance. He was strong, but he was going to go up against her god. There was no way that child could win.

Standing up, Thalia sighed, sneaking some links of sausage and an apple into a napkin. If Masrur was going to fight today, he needed to eat properly, and the adults that ran the colosseum never gave him enough food. She made her way to the enormous building and smiled winningly at the guard blocking her entry.

“Lady Maader has sent me to give today’s participant extra food.” She held up the napkin with the apple and sausages wrapped in it. “She wants to be extra sure he’s eaten well for today’s match.”

Because she wore a uniform denoting her as a particularly high ranking slave, Thalia could just throw Lady Maader’s name around and get what she pleased. Almost no one would question her claims unless she attempted something especially egregious, but Thalia was careful. She knew better than to test the limits of what she could get away with. Small things like this were enough.

The guard swung open the large door and let her into the cell Masrur was being kept in. He paused his pushups to see who had visited him.

“From Lady Maader,” Thalia announced cheerfully as his eyes wandered to the bundle in her hands.

“You have ten minutes with him,” the guard scowled. “If he tries to hurt you or anything, just scream. I’ll be outside.”

Thalia glared after him as he left. Masrur wouldn’t hurt her. He didn’t even hurt that vile woman that kept him chained down.

“This isn’t really from Lady Maader,” Masrur observed, picking up a sausage.

“Apple first,” Thalia scolded him. “It’s healthier.”

He bit into the sausage anyway and Thalia sighed.

“If you want to grow big and strong, you need proper nutrients.”

He looked at her as though she were stupid.

“Did you get proper nutrients?” he asked when he was done chewing.

“Yes.”

He grabbed another sausage and continued to eat in silence. It began to dawn on Thalia that she was small for her age and weak compared to him. Admitting defeat, she handed him the third sausage, which he devoured eagerly.

“So…” she hedged “Have you seen your opponent yet today?”

“No,” he said to her disappointment. Her mind was abuzz with thoughts of her savior, and she couldn’t help attempting to steer the conversation in his direction. Masrur held out his hand. “I’m still hungry.”

Thalia put the apple in his hand, holding up the napkin to show there was nothing left.

“I don’t dislike apples.” He closed his hand around the fruit, bringing it to his mouth and taking a bite. Thalia handed him the napkin to wipe off the dribble of juice that spilled down his chin.

As he finished the apple, he handed the cloth back to Thalia, using his arm to wipe his mouth instead. Releasing a defeated sigh, Thalia allowed him to do as he pleased. She’d been trying to teach him table manners for months, but he just didn’t care.

“Do you have anything to tell me?” she hinted, noticing he had neglected to express gratitude.

“Not particularly.”

“Not even… ‘thank you’?”

“Thanks,” he grunted.

“You’re welcome,” she sang just as the the jangling of keys alerted her to the guard’s presence.

“Your time is up.”

Thalia immediately switched back into her formal demeanor, putting on a performance for the guard.

“I will relay your gratitude to Lady Maader,” she told Masrur.

He nodded at her, understanding her words were to keep up appearances. He was used to Thalia’s swift changes in persona. He had witnessed them countless times since she first decided it was safe to open up to him four months ago.

She paused on her way out.

“Good luck on your fight today.” He was going to need it. There was no way he could defeat a god. That’s what she thought.

On her way back to the dining hall, she hummed a folk tune merrily. Now all she had to do was wait for news of Sinbad’s victory. Once again, she heard the jingle of keys approaching, this time from around the corner. Thalia recognized by the way the keys clinked that Fatima was approaching. His march was distinct, brisk with an air of authority. She about faced, aborting her mission to return the napkin. Fatima had never forgiven her for his lashing, and he bullied her at every opportunity he got.

Before she reached the end of the hall, the jingling rounded the corner and then stopped.

“Echo.”

Thalia turned around, a bright smile plastered on her face.

“Greetings, Head Slave Fatima.” She curtsied to show her deference.

His eyes wandered to the cloth in her hands.

“Is that one of Lady Maader’s napkins? You better not be trying to steal—”

“Oh my, no. A lowly slave like me would never risk being beaten over a napkin.” She forced a laugh. “I’m simply borrowing it to clean up a mess.” She was no thief. He knew that as well as anyone.

He huffed, narrowing his eyes at her. “You know very well that we have rags in the storage closets to use for that purpose. You are not to mistreat our lady’s property like this.”

Thalia laughed. “Silly me. I must be scatterbrained today. I’ll return the napkin immediately and use one of those instead.”

She attempted to walk around him, but he blocked her path.

“Since you’re here, I was going to ask you to clean out the chamber pots.”

Thalia held back a grimace. Someone had to do it. Fatima had obviously picked her because he hated her, but she was a slave. She was no longer above such things.

He continued, “Some of the children had food poisoning last night. I’m sure you can stomach the job though, right?”

Her smile remained intact, even with this unpleasant turn of events. “I strive to serve our lady in all that I do. I will handle this task with diligence.”

“When was the last time Lady Maader asked to see you?” Fatima wondered aloud. “I think it was three years ago? To think you still serve her so well when she clearly despises you. I wonder how much longer she plans on keeping you around. You’ve almost reached your peak value, I’d say.” Thalia’s cheerful mask began to slip as his shrewd eyes scanned her, calculating the profit Lady Maader could make off her. “I’m going to advise Lady Maader to sell you soon.”

Thalia understood this was no idle threat. Fatima judged the value of slaves for a living.

Pretending that she was motivated solely by adoration of their master, Thalia appealed to him in the only language he understood. “Fatima, we both love our lady. That’s why I know you know how devastating it would be to have to leave her. Please, don’t talk to her about selling me.”

“Admirable,” he praised her. “Your devotion is truly admirable, even if you’re undeserving of our lady’s love. You must realize, this will be how you can best serve her. Only a select few can remain by her side.”

Was he talking about himself? Did he really believe he wouldn’t be sold off as well one day? Fatima was really… pitiable. Thalia saw her younger self in him, blindly faithful to someone who would never care about him.

As she stared at him, he watched her with disdain. “I gave you a job to do. Go do it.”

“Yes, Head Slave Fatima.” She curtsied once again, scampering off to return the napkin and wash out the chamber pots.

Later that day, Thalia dumped the contents of the last chamber pot into the cesspit. She wiped the sweat off her forehead with her arm, squinting into the setting sun as cicadas began their nightly chorus. Fatima had not been joking about several of the children getting food poisoning. The smell was noxious, and she had nearly thrown up herself a few times.

She grabbed the heavy water jar, spilling some water into the chamber pot, then added some lye and began to scrub with a rag. She would need to wash off in hot water and soak her hands in wine vinegar so she did not get sick herself. This task was disgusting .

“There you are.” Dinarzade’s voice came from behind her. Thalia craned her neck to find her rival’s sympathetic smile. “Fatima found something for you to do, huh?”

“He always does.” Thalia turned back to scrubbing.

“We were wondering why you didn’t show up to practice today,” Dinarzade sighed, squatting down to Thalia’s level. As soon as the scent hit her nose, she reeled back. “Oh, wow, that’s rank.”

Thalia hummed in agreement.

“Did you hear about the results of the match?” Thalia asked.

“Mm? You never care about colosseum fights.” Dinarzade’s eyes twinkled as though she saw right through Thalia’s act.

“I just… I heard this guy is pretty powerful. I’m worried about Masrur…”

Dinarzade crossed her arms in front of her chest. “Echo. You don’t have to pretend in front of me. I remember him too. I’d recognize him anywhere. He’s very… distinct.”

Thalia stammered, “I— I have no idea what you’re—”

Dinarzade arched a skeptical eyebrow. “When I dropped the hint that he was here, you were so excited you literally ran off. You didn’t even try to come up with an excuse.”

“Shit.” Thalia stood up and dumped the dirty water out of the chamber pot, fuming with humiliation. She’d been careless. Now Dinarzade knew about her mild obsession with the boy that had brought her back to the inn that day.

“I don’t know how you’re going to feel about this,” Dinarzade said quietly. “He lost.”

Thalia laughed at first, thinking it was a joke. Dinarzade wouldn’t joke about something like that, but it was easier to believe that she was behaving uncharacteristically than to accept that her god had lost. As Dinarzade’s face remained serious, Thalia stopped laughing. In the place of laughter, tears sprung to her eyes.

“You’re serious? He can’t… that’s not possible.”

“Masrur punched him so hard he passed out.”

With a loud clang, Thalia dropped the metal chamber pot and began to run in the direction of the main building. She didn’t know where he was, but she would find him. She would find him no matter what.

“Echo!” Dinarzade called out after her, bringing her crashing back to reality. She stopped, her chest heaving. “You won’t find him. He’s in the punishment chamber.”

Thalia stiffened at the mention of those words. She still remembered that place— being put into a state of hypothermia, water being forced down her throat until she thought she was going to die…

But Sinbad wasn’t her. He was strong and powerful. When she thought about it, his being here gave her hope. If anyone could resist being broken, it was him. He could help her escape.

She tried to focus on the reality of the situation. Until she found a way to get them both out of here, he was going to have to survive. That meant staying on Lady Maader, Fatima, and Kil’s good sides. If anyone, especially Fatima, knew about her connection with him…

“Dinarzade!” Thalia whipped around. “Do you think Fatima remembers him?”

Dinarzade pursed her lips. “No. I doubt he does.”

“The fact that he was there that day, that has to stay a secret. We can’t let Fatima know it was him.”

Dinarzade nodded. “He would treat him unfairly for sure.”

“He’d do worse than make him clean out the chamber pots,” Thalia said, thinking of the whip he always carried, the same one that had torn her own flesh.

Dinarzade picked the clean chamber pot off the ground. “Go get cleaned up. I’ll take care of the rest.”

Thalia nodded, thinking Dinarzade was more reliable than she originally had believed.

The next few days, Thalia was constantly on the lookout. Lady Maader couldn’t keep him in that awful place forever. When he was released, she was bound to run into him eventually. Then the first week passed, and the whispers were he was still in the punishment room. She knew what Lady Maader was trying to do. She was trying to break him, the way she’d broken Thalia, but Thalia knew how an act of genuine concern could rattle the effects of that brainwashing. She’d experienced it herself. She was going to save him, the way he had saved her.

Thalia tread the familiar path to the punishment chamber, carrying her head high even as her palms sweat with anxiety. She had never tried to use Lady Maader’s authority to access that area before. If word of what she was about to do made it back to that woman, Thalia would probably end up locked in the place she was trying to break into.

Forcing a calm smile, she walked up to the child watching the door and told him that Lady Maader had sent her to relieve him of his duty. The boy handed her the key and immediately scampered off to play.

While watching him leave, Thalia let out a sigh of relief, allowing herself to lose composure for a moment. She slumped against the wall, taking slow, steadying breaths until her heart slowed. The child hadn’t questioned her. Lady Maader would never find out about this. More importantly, on the other side of that door was her god, her savior. She was finally going to be able to return his kindness. Once her moment of panic had passed, she stood back up, inserting the key into the lock and opening the door.

Thalia hadn’t known what to expect when she found him. The boy she remembered had commanded lightning and ice. He wielded awe-inspiring power and towered over others with his personality, if not his stature. She certainly didn’t think she would find him curled into a ball, his teeth chattering so loudly she feared they would crack.

She stiffened as her first foot splashed into the chilly water, willing away flashbacks of the time she’d spent in this room herself. Now wasn’t the time to fall apart. He needed her. One step at a time, she hesitantly padded across the water before bending over Sinbad’s shivering form and she placing a gentle hand on his shoulder.

“Get up, Sinbad. It’s time for a break.”

“Lady Maader?” he asked weakly. “Please, I’ll be a good slave. Just let me out.”

“Don’t confuse me with that wretched woman,” she snapped. The insinuation that she might have anything in common with someone so loathsome made her physically ill. She glanced back down at him and instantly regretted losing her temper with him in his weakened state. He was likely not in the right mind. She assisted him to a standing position and helped him to the nearest room.

After settling him in a chair, she covered him with a blanket. and kindled a fire. Right now, what he needed more than anything was warmth. With that in mind, she brewed a pot of hot tea, remembering how helpful it had been for her when she had been brought to this very room. The “punishment room” itself was more a complex of rooms. Most of them were designed for torture, but this one in particular was an oasis inside the dungeon. It was meant to provide the children with pleasant associations when Lady Maader “saved” them from their punishments. It was her way of breaking the children down and controlling them.

Lady Maader wasn’t in control now, though. Thalia was. As she prepared the drink, she intentionally didn’t bring the water to a boil, not wanting to take the time for it to cool. She was too impatient to let it steep either. Instead, she filled a mug with the weak tea and handed it to Sinbad, encouraging him to drink. He sipped it eagerly, and Thalia sat quietly by his side as the tremors gradually left his body, occasionally refilling his cup.

Eventually, he seemed to regain his full senses. He looked down at her, squinting as though he were having trouble seeing.

“I know you…”

“We have met before,” she responded gently.

“Your name… was Echo wasn’t it?”

Her heart leaped with joy. He remembered her name. Well, her fake name. “Yes… At least, that’s what you must call me.”

He looked confused, but didn’t say anything. She didn’t bother explaining either. No matter how much faith she had in him, he wasn’t a god. He was made of flesh and bone and was every bit as vulnerable as she was. She could see that now. There was still a possibility he could be broken.

She sighed. “I’m going to give you some advice: don’t stick out. Keep your head low and don’t question anything. I need you to do that for me. She’s trying to break you. I’m not going to let her, okay? I need you, Sinbad.” Her plea came out sounding more desperate than she had intended.

Instead of responding, he just slumped further into the chair, his eyelids drooping.

“I can only let you stay here for a couple of hours. Any longer and we risk getting caught. Our meetings have to stay a secret. You can keep a secret, right?”

He nodded weakly.

“Good.” She handed him a loaf of bread she had found stuffed in a cabinet. “Eat this and rest a little.”

When he was done eating, she adjusted the blanket so that it was covering his shoulders, and he fell into a fitful sleep. She wished she could comfort him. She knew all too well what he was going through. She couldn’t make the punishments stop, but she could make things a little easier for him. If he lost all hope, he would break. Thalia just needed to give him a light at the end of the tunnel to focus on.

Over the next weeks, what little reprieve she managed to give him still wasn’t enough. In fact, she worried she’d been the cause of it escalating the way it had, well beyond anything Lady Maader had dared to put Thalia through. The torture moved beyond induced hypothermia— adults began to prod him with hot irons and insert screws into his skin, penetrating deep into the muscles. Every time she visited him, he was a bloody mess. She was going to lose him if she didn’t do something, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything for him except spend her free time pouring over medical texts she borrowed from the local pharmacist by dropping Lady Maader’s name, trying to learn how to properly clean his wounds.

When she realized it was useless— the books were filled with jargon she didn’t understand— she tried to remember how her maids had treated her scrapes and bruises as a small child. They’d used alcohol, but that had burned. He was in enough pain already. After days of deliberation, she decided hot water was the best option.

Once again, she sneaked into the punishment room to visit him. This time, he was chained to a wall, wounds littering his skin. Thalia forced down her squeamishness at the sight of him. It was horrifying to look at, but he must have been experiencing much worse than horror.

She set down a bucket of hot water, preparing to clean his wounds, wishing she could bandage them. Unfortunately, that was out of the question. Someone would know she’d been helping him if she did that, and they would both suffer for it.

He’d stopped responding to her last week, so she’d started telling him stories, in part to entertain herself, and in part to keep him stimulated. As she dipped a sterilized rag in the bucket, she tried to think of a one she had yet to tell him. After several agonizing minutes spent listening to the slosh of her rag in the bucket and the sound of his ragged breathing, a story came to her. It wasn’t a happy one, but few she knew were.

“Once, there was a beautiful maiden who served the goddess Asena at her temple. She was so beautiful, the water god coveted her. Though, it seems the water god coveted many women in his time...” She added the small aside, a bit of wry humor at the many tales that started with one of the gods coveting a pretty woman.

Sinbad winced as she began dabbing at his wounds. She stroked his hair soothingly with her other hand as she continued.

“The water god approached her, but she was a servant of Asena, and servants of Asena must remain pure. When she would not agree to lie with him, he took her by force in Asena’s own temple. Asena was enraged. She cursed the maiden with a hideous appearance, turning her into a gorgon creature. From then on, any man who dared look upon her turned to stone.”

She looked at the gash she was cleaning.

“I wish I could turn whichever guard did this into stone. Bastard,” she spat.

His eyes were dead, but they were focused on her. She took that as a sign he was listening. She finished the story, telling him of how a demigod had slain the gorgon creature and used her head to create a shield.

She finished cleaning his wounds and stood up.

“I have to go now,” she told him gently.

His head drooped.

“Hang in there,” she encouraged him. “She’ll get bored eventually and leave you alone like she does me and Masrur… though, I know that doesn’t help you right now.”

Part of her wondered if she was being cruel. Maybe it would be more merciful to tell him to submit. Picking up the bucket of pink water, she looked back to her former god. He was pitiable, hanging lifelessly from his shackles.

Despite her best efforts, it seemed he had been truly broken.

She left the room wishing she could have stayed longer. She had briefly considered it, but now she was glad she had decided against it. On the way to dump her bucket outside, she ran into the guard in charge of torture coming back from his break. She almost splashed the bloody water in his face.

The first time Sinbad made an appearance outside of the punishment chamber was during meal time at the dining hall. The other children gossiped nervously, afraid to approach someone who’d been locked in the punishment chamber for an unprecedented amount of time. Not unexpectedly, he chose to sit at a table by himself. Thalia left her seat beside Dinarzade to join him. She didn’t know if he wanted her, but she would be there for him anyway.

The whispers died down as she slid her tray onto the table. Everyone was watching, but that was okay. That’s when she performed best.

“Hello, my name is Echo.” She pretended they’d never met before. As far as anyone, especially Fatima, needed to be concerned, that was the case. “What’s your name?”

He didn’t say anything. He just sat there, picking at his food. She knew he wouldn’t respond. She’d already seen his state declining to this point. His silence was at least beneficial in that the children quickly lost interest and returned to their usual conversation.

She ate quietly, occasionally stealing glances at him, until Dinarzade creeped up to the table and skittishly joined them.

“Hi, I’m Dinarzade.”

Sinbad made no movement to acknowledge her.

Dinarzade had never been one to be deterred by one-sided conversation. “I imagine this is hard for you. It was hard for me and Thalia too, but you get used to it. The food’s not bad either.” Dinarzade dug into her loaf of bread voraciously and continued with her mouth full. “Man, before I came here, this thing would have had to feed my whole family.”

Thalia wasn’t sure if it were better to allow Sinbad to sit in silence, or if Dinarzade’s bright personality could coax him out of the dark place he’d withdrawn to. She decided to encourage Dinarzade to talk more, not that she needed much prompting. This was not the first time Thalia had been glad of Dinarzade’s talkative nature, but this instance forced Thalia to consider that maybe she didn’t give Dinarzade enough credit. The voluptuous girl had qualities Thalia sorely lacked, optimism and authenticity being the two most pronounced.

“Dinarzade, why don’t you explain to our new friend how things work around here?” Thalia prompted.

The girl’s face welled up with pride, having been granted this important mission. She began to explain the intricacies of living as a slave in the Mariadel company.

Once again, Thalia felt a pang of guilt for trying to speed up Dinarzade’s sale, though, her actions ultimately hadn’t done harm. All of the offers that had been made for Dinarzade had been rejected by Lady Maader. It seems she hadn’t been ready to sell afterall. Thalia felt she should apologize, but decided it was better if Dinarzade didn’t know there was anything to apologize for in the first place. It would only hurt her if she knew the truth.

Chapter Text

Shortly before Lady Maader and Thalia’s falling out, Thalia had sought approval for the first routine she would teach her new dance troupe. The days leading up to this event had been an exciting time— Lady Maader had spent more time with her than ever, and she had received so much praise for her hard work and dedication. Thalia had never been happier.

“My sweet Echo,” Lady Maader purred after watching the first run-through of Thalia’s choreography. “That was lovely, but it’s missing a little something.”

“What would you like me to add?” Thalia asked, attempting to tug her midriff-baring outfit lower. She was uncomfortable with the sensation of cool air on her skin. Back in Attica, when she left the palace she would always be fully covered down to her wrists and ankles. Something like this would have been considered beyond indecent. Only a prostitute or hetaira would ever dare to show this much. 

Lady Maader slinked behind Thalia, placing a light hand on her hip. The teen girl resisted the urge to squirm away. She adored her lady and wanted to please her, but something about the way the woman’s hands tended to linger on certain places made her apprehensive. 

“It needs a bit more sultriness. More movement of the hips… More accentuation of the chest.”

“Lady Maader, that’s…” Horrifying. Inappropriate. Degrading. “I don’t feel it’s very age-appropriate,” Thalia muttered.

Lady Maader returned to her desk, putting on a motherly smile. “You’re growing up very quickly. Surely you’ve noticed you’ve begun to attract the eyes of our patrons.”

Thalia shuddered. She had noticed. It was usually just uncomfortable, but sometimes it was outright terrifying. Thalia didn’t want to grow up. She wanted to go back to a time when she could walk through a crowd without being leered at or having unwelcome touches forced on her.

“I don’t feel grown-up,” she confessed, kneeling at the matron’s side. “I want to be your child forever.”

“You can be.” Thalia closed her eyes as Lady Maader stroked her cheek. This was the kind of touch she enjoyed— chaste, affectionate. Her birth mother had never touched her like this. Back then, she’d believed these kinds of touches meant Lady Maader loved her. “Do as I say, and you’ll get plenty of attention and bring in lots of money for your mother. As long as you can do that, I won’t sell you.”

Thalia sighed happily, wrapping her arms around her matron’s legs. All she had to do to stay with Lady Maader was dance. She enjoyed dancing, and she was good at it— Lady Maader had said so. She could deal with all of the other things— the strange looks, the pinches and the grabbing, all of it— if only she could stay by the side of the only person who’d ever made her feel loved.

“But Echo…” Thalia opened her eyes to find Lady Maader’s fond smile had vanished. “As soon as you stop bringing in money, I’m going to have to sell you.”


 

Thalia’s eyes burned from the dust of the colosseum floor, kicked up by her bare feet. The deafening roar of the crowd grated against her ears, but she kept her focus on the music. She was all gyrating hips and sensuous movement, an object to be desired by the animals crammed into every single seat in the bleachers. They screamed their approval as she and the other girls wove a captivating spell of lust, the promise that even the greasy old men that frequented these shows might have a chance with one of these young, beautiful girls. She had taken Lady Maader’s suggestion to bastardize her dance to levels neither of them could have predicted.

She hated herself for it.

The music stopped and she smiled and called out to her fans. She hated them too, but she needed them to come back to her next performance. She needed them to believe she was attainable to them so they would be motivated to come back time and again. She needed to bring in money.

Dinarzade squealed as the crowd began to chant her name. The smile fell from Thalia’s lips. The end of her time with Lady Maader was growing ever nearer. Soon, she would be sold to one of the pigs in the bleachers.

She glanced at the voluptuous blonde next to her. Dinarzade radiated joy even as sweat dripped down her face, trapping a layer of dust onto her skin.

“Dinarzade,” Thalia called biting back her jealousy, “let’s go.”

Dinarzade flashed one more appreciative smile at the audience and gave a small wave before catching up with Thalia and the two other dancers. They sought refuge in the pit where gladiators and large, exotic animals were kept before battles.

Buckets of water lie in wait for them to rinse off with, along with a change of clothing that would allow Thalia to reclaim some dignity. Dinarzade stripped down, still raving about what had just happened.

“I can’t believe so many people liked me!”

As Thalia took off her own clothing, her first instinct was to cut Dinarzade down with cruel words. She bit her tongue and instead tried to be supportive.

“You’ve been practicing hard lately. You earned it.”

“It’s because of your choreography, though,” Dinarzade insisted. “We would be lost without you.”

“I wonder…” Thalia mused bitterly as she dipped a rag with water and began to wash the sweat and sand off herself. Dinarzade was beautiful— perfect porcelain skin, eyes like green clouds, and short blonde hair with just a hint of a wave to it. Not to mention, her assets, an area in which Thalia couldn’t even begin to compare.

Thalia didn’t want more attention than she already got, but she needed it. 

“It’s true,” Dinarzade insisted. “Plus, you haven’t been able to practice much thanks to Fatima.”

Fatima had been bullying her relentlessly, as always. Yesterday, he had made her run across the island three times to pick up different items, pretending he had forgotten to mention something each time.

“Let’s be honest,” one of the other dancers, Finn, said wryly. “Echo, your boobs are nonexistent. Dinarzade’s are huge. Popularity has nothing to with any kind of skill or talent. It’s all about what’s on the outside.”

Thalia shrugged at her small breasts as she continued to wipe the grime off herself. There was nothing she could do about them except maybe start stuffing her costume. She made a mental note to bring tissues to the next performance.

“Echo is just a slow bloomer,” the other girl, Shamhat, piped up. “She’ll catch up.”

“I hope so,” Finn lamented. “It’s bad enough you have those scars—”

“Shut up, Finn,” Shamhat snapped. “You know she didn’t deserve that lashing. Lady Maader agreed. Are you questioning her decisions?”

“I’m just saying if she had any respect for Lady Maader she wouldn’t have gotten herself into that situation in the first place. Now she’s damaged goods.”

That’s right. Thalia was damaged goods. It wasn’t just the scars— she was just a bitter, angry person. She didn’t have any friends besides Marcus and Masrur, and she was pretty sure Masrur only spent time with her because he didn’t care enough either way to tell her to go away.

“Lady Maader is merciful,” Dinarzade squeaked. “She doesn’t care that Echo has a couple of scars.”

Thalia smiled uncomfortably, keenly aware of the pale stripes on her back that were the subject of this conversation. The current dialogue was a perfect example of why she couldn’t let her guard down around the others. For them, in the end, everything boiled down to “what would please Lady Maader?” They were her children, after all.

“Well, well well,” a deep, masculine voice greeted the naked girls. Thalia instinctively grabbed a wad of clothing, attempting to cover herself. 

“Oh my god.”

“What the hell, Marcus?”

She turned her head to see the intruder that had violated their sanctuary. Marcus reclined lazily against the wall, his eyes like turbulent cerulean seas planted firmly on her. His gentle laughter swept across the floor, nestling in her ears. “Relax, ladies. I only have eyes for one person in this room.”

Finn and Shamhat exchanged jealous glances.

“We all know who that is,” Shamhat sighed. “They’re so cute.”

“Yup,” Finn agreed, resuming the process of dressing. “If you ever realize she’s a waste of your time…”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” he smirked. Thalia was still frantically trying to adjust her makeshift covering when he strode over and whispered in her ear, “Relax. I already saw everything.”

“Who let you in here?” Dinarzade commanded as Thalia dropped the bundle of clothes onto the muddy, straw-covered floor in shock. Burning with humiliation, she picked up her newly muddied clothing and slipped it over her vulnerable body.

He chuckled. “You’re that little girl that follows Echo around, aren’t you?” His eyes drifted lower on Dinarzade’s figure. “Well, not so little anymore.”

Thalia finally gathered herself back together enough to become indignant. She repeated Dinarzade’s question. “Who let you in here? There should be a guard outside.”

“Echo,” he purred. “Don’t sound so angry. I’m an Alexius. Who’s going to turn me down?” He moved to stroke Thalia’s face, but she deftly dodged his gesture of affection. His face contorted briefly before melding into an injured expression. “My lady is as aloof as ever.”

“He called her ‘my lady’,” Shamhat swooned. “Oh my god, I’m so jealous. Are you going to buy her?”

Grinning, he responded, “That’s why I’m here, actually. May I have a moment alone with your lovely friend?”

“No.” Dinarzade’s voice sounded cold and foreign. Her eyes fixed on Marcus with suspicion. “Echo and our Master’s reputations are linked. If we allow you to be alone with her and something happens, it will bring dishonor on both of them.”

Thalia furrowed her eyebrows, trying to decipher her friend’s uncharacteristic behavior. Dinarzade was usually sunny and kind. She usually saw the good in everyone, but somehow she had instantly mistrusted Marcus.

“Come on,” Shamhat groaned. “They’re in love. The whole island knows about the star-crossed lovers of Ria Venus Island— one born into Reim’s most powerful family, the other born into slavery. Despite his family’s objections to their romance, he begs her to let him buy her, but she always refuses for fear of his relatives’ retaliation.”

“That’s… quite the creative story.” Thalia couldn’t begin to articulate all the inaccuracies in those three sentences. 

“Who are we to be one more force keeping you apart?” Shamhat finished, tearing up.

“Echo is not going to be alone with him,” Dinarzade repeated. “If you continue to encourage this misbehavior, I will inform Lady Maader—”

“Alright,” Shamhat surrendered. “Geez, what’s gotten into you?”

“Dinarzade, your clothes,” Thalia reminded her, realizing the blonde hadn’t gotten dressed yet. She was clearly too wrapped up in whatever her grudge against Marcus was to feel any shame at her nakedness.

“Fine, then. I’ll say it right here, in front of the world.” 

More like in front of a room of naked women. 

He took her hand in both of his own. “Echo, I want to buy you. I know you’ve said no a thousand times, but—”

“My answer is and will always be no.” She stared at him defiantly. He needed to understand that she may be a slave, but she was never going to accept it. She would not let Lady Maader sell her.

His expression grew dark. “For two years, I’ve pretended to be your fucking friend, and you still—!” He caught himself, clenching his jaw instead.

“Marcus, chill…” Finn and Shamhat looked shocked. 

Thalia wasn’t any less shaken. Marcus had never spoken to her this way. He’d always been pushy but kind. He didn’t yell at her. He didn’t call their friendship pretend. 

Dinarzade shoved her way between Thalia and Marcus. “If you don’t leave, I’ll scream. It’ll ruin your reputation if you’re caught in a room of frightened undressed girls. Is that what you really want?”

Marcus gave Dinarzade a sneer. “Who’s going to believe you? All of Reim knows who I am. You four? You’re slaves. The worst that will happen is I’ll have to pay Maader Umm Mariadel compensation for damaging her property. My reputation is fine.”

“Marcus, we thought you were cool. What is this?” Finn finished tugging on her clothing and approached him. “You might have the legal right to talk to us like this, but we thought you were better than that. Echo already said no. Drop it.”

“You don’t care about her at all,” Shamhat said quietly, pulling on her skirt and blouse. “A man would never raise his voice at the woman he loves like that.” She positioned herself by Thalia’s side, staring him down. “You should leave. You’ve humiliated her enough.”

Marcus shook his head. “Just answer one question, Echo. I heard you’ve been spending a lot of time with a new guy. Is it true?”

Thalia stared at Marcus incredulously. “Not really. I’ve been eating meals with him for about three weeks, but that’s it. He barely talks.” Was Marcus jealous? He didn’t have any right to be. She wasn’t his lover. It was like he thought he was entitled to her, but he wasn’t. Nobody was. No one would ever be.

“You should stay away from him,” Marcus warned as he walked toward the door. “Don’t forget, I can buy you anytime I want. I’ve been holding back as a favor to you because I want you to come to me willingly, but if I see someone else threatening my property, I won’t hesitate to claim what’s mine.”

Thalia stood silently after he left, staring at her own feet. She was humiliated. She felt violated, and Marcus… this wasn’t the guy she’d considered her friend. This was like a different person entirely. Had he always been like this? Or had he changed? Or maybe… he was just having a bad day. That had to be it. There was no way the Marcus she had known before had been a lie.

“What the hell was that?” Finn mumbled, staring at Thalia’s muddy clothes. “I thought he was better than this. What a jerk.”

“Seriously,” Shamhat agreed, wrapping an arm around Thalia. “I’m so sorry I said you were cute together.”

Dinarzade turned around, pulling Thalia into an embrace. “You shouldn’t trust that guy. Maybe he’s been nice to you in the past, but he gives off dangerous vibes. You saw how quickly he lost his temper when he didn’t get his way. He’s getting impatient because you don’t fall for his good-guy act. He’s not someone you should be alone with.”

Thalia didn’t know what to do with all this support. Marcus had frightened her just now, but when she started shaking, it wasn’t because of him. It was because she was starting to think maybe she had friends after all, and she was overwhelmed with gratitude. Maybe they’d been her friends this whole time. Maybe she’d just been too standoffish and prideful to accept it.

“Should we tell Lady Maader about this?” Shamhat wondered aloud.

“Of course, you numbnut,” Finn scolded her.

Then Thalia remembered she was alone, even though Dinarzade was stroking her hair tenderly. As long as these girls belonged to Lady Maader, Thalia would never be able to call them friends. Their loyalty would never be to her. She could never trust them with her true feelings.

She gently pushed Dinarzade off her. “I’m fine.”

“Let’s go get you a fresh change of clothing,” Finn suggested, tugging on Thalia’s arm. She stiffened, an unwelcome feeling of warmth and reassurance flooding her senses. It tempted her to trust this other girl completely, to allow herself to become vulnerable. She jerked her arm out of Finn’s grasp, following her willingly instead.

If Thalia let them touch her, she might start to trust them, and trusting the wrong people here was dangerous.

That night, when Thalia and Dinarzade joined Sinbad and his roommates, they exchanged their usual guarded conversation.

“Did anything interesting happen today?” Dinarzade asked brightly, back to her usual self.

Sinbad gave a rare, gentle smile. “Today, we got in a new shipment. One of the children was sick, and Lady Maader praised me for suggesting we give her medicine.”

“Wow!” Dinarzade exclaimed cheerfully. “Lady Maader is so generous. A sick slave isn’t very valuable, so they usually get discarded. It’s really sad, but… you know. That’s just how things are.”

“Yeah,” Thalia agreed hesitantly. “Lady Maader was really generous.”

Thalia didn’t believe for a second that Lady Maader had paid for the medicine this child needed. She’d probably just told him whatever he’d wanted to hear and disposed of the girl anyway.

“I’m so jealous of you, Sinbad,” Dinarzade whined. “Lady Maader gives you so much attention. She used to give Echo a lot of attention too. I never understood why she suddenly stopped.”

Thalia smiled demurely. “Our Lady is very busy. She can’t spend time with every child. We shouldn’t fall into the trap of thinking the amount of time spent with us signifies any true preference.” She looked Sinbad in the eye pointedly, hoping he would understand her double meaning. Just because Lady Maader was spending time with him didn’t mean she loved him. That woman was incapable of love.

Sinbad stared back at her with tired eyes, as though he understood what she was saying, but he was too tired of fighting to believe it. Thalia decided she should scale back on her attempts to keep him on her side. It seemed she was losing this struggle with Lady Maader. Sinbad was Assistant Head Slave now, and the last thing she needed was for two head slaves to have it out for her. She was already struggling to keep her head above water. 

“Yeah! Lady Maader loves all of us equally!” one of Sinbad’s roommates chirped. Thalia’s words had gone right over her head, as they were meant to.

Later that night, when they were done eating, Thalia began to walk the familiar path to her dormitory when someone called out her name.

“Echo!”

Thalia spun around, to find Sinbad had followed her. His dorm was in the opposite direction, so why was he here? A cool breeze played with his loose violet hair as he closed the distance between them.

“I understand why you dislike Lady Maader. I was… scared of her at first. Maybe she still scares me a little bit. I… don’t know what to believe, actually.”

Thalia took a step toward him. Was he asking her for help untangling himself from Lady Maader’s web of manipulations? She could help him, but if she lost this battle, that would make him her enemy. 

… but she had promised she would save him the way he had saved her. If nothing else, perhaps she could plant a small seed in him that would eventually dig its roots into his hardened heart.

He looked out to the lawn, where several children were playing and gave a small smile.

“When I see them like this, I think maybe she’s doing a good thing. Maybe I’m just a bad child for questioning her.”

“Sinbad, do you know what this place is?”

He quirked an eyebrow at her quizzically. “Of course. This is the Mariadel Company Headquarters.”

“No, that’s the name of the building.” She motioned toward the expanse of the property. “This place is a holding cell. These children are slaves, every last one of them. They’re going to be sold one day to people who consider them less than human. So she gives them food? ‘Affection’? None of that is free here. All of us have paid for it with something priceless. Do you know what that is?”

He gave her a wary stare, not answering.

“Our freedom,” she explained. “No one should have to choose between their freedom and basic human needs. If these kids don’t have a third option, someone should create one for them.”

“But,” He looked back out to the playing children again, his face softening. “I think… if you just gave Lady Maader a chance… you would see this place isn’t so bad. Everyone here is comfortable.”

Comfortable? How could she be comfortable when she could be sold to someone who would treat her like property any day? How could she be comfortable when she had no control over her own life or even her own body? She had been tortured in this place, and so had he. She had watched him suffer beyond anything a human being should have to go through. Children were whipped for minor disobedience and even accidents that weren’t their fault. Who could be comfortable with a place like this? How numb had he become to say that this was comfortable?

“Dinarzade said you used to be favored by our master.” Sinbad continued, stepping forward. “I’m sure if you devote yourself to her again as a good child—”

Thalia shook her head, refusing to let him finish. “That woman… I dedicated a year of my life to her. She wove a beautiful dream for me, one where I was loved and cherished for the first time in my life. But I had to wake up. She doesn’t care about me or you. She only cares about her bottom line.” She took a step back. “If you ever want to wake up, come find me. Until then… goodnight.”

She left him that night feeling dejected and hopeless. She had thought if anyone could resist Lady Maader’s brainwashing, it was him, but he just kept letting her down. With Marcus acting like a jerk, It looked like the only person she could rely on was Masrur, but… he wasn’t enough. Thalia needed more. She was so lonely.

Instead of going straight to bed, Thalia went to a terrace to practice her dance— something she now did regularly. These dances were not the perverse displays that she performed in the colosseum, but the lively, festive jigs of her home country. These dances worshipped the gods, celebrated births and marriages, and prepared soldiers for war. They had meaning and purpose. They were something she could be proud of.

As some of the smaller children gathered around her to mimic her, she paused to correct their posture or slowed down to show them the proper steps. Soon, she was the leader of a line of five or six children, prancing forward and leading them in a large circle, singing an Attican folk song. It was energetic. It was rowdy. It was carefree. Most of all, it was her culture, the one she was meant to steward as a princess. She was sharing it with outsiders, and the children loved it. Their reactions filled her with pride because they vindicated her patriotism. Even these children who had likely never heard of her small country could see its redeemable traits, like the joy its dances could bring.

She hadn’t had a moment this euphoric in years. If she closed her eyes, she could almost pretend she was home, leading a dance to worship the goddess Asena and ask for another year’s protection. It was almost like she’d never run away and abandoned her people.

For this brief moment, she didn’t hate herself.


 

“Come on, Echo!” One of the children was dragging her along by the wrist as she stumbled along behind him. He was so small, and she wasn’t meant to walk hunched over like this. “Someone’s here to see you, and he brought flowers!”

Flowers? There was only one person that would give her flowers, and she didn’t know if she wanted to see him. She was still angry and humiliated. She still remembered how violated she’d felt as his gaze raked over her naked body. She hadn’t wanted him to see her like that. He shouldn’t have invaded their changing space. 

The child dragged her around the corner and shoved her in a chair across from Marcus, who was smiling at her like he hadn’t done anything wrong.

“What’s that expression, Echo? You’re not still mad are you?”

Thalia refused to answer, looking petulantly at the wall. He should already know. The way he’d behaved was totally inappropriate.

Chuckling, he got up and placed the flowers in her lap. “I thought you might be. It had been a couple of weeks since you visited, and when I saw you dance like that, I just… I needed to see you. It couldn’t wait any longer.”

Thalia’s hands wrapped around the bouquet tentatively, and she inspected the flowers he’d brought— purple hyacinths to ask for forgiveness. She placed them on the small table beside her and silently crossed her arms. It was going to take more than a few pretty flowers to get her to forgive him for invading her privacy and calling their friendship pretend.

He sighed, squatting down in front of her. “Echo, I know what I said back there came out pretty badly, but you have to understand— when I heard you’d been spending time with another guy, I just got so jealous. You’d never mentioned him before, so I thought you were hiding him from me, and I lost control. You do that to me, you know. I’m helpless when it comes to you.”

Thalia uncrossed her arms and turned to face him slightly. If he said he was helpless… that all of this had been because of her… maybe she had been too quick to be angry. She was at fault here too. Friendships were a two-way street, and maybe she hadn’t done enough to prevent him from getting jealous. Maybe she hadn’t been clear enough that she didn’t return his feelings.

“Marcus, I don’t like you the way you like me,” she told him sternly. 

He sighed, bringing a palm to his forehead. “Not this again. Do you realize how lucky you are that someone like me even looks in your direction? You’ve got a pretty face, but come on… you’re built like a child.”

“Did you come to apologize or insult me?” she asked, raising an eyebrow in warning.

“No one else is ever going to want you, not like I do,” he said, reaching out to stroke her cheek. This time, there was nowhere to escape. She was blocked by the back of the chair. Instead, she quietly tolerated the shiver his unwelcome touch sent down her spine. “Other men are pigs. They’ll take advantage of you and hurt you, but I’m going to treat you like royalty. I’ll dress you in the finest silks, and you’ll never have to lift a finger. All you need to do is be my sweet, obedient Echo. Don’t you want that?”

“I don’t.”

He scowled. “Then what is it you want? Jewels? A pleasure boat? A statue erected in your honor?”

“I don’t want any of that,” she told him firmly. “I only want one thing.”

“Name it!” He grabbed the sides of her chair, boxing her in.

“My freedom. If you’ll give me that, I’ll let you buy me.”

He let out a disbelieving huff. “Echo, you’re a slave, but you’re well taken care of. You’ll never survive in the real world. Do you know what it’s like for people like you out there?”

Admittedly, she didn’t. Her entire life had been spent as a slave and a princess. She’d never lived a life that could be considered normal. She didn’t even have a plan for what she wanted to do when she was free. She just needed control of her life and her body again.

“No one is going to hire an ex-slave,” he explained slowly, as though he were talking to a child. “You’ll get picked up off the streets and forced to work in a brothel where a parade of drunken men will force themselves on you and treat you like you’re nothing. Is that what you want?”

“No…”

That was the last thing she wanted. Why did it seem like the only options she had involved having her bodily autonomy stripped from her? No matter what he told her, though, she couldn’t give up. If she ended up forced into a brothel, she would find a way to get out of there too.

“I’m trying to help you. You know that, right?” He finally released her from his blockade, standing up straight again.

“I do,” she confessed, gingerly picking up her bouquet and burying her nose in it. “Thank you for the flowers. They’re lovely.” 

“Is that all you have to say?” He asked darkly. “You’re still set on refusing me?”

“Yes.”

She could forgive him for his outburst the other day, but she couldn’t agree to let him buy her. She wouldn’t allow herself to become a plaything— not to him, not to anyone.

He drew in a sharp breath, and she thought he was going to yell again, but he caught himself this time. Instead, he gave her his signature lopsided grin. 

“You’re going to come around, Echo. Just wait.”

Chapter Text

“Fatima did what?!” Dinarzade.

“No way… he wouldn’t do something so stupid, right?” Shamhat.

“I mean, this is Fatima we’re talking about. Yeah, he would.” Finn.

Thalia listened to the conversation between the three girls intently as they all sat down in the dining hall for their break. Fatima had been so jealous of Sinbad, he’d tried to set the boy up, releasing all of the slaves from their cages and trying to blame the Assistant Head Slave. Thalia wanted to find it funny. He’d bullied her for so long, maybe he deserved a comeuppance, but…

A hush fell over the three other girls as he walked past them with his new owner, bruised and clearly abused.

No one deserved this.

She sold his body,” Shamhat whispered. “She sold him to this guy, and she charged extra for his virginity.”

“Well, yeah, virgins are always more valuable.” Finn rolled her eyes, not bothering to moderate her volume. Fatima tensed, turning around and looking right at her.

Thalia had seen broken people. She’d seen hopeless people. Right now, Fatima was both. His eyes were haunted. The fragile smile on his face faltered as he looked at Finn, who had clearly been taking about him, about one of the most traumatic experiences in his life, like it was nothing. Thalia couldn’t take any pleasure in this. When she’d imagined the day he finally got what was coming to him, she’d wanted him to be angry and bitter, but still whole. She hadn’t wanted him to have everything stripped from him.

Then, his new master tugged on the chain connected to the collar around his neck, and he was dragged along like a rag doll. Thalia felt a shiver run up her spine. That could be her if she didn’t manage to escape soon. She could be sold to someone who would beat her— and worse.

“No,” Shamhat continued once he was out of the room. “I was talking to the girl that takes care of the accounts. This customer made two separate payments. You know what that means, right?”

Thalia shook her head. She wasn’t sure she wanted to find out.

“It means none of us are safe anymore.” Shamhat glanced nervously to the other girls. “She can sell our bodies without actually selling us.

Thalia understood what Shamhat was trying to say, and it sent her into cold sweats. As long as they remained with Lady Maader, their bodies were safe. Lady Maader did a careful cost-benefit analysis of each member of the dance troupe, weighing the amount of money they brought in as performers against the amount of money she would make off a one-time transaction selling them to someone else. As things had been, so long as they brought in enough money, they were safe, but now their success was a double edged sword. The publicity they got from dancing already made them desirable. Plenty of men were willing to pay good money for any one of them. This new method would allow Lady Maader to essentially turn them into prostitutes. Everything about this revelation made Thalia’s stomach churn.

“Suck it up, Sham. If that’s how Lady Maader needs us to serve her, we’ll just have to deal with it.” Finn said, nervousness bleeding through her gruff demeanor. “B- besides, Fatima messed up. He was probably a special case because she was punishing him. We’re going to be fine.”

Despite the tears that were falling from her eyes, Dinarzade smiled brightly. “It will all be over soon anyway.”

Did that mean Dinarzade thought Lady Maader was going to sell all of them?

“Damn it!” Thalia slammed her fist on the table, startling the other three girls. She had fought so hard to stay here with that wretched woman so that she could at least keep her dignity intact, but now she wasn’t safe anywhere. Her time had run out, and Sinbad wasn’t going to save her this time. He was too busy pretending this place was comfortable.

“Echo?” Finn asked cautiously. Thalia didn’t answer. She was too busy brooding.

… If she was going to be sold anyway, maybe she should at least go with someone she knew well. Marcus had been acting strangely lately, but if she gave him what he wanted, maybe he would turn back to normal. Perhaps she could allow him to buy her after all. At least he was her age. At least she knew he was capable of kindness. There was a chance that if she asked him not to touch her, he would respect that boundary.

She pushed herself up from the table and left without a word to the other girls. She would go find Marcus first thing in the morning to tell him her decision.

That night, Thalia skipped dinner, instead going straight to the place where she practiced her dance most nights. She wasn’t in the mood to skip around gaily tonight. Instead, she leaned over the banister, her stomach churning as horrible thoughts raced through her mind. She had failed to escape. She was going to have her body sold against her will. She could never return to her country— they would scorn her there. Her life was over. Everything was over.

“Are you okay?” someone asked, resting his own folded arms over the railing. Thalia jumped.

“Greetings, Assistant Head Slave Sinbad,” she hurriedly greeted him. She hadn’t heard him coming. Now, she needed to stay on his good side— at least, as much as she could given that he was already aware of the fact that she loathed his precious master.

“It’s Head Slave, now” he corrected her. “But why don’t you just call me Sinbad? It’s more efficient, don’t you think?”

“Er… right,” she agreed, unsure if that was supposed to be as corny as it sounded. She wasn’t in the mood to laugh anyway, so she didn’t bother faking it.

Sinbad scratched the back of his head nervously before opening his mouth again.

“I hope it’s okay that I dropped by. Masrur told me where I could find you. I wanted to talk to you about something.”

He suddenly looked very serious.

She waited for him to continue, the anxiety in the pit of her stomach increasing. She might actually throw up on him if she didn’t do something to calm down.

“You helped me when I was being tortured—”

She stiffened. Why was he bringing this up now? Sinbad was Lady Maader’s child now. Was he going to turn her in? She’d known this was a possibility when she helped him. She had been ready to accept the consequences...

...but that had been before everything with Fatima. Now, she might be tortured and have her body sold against her will. In light of everything that was happening, she was now moments away from puking on Sinbad’s shoes.

Still, he could have another reason for mentioning it. She would give him a chance to earn her trust. Taking a deep, calming breath to settle her stomach, she prepared for the performance she was about to put on. She was strong. She was capable. She was not going to throw up on him.

“So, what if I did?”

“I want to know why.” His golden eyes gleamed with determination in the sun’s dying light, but Thalia wasn’t persuaded. Did he think she was going to open up to him just because he asked? A few days ago, he had been trying to win her over to Lady Maader’s side. What could have caused him to suddenly decide to rebel?

“I want a lot of things I can’t have.” she responded. “But you...” she circled him intimidatingly, eyeing his fancy uniform designating him as a top slave— not that she didn’t own a similar one. When she’d finished her lap, her eyes flicked back up to his face. “How can I trust you?”

“How can I earn your trust?” He seemed serious enough. Nothing about him seemed hesitant or deceptive. He seemed to earnestly want an answer.

She had nothing to lose— or maybe she had everything to lose. This was her first ray of hope in weeks, and she’d needed it now more than ever. Maybe Sinbad would save her, or at least provide her with a way to save herself. But, she couldn’t rush into this either. If he betrayed her, she would be tortured again, and her savior was already lost. No one would be able to help her this time.

In that case, she could provide him with the tiniest morsel of information.

"Let's start with something small,” she told him. Faking her confidence was getting easier the longer they talked. She was in control here. “My real name isn't Echo."

He drew back slightly as the words left her mouth, but his surprise wasn’t as pronounced as she would have expected. Perhaps he’d already suspected that was the case.

"What's your real name, then?"

She hesitated for a moment before answering. “Thalia Alexandris.” The name felt clumsy and foreign on her tongue, but it was hers. She was reclaiming it. She was reclaiming her identity, and, hopefully, her freedom. “I’m not like the other children here. When I was brought to the Mariadel Company, I was neither and orphan, nor was my family poor. Quite the opposite, in fact. My family was powerful— powerful enough that if my presence here were to be made known, it could seriously jeopardize the entire company."

Sinbad was surprisingly perceptive. He noticed her use of past tense when referring to her family.

"You think something happened to your family since then?"

She smiled bitterly, wishing he hadn’t brought it up. The topic was painful, but she needed him. The least she could do is be honest.

"You pick up on a thing or two about the state of politics when you work around so many wealthy and powerful men and women. They don’t have much better to do than gossip."

He shook his head, rubbing his temple. “So, if you’re not a threat to the company anymore, why do you still have to hide your identity?”

“I never said I’m not a threat,” she corrected him. “I was about to be married off to Reim’s prince when I was captured. Kidnapping the future princess is an insult enough to send entire countries to war. Do you think they’d let Lady Maader off easily if they found out?”

The question had been rhetorical, but she paused anyway, studying his reaction. He seemed to be taking the news into serious consideration, bringing a thoughtful hand to his chin. He didn’t have the look of someone who was about to go report her to Lady Maader.

“Of course, she knows nothing of the engagement,” Thalia continued, resting one elbow against the railing. “She’s not stupid, though. She knows that my family itself wasn’t necessarily the extent of my power. That’s why she would be quite interested in the fact that I’ve volunteered all this information to you.” She looked at him pointedly. “I’m sure you would be rewarded handsomely if you were to betray me.”

She would almost certainly be tortured if he reported everything she’d told him to Lady Maader. She would be tortured until she broke again, and this time, who knows if she’d ever recover?

“I’m not going to betray you. I want out of here. You helped me because you wanted something in return, didn’t you?”

Yes. She had helped him because he was her savior, but she wasn’t entirely altruistic. She’d hoped he could help her escape. She knew she should do more to vet him, make sure he wasn’t setting her up in some kind of trap. She knew better, but the way his golden irises burned into her… it was the look of someone who was ready to defy his master. Not even she could fake an expression like that.

“You’re exactly right,” she told him. “I want you to help me escape.”

Escape? Is that really all I want?

The image of Fatima, bruised, battered, and being led along on a chain flashed through her mind. He’d been raped. That was where those wounds had come from. That man, Lord Zeutius, had violated Fatima, and he’d paid for the opportunity to do so. Thalia gritted her teeth, rage coursing through her veins. Fatima had been awful to her, but he’d only wanted one thing: to please Lady Maader. That woman had abused his affections. He trusted her completely, and she’d allowed something like this to happen. No, she hadn’t just allowed it. She had facilitated it, perhaps even solicited it based on the timing of events.

That woman was truly despicable. Thalia remembered when she was younger, how she’d been so eager to please Lady Maader. She’d allowed that woman to touch her in ways she didn’t like and struggled to keep others from doing the same without offending them because Lady Maader had said it was normal, that Thalia should expect it. Nothing about any of this was normal. She needed to save the rest of the children. Fatima would be Lady Maader’s last victim.

“No, not just me. I want to save every one of these children. I want to knock Lady Maader off her pedestal.”

He gave her a sly grin. “I have to apologize. I misjudged you the first time we met. You’re not timid at all. You’re ambitious. I like that.”

“Ambitious?” She laughed. “No one has ever called me that before.”

“Well, now someone has.” He crossed on leg over the other, leaning on the rail for support. “I’m counting on you for your help. I’m going to put my faith in you to help me make a plan to get out of here. Right now, I only see two options, and I don’t know if I can live with either of them. I need you to help me carve out a third path, one where all of these children can be happy, and you and I can be free. Can you do that?”

She nodded resolutely. If someone would have told her that one day, her god would have come to her for help, she would have laughed. She would have told them they were being ridiculous. It turned out, her savior wasn’t a god, but he hadn’t let her down afterall. She could trust him.

He leaned forward, resting a large hand on her head. “Thanks for helping me wake up from a nightmare, Thalia.”

Hearing her name from someone else’s lips felt surreal, like none of this was really happening. She almost believed she would wake up and find out this was a dream. The boy who had once saved her was looking in her direction. They were equals. Her efforts to save him had been successful. She’d finally done something right. She wasn’t weak.

She decided to cancel her plans for tomorrow morning. She letting anyone buy her.

“We’ll talk later,” she told him furtively. “Just go throughout your evening like normal. I’ll come for you in the middle of the night.”

He agreed readily, turning toward his own dormitory and waving goodbye.

This is it, Thalia thought. I’m finally going to be free.


 

That night, Thalia stole into Sinbad’s room, creeping through the darkness until she spotted Sinbad lying quietly in his bed. When he heard her shuffling around, he sat up readily. He had been fully dressed underneath his covers. She grinned proudly, wishing she’d had that kind of strategic thinking. His uniform was mainly black so it would help camouflage him in the darkness of night. It was much less conspicuous than the ghostly nightgown she hadn’t bothered to change out of.

She motioned to him to be quiet and follow her, turning around to leave the room. That was when she saw one of Sinbad’s roommates sitting up in his bed, watching them silently. Thalia froze, locking eyes with the small child. Which one was it? It was too dark to tell. Was it the little girl with the braids? The boy with the spiky hair? They were going to tell on her, weren’t they? If Thalia was caught sneaking out with Sinbad in the middle of the night, if someone believed they were plotting against Lady Maader, she would be thrown back into that awful room and tortured. She would never escape. She would only know suffering for the rest of her life. She stumbled back into Sinbad, her heart pounding and her breathing growing heavy.

“Masrur,” Sinbad whispered, catching her, “It’s okay. Go back to sleep.”

Thalia’s heartbeat immediately slowed. It was Masrur. He wasn’t Lady Maader’s child. He wouldn’t tell on them. He’d probably even help them if she asked, but he was a growing boy. He needed sleep, not to worry about things like escaping slavery. That was her job as someone older than him. He was one of the children she needed to protect. She gave Masrur a small wave and grabbed Sinbad’s large, trustworthy hand, leading him outside into the chilly air of an autumn night.

She really hadn’t thought this nightgown thing through.

As they traipsed through the premises, Sinbad leaned down and whispered in her ear. “Where are we going?”

His breath was warm and tingled pleasantly against her neck. Something about the sensation brought an involuntary smile to her face.

“You’ll see.”

She was taking him to a quiet corner, someplace no one would accidentally pass through. She wasn’t about to let them get caught. They had one shot at this, and they needed to get it done quickly or…

Again, the image of Fatima flashed into her mind.

… she could end up like him.

Her hand tightened around Sinbad’s as she pulled him into a corner safe from prying eyes.

“Let’s do this,” she huffed. “Let’s get out of here”

Sinbad slumped against the large, limestone bricks that made up the wall. “What are your ideas? Because mine is more of a last-resort type deal.”

“Right.” Thalia began pacing back and forth in circles. “So, how do you drive someone out of business? You’re the head of a company. What are your biggest threats?”

“You think I haven’t already exhausted all my knowledge?” he responded skeptically.

“Maybe you have,” Thalia agreed, “but I haven’t. Maybe I can think of something you haven’t.”

Sinbad raised his thumb to his chin thoughtfully.  

“One method is to drive down the market value of the product a company sells.”

Thalia pursed her lips, shaking her head brusquely. “How are two slaves going to do that?”

“I told you,” Sinbad sighed, burying his head in his arms and tugging on his ponytail. “I’ve thought of everything.”

“Just keep going,” she prodded him. “We can’t give up yet.”

My chastity is at stake.

“Another threat would be an increase the cost of production.” He lifted his head and raised his eyebrows at her. “Any ideas on how to do that from here?”

She sighed. “We don’t have the influence.”

“Damn it. I used to be the most powerful guy in the world, and now I can’t even help myself.” He ran his fingers through his scalp frustratedly. “The third threat is a decrease in demand. If people just stopped buying slaves, they’d lose their value and this place couldn’t make any profit. It would have to liquidate its inventory and go bankrupt.”

Thalia sighed. “That’s impossible. Slavery is too ingrained in the culture. Two slaves are never going to change that. Besides, liquidating inventory is just a fancy term for selling us at a discount, right?” She threw herself onto the ground next to him. “So that’s it? There’s nothing we can do?”

Sinbad was quiet for a moment before he spoke. “There is a fourth option.”

She stared at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue.

“There’s power in numbers. If all the children revolted against Lady Maader, we could take our power back and—”

“No.” Thalia didn’t even let him finish. Something like that would result in casualties, and there was no guarantee the government wouldn’t execute the survivors to send a message to any other slaves with thoughts of rebellion. She needed to protect these children— all of them. She had failed the people of Attica, but she was not going to let these kids down. “There has to be a solution. We’re just not thinking hard enough.

She tried to remember what she had been taught at the palace. People were always out to undermine a king and the people around him. It would be her duty as a queen to outmaneuver them, stop them at every turn. She was supposed to be clever. Maybe it didn’t come naturally to her, but she was going to try, damn it. Surely, her eavesdropping had provided her with something useful, hadn’t it? She poured through the years of information she’d collected, sifting through it for anything useful. Gossip, gossip, gossip… that’s all these rich people did, but… surely some of it had been political, something she could use. Then it came to her.

“That’s it!” She snapped her fingers excitedly, startling Sinbad. “The emperor is wary of large trading companies like this, right? I’ve heard patrons talk about it dozens of times— how this place has too much power and how he’s looking for excuses to shut it down.”

Sinbad nodded thoughtfully, a glimmer of hope crossing his face.

“Poison is also highly illegal.” His expression fell, but she continued anyway. “If we plant it in Lady Maader’s room and manage to report her to the right people, she’ll be banished and we’ll all be seized by the government.”

Sinbad sighed. “So we just shuffle around masters. That’s your suggestion? They’ll probably send us to work in the quarry. At least as high-class slaves, we have a life-expectancy beyond twenty.”

Thalia shook her head, propping herself up to face him. “They’ll liquidate us because there are so many. A sudden flood of masterless slaves like this would decrease the market value, and your company, Sinbad, will be positioned soundly as the most successful in Reim. If anyone could afford to take all of us off their hands, it’s you. Return the kids with families to their parents and offer assistance with basic needs so they don’t go hungry again. Become a philanthropist with all that extra cash. Keep the rest of us on as employees. Surely a company as big as yours can find a place for a few dozen highly trained workers.”

A hint of a smile touched his lips. “Okay. I’m almost on board, but the poison is a terrible idea. Would you even know where to obtain it?”

No, but maybe poison wasn’t the only thing that could cause a stir. The last time she’d tried to reveal her identity to someone who could save her, she’d been caught and tortured, but she had Sinbad to protect her now, and he had the connections she needed to be sure her letter got where it needed to be.

“I have another plan. Remember what I told you earlier? I have the power to shut down this whole place with my name. You know what’s more illegal than poison? Kidnapping a the prince’s fiancee. That’s treason.

Sinbad grew rigid as her words sank in.

“I just need to get a letter to someone powerful enough to gain an audience with the emperor. Therein lies my problem. The only people I come across with that kind of power can’t be trusted. Last time I tried something like this, it backfired.” She raised herself to her knees, grabbing his arm excitedly. “But I think you can help me.”

He took in a shaky breath. “I have the connections to make your plan happen… we can do this… My company is large enough that gaining an audience with the emperor would be simple. It might take some time, but… it’s just a matter of patience.”

She nodded enthusiastically, impressed with his ability to guess what she’d been thinking. She hadn’t even needed to explain. He’d just known.

“But,” He paused, as i mulling something over, “how will we get the letter to Sindria Trading Company?”

Thalia grinned excitedly. She already had an answer for him. “Next week, the dance troupe and I are going to the mainland to perform. After the incident when we met, I’m not allowed to go anywhere outside the island without an escort. Who do you think Lady Maader will choose for that job?”

“You think she’ll choose me?” He sounded dubious.

“You are currently her most trusted slave. When the moment is right, we can steal away and deliver the letter into trustworthy hands. Are you up for it?”

A wide grin splayed across his face. This was the first time he’d smiled like this since coming to this dreadful place, and Thalia was struck by the beauty of his confidence. This was the boy she remembered. This was her savior.

“Yes,” he told her. “I’m up for it.”


 

As Thalia had predicted, Sinbad was assigned to be her escort for the performances. Sinbad had reported the good news during dinner. He had remained distant and courteous for the sake of appearances— no one knew about their two private meetings yesterday except Masrur— but Thalia could already read him a little bit. His eyes shone with excitement as he told her they would be spending a lot of time together soon. They could use this time to pull off their master plan.

But until then, Thalia was stuck on the island practicing with three strained girls, all terrified that Lady Maader could sell their bodies at any moment. It was amazing how deftly they juggled their admiration of their master with their fear of her abuses. It was like their was a partition in their minds that wouldn’t let them see that they shouldn’t have to live like this, that they were being abused.

Thalia collapsed onto the dirt ground after a particularly grueling practice session, running a towel over her dripping forehead.

“God…” Finn groaned, dropping to her knees next to Thalia. “I can’t wait to get off this fucking island..”

Shamhat sprawled out on Thalia’s other side, her thick, curly hair splaying out under her head. “I don’t think she’d sell us when we’re on the mainland,” she agreed.

Dinarzade nodded, settling herself cross-legged across from Thalia. “Since Sinbad’s coming with us, I feel safe. He seems really dependable. He wouldn’t let anything happen.”

“Is that really okay? Marcus told Echo to stay away from him, and now they’re going to be spending the whole week together. If Marcus finds out, I feel like he might try to hurt her...” Shamhat buried her face in her hands. “He honestly scared me that day.”

“If he lays a finger on her, I’ll take off his whole hand,” Finn growled. “Echo is the reason we’ve all be able to stay with Lady Maader for so long. If it wasn’t for her choreography, we would have been sold to some entitled pig like him a long time ago.”

Thalia glanced at Dinarzade, who remained quiet. She was staring in her own lap and pulling at a tuft of grass beside her.

“I don’t think Marcus will hurt me,” Thalia confessed quietly. “He already came and apologized. He acted strangely last time, but we’ve known each other for years and he was always nice. Maybe he was just having a bad day.”

“No,” Dinarzade said quietly. “That was the real him. You guys think just because he has a pretty face and a good reputation that he’s a decent guy. He’s not. He can hide all the terrible things he does from the world because no one wants to believe someone who does so much good can do just as much harm, but I see it every time I look at him— he’s rotting inside. He has been for years. You should stay away from him, Echo.”

Thalia shook her head. “That day was the first time you ever even talked to him, Dinarzade. I’ve known him a long time. He’s a good guy. A lot of men have treated me badly, but he’s not one of them. Something was just bothering him and he took it out on me. That’s all.”

“You shouldn’t stick up for him,” Finn snapped. “He was clearly in the wrong. I don’t care how nice he’s been to you in the past, you do not let anyone talk to you like that. I’m not exactly fuckin’ nice, but he went too far even for me.”

“Eh?” Shamhat sat up. “Finn is finally developing some self-awareness. Is she turning over a new leaf?”

“Like hell.”

Thalia sighed, tuning out Finn and Shamhat’s onset of bickering. The other girls… they didn’t know Marcus, not like Thalia did. If they could have seen what he was like before, they would understand. She just needed to find a way to get her old friend back. He had been there for her when no one else was. She couldn’t just abandon him now. Besides, he’d yelled at her once.

It wasn’t like he’d done something irredeemable.

Chapter Text

When Thalia, Dinarzade, Finn, and Shamhat disembarked from their ship, a small crowd of fans was already waiting to meet Dinarzade. The blonde squealed with delight, offering to sign autographs and putting on an impromptu demonstration.

“Can we not do this?” Finn moaned, throwing her head back and dropping her luggage on the ground. “I just want to get to the inn.”

Thalia, on the other hand, was genuinely happy for Dinarzade for the first time ever. They were no longer in a competition for survival because Thalia wasn’t just treading water anymore. She was about to thrive.

She glanced back at Sinbad as he joined them and gave him a secretive smile. He gave her a barely noticeable nod in response, and a thrill shot through her. The two of them were partners in this daring escape. She’d never had a partner before, and everything about this was foreign and exciting. Thalia hadn’t experienced anything so scintillating for a long time.

Eventually, Sinbad had to break up the growing crowd surrounding Dinarzade and the stragglers that had begun to approach Thalia and the others. Thalia was amazed at the level of civility he managed in the face of the disrespect that was hurled at him. One man called him a worthless slave, and Sinbad simply continued smiling his polite smile and directing Dinarzade toward the others.

Thalia liked to believe that after years of constantly wearing a carefully sculpted facade, she’d become a fairly convincing actress, but even without her level of experience, Sinbad’s performance was almost flawless. His only tell was that his smile didn’t quite reach his eyes. They were empty instead, devoid of any emotion at all.

She was grateful he wasn’t her enemy.

The first day on the mainland, there was no performance. They simply checked in at the inn and spent the rest of the day as leisure time. The girls paired themselves into groups of two— Thalia with Dinarzade in one room, and Finn and Shamhat together in the other. Sinbad had a room to himself, right next to Thalia’s. If an overzealous fan broke in and tried to hurt Thalia or Dinarzade, they were mere seconds away from rescue. Thalia hadn’t had this kind of peace of mind in years.

Dinarzade was the only one that retreated into the safety of their room. The others decided to hang out in the empty tavern. Finn and Shamhat sat at a table, playing a game of cards, while Sinbad was settled in a large chair by the hearth. Thalia took one glance at how he slumped in his chair and decided he needed company. She ordered a cup of tea from the bartender and brought it to her exhausted bodyguard.

“Thank you for your hard work today,” Thalia told him sincerely, handing him the mug. When their fingers brushed, she didn’t immediately pull away. Maybe it was because she remembered the last time she’d handed him a cup of tea, he’d been on the verge of hypothermia. Maybe she was just worried he remembered it too, and that’s why she’d hesitated.

Something told her that wasn’t entirely true.

Whatever it was, he must have noticed her reluctance to let go of the mug. He glanced up at her curiously, the light from the hearth flickering in his warm, golden eyes, and, for the briefest of moments, her heart skipped a beat. It was a strange sensation, like the tiniest of sparks, dying out as quickly as it blinked into existence.

She grinned sheepishly, slowly withdrawing her hands and pulling them to her sides. Whatever she’d just experienced, it was gone, and that was for the best. The only thing she needed to worry about at the moment was escaping.

Settling herself in the chair across from him, Thalia glanced at Shamhat and Finn, who were playing cards at one of the tables. Finn laid down a card, and Shamhat slammed her hands on the table, accusing the other girl of cheating. Finn responded with a smug grin, suggesting they play another round.

“It’s strange that we can have normal moments, considering how not normal all of this is,” Sinbad observed as he watched them, bringing the mug to his lips.

“From the outside, no one would guess that they’re terrified,” Thalia agreed. “That’s the thing about survival. Sometimes you get so good at pretending, you can even start to fool yourself. That’s how Lady Maader controls people. She makes reality unbearable and then provides them with a comforting lie as the only means escape.”

“But you ‘woke up’ despite that,” Sinbad told her. “You must be pretty resilient.”

Thalia laughed, embarrassed. “That’s another thing no one has ever called me.”

“Then no one has ever given you enough credit.” Sinbad stared at her over his mug, his eyes dead serious.

“I-” Thalia froze, choking up. Marcus had told her she was weak. He only said things like that because he was looking out for her. If she overestimated herself, what she was capable of on her own, she could get hurt. “I think you’re imagining things. You don’t know me.”

He laughed softly. “No, but I’m starting to want to. If this plan of yours works, I suspect you’ll make a valuable ally. I’d like to pick your brain more often.”

Valuable? No, he was wrong. Thalia wasn’t valuable. She was worthless. She had abandoned her country, been the reason for its downfall. Not one positive thing had come from her existence.

“If this plan works, it’s only because of you.” Thalia rested her chin on her fist. “I couldn’t do anything by myself.”

Sinbad took another sip from his mug. “As far as I’m concerned, you saved me from making one of the toughest decisions of my life. I owe you.”

“I’m the one that owes you!” she blurted, incapable of accepting praise directed toward her from someone she admired so much. “The person I am… the reason I hang on even when everything seems hopeless… it’s because…” She fiddled with her fingers shyly, looking in her lap. “That day you saved me from those men was the first time in a long time someone had treated me with kindness. You gave me hope.”

Her shoulders hunched, her face growing warm. She couldn’t believe she’d just admitted something like that to her savior. He was going to think she was a stalker.

“I don’t think you realize everything you’ve done for me,” he confessed quietly.

Thalia perked back up, waiting to hear what he had to say. What had she done for him? All she’d been able to do was clean his wounds. She couldn’t save him from the pain. She couldn’t keep Lady Maader from messing with his head. In the end, she hadn’t managed to do anything.

He set his empty mug down on the short table between them and didn’t continue. Instead, he stared silently into the crackling hearth.

Thalia didn’t know what to say, and he seemed to be done with their conversation. Should she just leave or would that be rude? She clutched at the skirt of her uniform until her knuckles turned white, trying to figure out what she should do. She finally decided to stand up, thinking if he wanted her around, he would be talking to her, but as she shuffled past him, he caught her by the wrist, his grip firm and pleasant. Her stiff muscles instantly relaxed, coaxed into security by the touch of someone she could trust.

“I’m sorry I’m not talking much. It’s just… sometimes I don’t feel like I’m all here— like a part of me never left that room.” She knew he was talking about the punishment room . “Will you stay?”

Thalia nodded, turning to face him. “Do you want me to grab Dinarzade?” she asked. “She seems to be good at drawing you out of your head.”

He tore his eyes away from the fire to look directly at her. “Just stay for a while. Please.”

When he let go, her body was covered with goosebumps. She struggled to tear away from his gaze, too entranced by those golden orbs; they crackled with a kind of electricity that reminded her of lightning as it crashed down into the sea. She wanted to know him better, to find out the secret behind his intensity. He wasn’t a god, but that just made him more powerful in her eyes. What kind of person raised a trading empire from scratch within two years? How had he been able to capture two dungeons at such a young age? She knew his name was Sinbad, but she didn’t know him.

Sinbad broke eye contact first, staring back into the hearth. The chair across from him was still unoccupied, and she settled back down in it. She wished there were some way she could cheer him up, the way he had back when they’d first met, but nothing she was capable of seemed adequate. All she did was dance, and she was certain one of her performances wouldn’t interest him. He always behaved like such a gentleman, and she wasn’t sure she wanted him to see her like that anyway. It was too humiliating.

“You know, you and I are a bit like the heroes of my homeland,” she hummed thoughtfully, an unexpected well of pride springing up inside her. “One time, during a siege of an impregnable city, we gave them a giant wooden horse. It seemed like a gift to create peace, but the horse was actually hollow and our soldiers were inside. In the dead of night, they came out and razed the city, leading to our victory. It’s like we’re infiltrating Napolia right how, only this time, instead of taking lives, we’re saving them, right?”

A small smile touched his lips. “You always have the strangest stories. A giant wooden horse?”

Thalia laughed, recognizing he was right. “Would you believe it gets weirder?”

He quirked an eyebrow.

“You don’t believe me,” she realized with amusement, crossing one of her legs over the other. “Do you know where Lady Maader got the name Echo?”

Sinbad shook his head.

“It’s the name of a nymph who pines away after a man who falls in love with his own reflection and drowns.” Thalia dared to make a joke at Sinbad’s expense. “That sounds like something you would do, to be honest.”

“Which one?” Sinbad asked, a grin spreading across his face. “Pine away after a man or fall in love with my own reflection?”

Thalia giggled mischievously. “All I’m saying is you should avoid any reflective bodies of water.”

Of course was teasing him. He might have been a bit cocky, but he had saved her, cheered her up, and carried her back to the inn. He’d even tried to defend her from Fatima. He clearly wasn’t that self-absorbed. Still, maybe joking like this was good. She didn’t want him to know how she’d worshiped him, and this would act as evidence to the contrary.

He sat back in his chair and crossed his arms, amusement still tugging at his lips. “Fine. I’ll take that as a compliment.”

“How is that a compliment?” she gasped.

“Since I have such discerning taste, I’d have to be extraordinarily good-looking to fall in love with myself.” He raised his eyebrows. “You just called me handsome.”

Thalia burst into surprised laughter, carefree and mirthful. It was loud enough to draw the attention of Finn and Shamhat, who gave her questioning looks. Thalia knew they must be surprised. They had never seen her laugh like this. In all these years as a slave, Thalia had only shown this side of herself to one other person— Marcus.

“You’re pretty funny,” she admitted once she’d calmed down. She’d intended to be the one cheering him up, but somehow he was making her laugh. “I’ve been thoroughly outwitted.”

His posture was much more relaxed than it had been before, his arm dangling confidently over the back of his chair as he grinned in her direction. “Better luck next time.”

Thalia beamed at him in return. She desperately wanted there to be a next time. She used to love bantering with Marcus like this, but at some point he’d begun to take it too far and his teasing had become actual insults.

When Shamhat and Finn turned in to their rooms for the night, Thalia and Sinbad implemented phase one of their plan: writing the letters. Sinbad’s letter was an impersonal set of instructions for his company on how to proceed as the plan played out. It was concise, direct, and simple. He finished it within minutes.

Thalia’s letter, on the other hand, was a carefully crafted plea for help, designed to foster sympathy and outrage. She detailed the abuses she’d suffered for years: her kidnapping— omitting the fact that she had run away— the groping and the leering, and her struggle to maintain her chastity, as well as her increasing fear that she might fail. Despite her very intentional plays to pity, the emotions behind the events Thalia described were raw and painful to write. At one point, she set her pen down mid-sentence and began to sob, burying her face in the crook of her arm on the table.

“Go ahead and take a break,” Sinbad reassured her, placing one large, comforting hand on her back. “You’re really brave for doing this.”

Thalia sniffled. He was such a strange guy. No one called her brave or valuable or resilient because she wasn’t any of those things, but here was this boy, her savior, telling her she was all of these things and the strangest thing was… he seemed to believe what he was saying was true.

She heard him pick up the piece of paper and the soft mumble of his voice as he read through what she’d written so far.

He paused after the first sentence, which contained her introduction, including her title and lineage.

“So you’re a princess, huh?” He rubbed her back in small circles, soothing her into a limp bundle of vulnerability until her crying intensified.

His hand stilled as he got further down into the document.

Thalia finally raised her head after a while, wondering why he’d stopped. He was staring at the sheet of paper, his normally gentle features fixed into a hard expression.

“You’ve been living like this?” he asked quietly. “Even when you were helping me and playing with the children, you were dealing with everything you wrote on this paper?”

“It’s the same for you, isn’t it?” Trembling, she clutched at the fabric of her skirt. “She hurt you so badly, and I couldn’t help. I’m so sorry… I wanted to do more...”

“You’ve done more than enough,” he assured her, prying her hands away from her dress and taking them in his own. That surge of calm and reassurance his touches gave her was already becoming familiar, and, as she stared into those golden irises, the faintest of flutters rose in her stomach. “We’re going to get out of this together, and we’re going to get you home.”

Home.

The word brought her crashing back down. Thalia’s home was under subjugation. If she went back now, she would be killed, the way her parents had been. She quietly pulled her hands from out of his, returning them to her lap.

Thalia didn’t have a home.

Sinbad placed the paper in front of her once more.

“I think you’ve written enough to catch their attention. Just finish it up.”

She nodded, closing out the letter with a plea for haste in her rescue and a few flattering words about the emperor and his son. Then, she folded the letter and Sinbad sealed it with wax from a candle, after which they stood over their accomplishment with pride.

“Wanna go for a walk?” she asked him slyly. That was their code for sneaking away from the others to deliver the letters. Right now, they were alone, but he would know what she meant.

“Not tonight,” he told her firmly. “Dinarzade will get suspicious if you come back too late. Let’s just be patient. When the opportunity arrives, we’ll take care of it.”

Thalia nodded, trusting his judgement, and returned to her room to find Dinarzade sitting up in bed, letting out the top of her uniform again. She’d just adjusted it a month ago, Thalia recalled with annoyance. Had Dinarzade really gotten bigger already?

Then Thalia remembered they weren’t in a competition anymore, and she relaxed. It didn’t matter that Dinarzade had a bigger bust than Thalia. It was fine that the other girl got more attention. Thalia was safe now. She didn’t need to rely on her body for survival any longer.

“What’s that?” Dinarzade asked, eying the letter with suspicion.

Thalia shrugged, setting it down on her night table. “A letter from a fan.”

“Oh?” Dinarzade tugged at her needle until the thread was taut, her lips pulled into a secretive smile. “You shouldn’t leave it there. Put it somewhere Shamhat and Finn won’t find it. If they see it, they might misunderstand.”

“Misunderstand?”

“Lady Maader warned us years ago you might make an escape attempt on one of these trips,” Dinarzade explained. “We’re all supposed to keep an eye on you. If they see something like that…” The blonde looked Thalia directly in the eye. “... they might assume the worst.”

A chill went down Thalia’s spine even as the blonde beamed at her kindly and returned to her work. Dinarzade clearly suspected Thalia was up to something, but she had offered her advice instead of going to tell the other girls. Did that mean she wasn’t siding with Lady Maader?

Thalia still couldn’t take the risk of trusting her.

Watching Dinarzade like a mouse might watch a snake, Thalia slowly slipped the letter under her mattress. She was always underestimating Dinarzade, and now it might be her undoing. She needed to proceed very carefully from now on.


 

“Wanna go for a walk?” Thalia asked Sinbad casually as the other girls lounged around the inn’s bar. Sinbad nodded, hoping that this time they could escape without someone noticing. They were five days in to their week long tour, and still hadn’t managed to deliver the letters. That was because…

“Where are you going?” Finn asked warily as he walked past with Thalia in tow.

… these girls were incredibly suspicious.

“For a walk,” Thalia explained for the tenth time this week.

“I just think it’s really weird that you’re suddenly so interested in walks.” Shamhat leaned forward on her elbows, narrowing her eyes at the two. “You’ve never gone on them before.”

“It’s okay,” Dinarzade piped up cheerfully, jogging to his side. “Because I’m coming with them, right guys?”

Sinbad nodded along with Thalia, unable to protest. If it looked like he wanted to be alone with Thalia, they could be caught and he would be thrown back in that place.

He never wanted to go back.

Even the thought of it pulled him back there, his memories of the torture bleeding into reality. He’d been dealing with it up until now by shutting off his emotions, but recently he’d found a better solution in the form of a petite girl who had nursed his wounds and lessened his suffering.

Her name was Thalia.

No matter how far gone he was, her presence always brought him back. Even now, as those thoughts threatened to overtake his senses once again, her gentle voice broke through.

“Let’s go, then.”

She grinned tenderly at Dinarzade, motioning for the other girl to join them even though Sinbad knew she must be terrified on the inside that their time would run out. She was good at pretending. That bright smile could fool almost anyone. It had even fooled Sinbad for a while. Even though he’d known she hated Lady Maader, she’d still managed to hide so many things from him. He hadn’t realized she’d been living with the fear of being sold and raped, or that she’d been dealing with this since she was twelve .

He should have known, though. He should have remembered the Echo he met two years ago had worn the same smile even as she was led to be whipped. He should have remembered she was a master of deception, but he had let her fool him.

Sinbad wished he could reassure her. He hadn’t told her, but he had a plan B. On the final night, if they still hadn’t accomplished their goal, he was going to sneak out under the cover of darkness and deliver both letters to Sindria Trading Company himself. He didn’t have a roommate to supervise him. He could take care of this all by himself, but…

He followed Thalia and Dinarzade outside, his eyes fixed on the petite girl, taking note of the defeated slump of her shoulders. This girl needed a victory she could call her own. If she didn’t deliver this letter herself, she would find a way to give him all the credit, even though the entire plan had been her idea. She’d been put down constantly for four years of her life, and Sinbad had already decided he was going to take her under his wing and raise her up. Maybe he could even win this little princess over to his side and use her to gain a new member for his alliance. Or maybe not. He wasn’t sure what the deal was with her family, but she had implied their power had diminished considerably since she’d come here.

The country she had mentioned in her letter, Attica… it was a small island city-state off the coast of Parthevia that had once been a great empire, and Fatima had told him Attican slaves were especially valuable, but other than those little tidbits, he knew nothing about it. Even though, as a merchant, he needed to have familiarity with all of the surrounding countries, he had never bothered to study this one, much less follow any news concerning it. The princess’s country was that insignificant in the modern world.

“Is that alright, Sinbad?”

“Huh?”

Dinarzade had been talking about something and he’d been tuning her out.

“I was just telling to Echo that I wanted to go window shopping in the market.”

“Oh. Sure, let’s go,” he agreed. Thalia and Dinarzade were sure to attract attention in the market, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle.

Dinarzade shook her head, bringing out a scarf and wrapping it around her head, partially obscuring her identity. “I intend to go by myself. You two keep trying to be alone together, right? Here’s your chance.”

He stared at the unassuming blonde girl incredulously. She was more clever than he’d given her credit for. Had she offered to come along this time to help them? Every other time, Finn had insisted on joining them and watched them like a hawk. Now, Dinarzade was giving them the chance to accomplish their goal.

“W- We haven’t been trying to…” Thalia stammered, her face drained of its color.

Dinarzade turned to her, placing a hand on her shoulder. “Haven’t I told you? You can’t lie to me, Echo.”

Sinbad noted the way even though Dinarzade was looking at Thalia, her eyes had a far off look, as though she weren’t really seeing the girl in front of her. It was strange. If she wasn’t focused on Thalia, what exactly was she seeing? Did she just need glasses or was there something else there that only she could see, something that betrayed all of Thalia’s secrets?

Dinarzade waved goodbye to them giddily, leaving behind a stunned Thalia and a relieved Sinbad. Dinarzade was a kind girl. He trusted that even if she suspected what he and Thalia were up to, someone as earnest as she was wouldn’t give them an opportunity to carry out their plan only to stop them.

“Are you ready?” Sinbad asked Thalia, his heart rate spiking. This was it. This was their chance to save all of the children in that dreadful place. He’d been so ready to sacrifice as many kids as it took for his own escape, but this clever princess beside him had come up with a way to not only save every single one of them, but his humanity as well.

This girl didn’t realize it, but she had saved him. She was still saving him. Sinbad owed her the world.

“Show me the way,” she responded quietly, almost reverently. This moment must mean even more to her than it did to him.

Sinbad guided Thalia through Napolia’s busy streets, leading her to the familiar commercial district. He knew this part of the city by heart. There was a crack in the street here, and over there was the fishing stall whose stench everyone else complained about, but which Sinbad found nostalgic. The grand building before them was Sindria Trading Company’s headquarters. When he had met Thalia, he’d been saving up for this place, and he had more than met his goal.

In fact, he’d become so successful, he’d allowed himself to become comfortable, cocky even. He had bet his own freedom for the sake of his company, not recognizing its value. Thalia had been right. Freedom was priceless. Even his company and all its assets weren’t a fair exchange. At least this experience had taught him a valuable lesson. Perhaps this was all fate. He wasn’t confident anymore.

Lately, his ability to read the waves had begun to warp. He’d felt certain it was his destiny to sacrifice those children, but then he’d remembered Thalia’s gentle rebellion, and suddenly everything had become hazy. The choice he was supposed to make… the choice he was making now… were they really the same? Would deviating from the path he was supposed to take have lasting consequences?

He wasn’t sure, and, truthfully, it scared him. Then, the short, dark-eyed girl beside him looked up at him, her expression brimming with hope, and he knew he’d made the right decision. Nothing that brought that kind of joy to this girl’s face could be wrong.

Maybe his ability to see fate was fuzzy for now, but he was confident it would come back. In the meantime, he would just have to believe in his own ability to make the right decisions, for her sake, and for the sake of the others.

“S-S-SINBAD!”

Sinbad beamed as Mystras’s voice rang out through the courtyard and quickly found himself in the boy’s embrace.

“We… were so worried! ” Mystras cried out between sniffles. “You’re finally back! The others— they’re going to be so happy! Just wait, I’m going to go get them.” Mystras let go and backed away cautiously, as though he might frighten Sinbad off. “Don’t move. Don’t you dare move.”

Sinbad smiled after his turbaned friend as he ran into the building, shouting and causing a ruckus.

He glanced down at Thalia, who was staring at him anxiously, and he gave her a reassuring smile. Everything was going to be fine. He was going to make sure of it.

“Sin!” Ja’far beamed from the entrance of the building, bounding down the stairs. “What are you doing here?”

Soon, Hinahoho, Rurumu, Drakon, Vittel and Mahad, and Parsine streamed out of the building as well. Hinahoho wrapped one big arm around Sinbad’s shoulders, welcoming him back, while Rurumu uttered gentle words of greeting, and Drakon bowed politely. Vittel gave him a a guilty grin as Mahad nodded silently, and Parsine wore her usual cheerful smile. Mystras ran back out of the building and joined the crowd, hunched over and panting.

The reunion was only missing one person. Sinbad looked around, scanning the grounds anxiously, trying to spot a head of pink hair.

“Where’s Seren?”

“She went to the market,” Drakon informed him brusquely. “She wanted to do some shopping.”

“Oh.”

Sinbad had, admittedly, found her attractive in the past. He’d even flirted with her once before he’d been enslaved. She was haughty, but she also had a cute side, and before his ordeal as a slave, he’d been curious about what it would be like to date her. He hadn’t planned on actually doing it yet; it was way too soon to tell if he liked her romantically. He’d never had a crush before, but if there was potential with anyone, it was her.

Right now, though, he wasn’t quite himself. When he looked at girls, he didn’t see them as sexy or appealing. Thalia, for instance— he could recognize she was pretty, but he had no desire for her, or for any other girl, for that matter. After spending time in that room , he just hadn’t been the same.

Still, even if right now, his interest in the princess was dead, he still valued her as a friend. He wished she could have been here.

Now that the top members of his company were all gathered, excepting one, it was time to take care of business.

“It’s nice to see you guys,” Sinbad told them sincerely, “but I don’t have time for pleasantries.” He motioned for Thalia to join him at his side. The petite girl shuffled over, untucking their letters from her top and holding them out with both hands.

“Who’s this?” Ja’far asked, accepting the pieces of paper.

“Her name is…”

“Princess Thalia…!” Drakon cut Sinbad off, dropping to one knee in a bow. Sinbad glanced at the princess beside him, who seemed startled. Of course, if she had known Drakon previously, she wouldn’t recognize him now.

“You know each other?” Sinbad asked his friend.

Drakon nodded. “We used to play together as children.” Turning his attention to Thalia, he explained. “You may not recognize me in this state, but my name is Dragul Nol Henrius Govius Menudias Partenuvonomias Dumid Os Kartanon. You knew me as Junior, but these days I go by Drakon. Everyone… we all thought you were dead.”

“Junior?” After a moment’s hesitation, during which Sinbad thought she might collapse, Thalia stepped forward, lifting Drakon’s bowed head with a gentle touch. “You’ve certainly changed. I wouldn’t have recognized you if you hadn’t told me who you were.”

“Forgive my frightening appearance,” he apologized. “A lot has happened since we last met.”

Thalia’s bright, joyous laughter lit up the air. “I’m so happy to see you again, no matter what you look like. Junior— Drakon, is it now?” Her eyes now glistening, she brought her other hand to his face, cupping his maw affectionately. “I’ve missed you so much.”

Drakon’s eyes lit up at her instant acceptance. Sinbad knew all too well how his reptilian friend was used to rejection from people outside the company. Even Serendine had called him a monster once, according to her maid. The sight of Drakon’s happiness stirred something warm in Sinbad’s chest. His heart had been closed off for weeks now, but this princess was slowly prying it open with her kindness.

No matter how heartwarming the reunion between old friends was to watch, Sinbad had to take care of business. He and Thalia had told the others they were going for a walk, and if they were gone too long, the Shamhat and Finn would become suspicious. Sinbad and Thalia weren’t free yet, and there were numerous ways that vile woman could make their lives a living hell if the other girls reported them.

“I need you to deliver the letter sealed with wax to the emperor,” Sinbad told Ja’far, pointing to the papers in the boy’s hands. “The other is instructions on how to proceed from here.”

Ja’far unfolded the paper meant for him and frowned.

“You’re going to use your personal funds buy all 347 slaves? Sin, that’s…”

“All of this was Thalia’s idea,” Sinbad announced proudly, gesturing to the girl still beaming as she stroked Drakon’s scaly temple with her thumb. Sinbad bit back a laugh to see his ornery friend behaving in such a docile manner. Thalia was certainly turning out to be a force of nature.

“Even with the steep liquidation discount, it will take you months to earn that back,” Ja’far reminded him, tucking the letters in his wide sleeves. “Luckily, we’ve also been working on a plan, one that would absorb the Mariadel Company and all its assets into ours without costing you a single copper coin.”

Sinbad gave Ja’far a solid pat on the back. He’d been so focused on survival and escape, he’d forgotten his friends were so reliable.

“I should have known you wouldn’t leave me to rot. Proceed with both plans. It’s always good to have a back up.”

Ja’far bowed his head. “Understood.”

Sinbad quickly wrapped up the reunion, bidding goodbye to each of his friends. He actually had to pry Vittel off of him. The boy was so apologetic, he didn’t want to let go.

“Thalia,” Sinbad called out to the princess, who was still doting on Drakon. “It’s time to go.”

She looked to Sinbad then back to Drakon. “But Junior…”

“We’ll meet again soon, Princess,” Drakon assured her. “Sinbad will take good care of you until then.”

She nodded forlornly, slowly backing away from her childhood friend and returning to Sinbad’s side. He was hit with a twinge of irritation at how reluctant she seemed to rejoin him. He didn’t have the history with her Drakon apparently did, but he’d thought they’d gotten along pretty well these last few days.

Maybe he’d even started to consider her a friend.

Chapter Text

After the performance that night, Thalia shed her tight, skimpy costume, grateful to return to the safety of her slave uniform. She never got used to showing skin, no matter how many times she’d performed dressed like that.

“Alright, I’m just going to say it,” Finn announced, drawing Thalia’s attention in her direction. “Echo, you’ve been acting really strangely lately.”

“Right?” Shamhat agreed. “Her smiles are brighter, she laughs louder, and she keeps trying to sneak off...”

“With the new guy, no less,” Dinarzade agreed. “I think it’s pretty obvious what’s going on here.”

“Y- you do?” Thalia stammered, breaking out in a sweat. They were on to her. They knew she was trying to escape. That’s why she was more carefree. That’s why she wanted to be alone with Sinbad. The other girls had figured it out, and now she was going to be thrown in that awful room again and tortured and—

“She’s clearly got a crush on Sinbad.” Dinarzade pointed accusingly, and the other girls nodded.

That’s what it is,” Shamhat concurred.

“I thought she was trying to escape, but this makes more sense,” Finn confessed.

Thalia froze. She was faced with two options: tell the truth and be tortured or lie and sacrifice her dignity. It wasn’t even a contest. She went with the lie. Thalia always went with the lie.

“You’re right,” She looked at the floor skittishly, clasping her hands in front of her. “I think he’s really cute. He’s just so...” Thalia tried to think of a reason she might have a crush on him. Was he handsome? How was she supposed to know? She hadn’t been paying attention. He was nice, but that was no reason to have a crush on someone. Then, she remembered his eyes that reminded her of lightning, and she knew her answer. “... intense.”

Shamhat squealed with delight, but Finn frowned, giving her a warning. “Remember not to get too attached, Echo. One of these days, you’re going to get sold and sent somewhere else, and there’s nothing he can do about it. You’re both slaves.”

Thalia nodded quietly. Finn was wrong, of course. Sinbad was going to buy her and set her free, and then she could do whatever she wanted.

… but what did she want to do? Sinbad had agreed to hire all the slaves without a place to return to, but her education had been cut short, and the only thing she knew how to do was dance. His company wouldn’t have a place for someone like her. She would be fired in an instant and forced into a brothel. Anxious tears stung the corners of her eyes, but she refused to let them fall. She would have to deal with with those problems as they became salient.

Once the girls were dressed, they joined Sinbad, who was waiting for them outside. Since the theaters provided their own security for the performances themselves, Thalia refused to let him enter. She didn’t want him to see her in one of those tiny costumes making a fool of herself. She wanted him to continue to respect her, and she was afraid if he saw her like that, he would look down on her.

“How did it go tonight, ladies?” he beamed.

“Shamhat was off tempo,” Finn complained dramatically, shooting the other girl a glare.

“Yeah, well, your form was terrible,” Shamhat shot back, crossing her arms angrily.

“Everyone did great,” Thalia told him truthfully. “Especially Dinarzade. You can really tell how hard she’s been working.”

“I think Echo was the star tonight,” Dinarzade piped up as they began to walk toward the inn. “You should ask her to dance for you someday.”

Thalia laughed nervously, wishing the blonde would shut up. She was not going to dance for Sinbad, ever.

“She’s right, you know,” Shamhat said, pacing ahead of Thalia and Sinbad. “There’s a reason she has more fans than me and Finn combined. The way that girl’s body moves could bring the best of men to their knees.”

Thalia’s anxious giggling had turned into mortified silence. Her face was so heated even her ears were on fire. She was ready to hide in a hole and never come out.

Sinbad looked down at her kindly. “I’m sure your dancing is wonderful.” After talking, he returned his attention straight ahead of him.

Finn was sandwiching Thalia between herself and Sinbad, leaving an uncomfortable lack of space for the girl dying of embarrassment in the middle. Suddenly, the prickly brunette rammed sideways Thalia, sending her colliding into the boy next to her. Sinbad caught her by the shoulders with ease, setting her upright.

“Are you okay?” he asked with a chuckle.

“You know Echo,” Finn sighed. “She’s such a clutz, especially when she’s around a guy she thinks is… what did she call you? ‘Intense.’”

Sinbad raised his eyebrows, and Thalia’s execution by humiliation was complete. She was prepared to leave this mortal coil behind and rejoin the great flow. Unfortunately, dying on the inside could not spare her from having to face Sinbad.

The other girls dashed ahead out of earshot, cackling mischievously. This had been an attempt to either set Thalia up with Sinbad or humiliate her, she wasn’t sure which. It might have been a little of both.

“I’m sorry about that,” Thalia apologized after a minute of walking in silence behind the others. “They misunderstood why we kept trying to sneak off together, and I played along with it because it was a convenient explanation.”

“You called me intense?” he asked, his lips twitching into a grin.

“Yeah…” she admitted after a brief hesitation. “You don’t do anything half-way, do you? Someone who raised a company like yours up within a couple of years is…”

Incredible. Intrepid . Intense.

“The company is just the beginning,” he told her. “My dreams are even bigger.”

Bigger? Like to increase the size of the company?

“I want to create my own country and use it to change this unjust world,” he told her, gazing off into the distance as though he were looking into his own future. “I want to make a world where people like you don’t have to suffer.”

Thalia had to stop walking to stare at him. Did this guy really think he was going to just start building on a piece of land and no one would challenge him? Founding a country was such an ambitious dream. He was being too idealistic. He would be crushed.

She watched him walk ahead of her, the wounds that had once pocked his skin no longer visible. He looked vital again. He looked like her god. Then, he glanced back at her, his golden eyes crackling with that intensity, and she knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to follow him. She wanted to support his idiotic, impossible, idealistic dream. She wanted to make his vision of a world without suffering a reality.

“What’s your dream, Princess?” He kicked a pebble down the street as she bounded back up to him. “Go home and inherit the throne?”

That’s right, she realized with a heavy heart. She was a princess. She had a duty to her people, and right now, they were suffering. She couldn’t follow this boy. She couldn’t help him fulfill his vision. She was born with a responsibility to protect her people, the ones she had failed, and this was her opportunity to atone. When she was free, she would have to find a way to take Attica back. That was her destiny, the role she’d been born to fill.

“I can’t go home,” she told him simply. “Not yet.”

He seemed to sense her lack of desire to elaborate. “If you need a place to stay until you can, you can always come work for me. I’ve seen how good you are with the children, and you’re intelligent. We could use someone like you for the young employees we’re about to take on.”

Thalia nearly burst into tears. The owner of the one of the most prominent companies wanted her. He believed she was competent and intelligent enough to do a job properly, and maybe he was right. Maybe she wasn’t going to be forced to work in a brothel.

“Please.”

“Congratulations,” he told her, holding open the door to the inn for her. “You’re hired.”


 

 

At the end of the week, the group returned to Ria Venus Island to praise and fanfare. The performances had been a success and Dinarzade’s popularity continued its upward trajectory. Thalia’s happiness for the girl’s achievements was no longer fake. Gone were the days of feeling like she had to surpass the blonde to survive. Thalia was no longer terrified of being sold because soon, the emperor would come to her rescue. Fatima was no longer around to bully her, and Lady Maader continued to leave her alone. The final days on Ria Venus Island were almost idyllic.

Thalia had been back for a week, and had finished her dance practice today. She had intended to spend this evening by herself, relaxing among the barren rhododendrons in the depths of the garden. The air at this point in the autumn was chilly all day long, and she’d wrapped herself in the cloak she’d been issued.

“Echo!” Marcus’s familiar voice called out for her as he trampled over beds of dormant lilacs and lilies of the valley to reach her. Thalia sat up and shrank in on herself, unsure which Marcus had come to visit her today— the nice Marcus? Or the angry one? He chuckled, picking her up by the waist and lifting her up in the air.

“Let go!” she complained, unnerved by the lack of ground beneath her feet and his blatant disregard for her personal space. “Put me down!”

“I heard you did really well again,” he told her, setting her back on the spongy earth. “I wish I could have seen you. You always look so beautiful when you dance.”

So, it was Nice Marcus that had come today. Thalia relaxed, stepping backward to put some space between them.

“This is two times in a row you’ve been the one to visit me,” she observed. “That’s a new record.”

“I’ve been getting tired of waiting for you,” he confessed, closing the distance Thalia had just put between them. “You take too long.”

Truthfully, Thalia hadn’t been visiting Marcus as frequently because he inevitably brought up the same topic.

“Let me buy you,” he muttered, wrapping her arms around her waist. “I know you hate it here. I can take you away.”

Thalia finally understood. He’d always couched his desire to buy her in words of adoration, but maybe deep down, he’d always just wanted to help her.

She sighed with relief, his persistence finally making sense. He must have realized she was unhappy here after she’d come crying to him so many times with tales of Fatima’s bullying. She’d been annoyed by his refusal to give up, but his heart had always been in the right place. Marcus really did care about her. He wanted to save her, to be her hero.

Thalia gently removed his hands from her sides and held them in front of her. She couldn’t let him buy her, but after she was rescued, maybe she could try to return his feelings. He was wealthy enough to fund an army and compassionate enough to lead her people. Thalia honestly didn’t expect to find anyone better for the position of her husband. The world was full of men who might try to use her to obtain power, but Marcus had accepted her even when she was a slave.

So did Sinbad, a small voice whispered in the back of her mind.

Thalia’s chest tightened as she reminded herself someone like him would never look her way. It wasn’t her place to be with him. She was lucky to have someone like Marcus. She should be grateful.

“Marcus,” she told him quietly, tightening her grip on his hands, “I have something I want to give you.”

He bent down, pressing his forehead against hers affectionately. “What is it? Something you made? …or perhaps you’ve finally come around…?”

“It’s neither,” she assured him.

He straightened, raising his golden eyebrows. “What is it then? I’m sure if it’s a gift from you, it’ll be thoughtful.”

The fondness in his voice brought an involuntary smile to her face. He seemed genuinely interested in hearing what she had to say, but Thalia couldn’t tell him yet. She was just a slave. When the emperor rescued her and she had evidence of her identity, she could explain who she really was and offer him the position of king.

“Soon,” she promised him. “I’ll tell you soon.”

A pleased grin unfurled on his face, and his hand broke free from her grasp, directing her back the the bench.

“Why don’t we just sit and talk like old times, then. How about it?”

“Yes!”

Thalia almost cried. He was finally giving her the thing she had wanted so desperately. He was finally back to normal.

Chapter Text

Young Thalia was lounging in a field of violets, a warm, friendly breeze kicking up her hair.  Her hands worked clumsily to weave a crown out of the purple flowers. It was to be a gift for a fellow princess, one worthy of perfection, so it needed to be presentable. Tucking in the final stem, Thalia lifted it up, turning to the girl beside her and nestling it on a head of lovely, pink hair.

“What about me?” Junior asked, reclining on Thalia’s other side. “Do I get one?”

Serendine laughed playfully. “No, Junior. You’re not royalty. You don’t get to wear a crown.”

He sighed, sitting up. “You two leave me out of everything these days.”

“The only thing we don’t invite you to is our slumber parties. You can’t come to those,” Thalia chided him. “You’re a boy.”

Suddenly, Junior stood up. “Does anyone else smell something burning?”

Thalia sniffed, the slightest hint smoke hitting her nose. She turned to Serendine to ask if she smelled it too.

“Serendine, do you—?”

Gone. Serendine was gone. Thalia whipped her head back in Junior’s direction, but he was gone too. The smoke was getting thicker, filling her lungs like a cloud of black death. The little princess was now scared and alone, trembling furiously. She closed her eyes and covered her ears, coughing out sobs through her burning lungs.

“Thalia, dear,” She heard her sister’s melodic voice call out to her over the approaching roar of fire. “Where have you gone off to now?”

As Thalia began to open her eyes, lulled by her sister’s reassuring voice, a metallic noise cut through the air accompanied by a strangled cry. She was met with a gruesome sight—  her friend Serendine standing triumphantly over the corpses of her family. Her beautiful pink hair was stained crimson with blood; the violet crown on her head smoldering, catching fire like the burning Attican palace behind her.

Thalia coughed and choked, scrambling backwards as the other princess’s cold eyes turned in her direction. Serendine raised her sword to swing down on Thalia. The blood-stained princess opened her mouth to speak, but it was Thalia’s father’s voice that came out.

“You must always abide by the old ways, Thalia. Otherwise, the entire country will suffer.”

Thalia thrashed and screamed as the sword came down on her, but no blow ever came. Instead, something warm and solid muffled her screams.

“Shh!” someone hissed. “It’s just me.”

Thalia opened her eyes. She had been dreaming again, only this one had been more vivid than usual. She propped her sweat-soaked body up, staring at the dark figure crouching by her bed. Golden eyes glinted softly in the moonlight.

“Sinbad?” she whispered, her racing heart beginning to slow. He motioned for her to be quiet and follow him, and Thalia obeyed on bare feet, not quite sure where he was taking her or why. Had he received some kind of report on the progress of their plan? She paused as he opened the door to the outside, letting in a draft of cold mid-autumn night air. Shivering, she realized she hadn’t thought to bring something to keep warm with. She’d just woken up and followed him without thinking about what the weather might feel like outside. She couldn’t go out there in her nightgown, not tonight.

“Give me a moment,” she whispered, turning around to grab something to keep her warm. “I need my cloak.”

“That won’t be necessary,” He grabbed her by the wrist, stopping her and holding out the cape of his own cloak. “I can share.”

She hesitated, anxiously chewing her bottom lip. If she went back and rustled around to look for her cloak, there was a chance someone would wake up and catch her, but in order for sharing to work, they would have to huddle together. Was she okay with being so close to a boy?

“What’s the matter?” he teased her. “Afraid I’ll bite?”

Thalia had been raised not to have contact with boys outside her family, and, with the exception of Junior, she had followed that teaching until she had become a slave, at which point any choice she’d had in the matter had been taken away. Over time, she’d become comfortable with casual touch and conversation with the opposite sex— that was just how things were in Reim—  but this was a bit more involved than a handshake or a pat on the back.

She’d only willingly let one boy get that close to her. Two years ago, this same person had carried her to the inn while she was injured. Deciding to climb onto his back was one of the hardest choices she’d ever made. Proper Attican women didn’t do things like that, but her ankle had hurt badly, and she’d decided to put her trust in this boy, her savior. Now, their bonds had been forged in the flames of shared trauma and rebellion, and she trusted him more than ever.

She took a small step toward him, eyes trained firmly on her feet as he drew her closer to his chest, wrapping her in the coarse fabric. Thalia had forgotten his smell— like the ocean mingled with a hints of leather and sweat. She was certain last time they had been this close, it hadn’t been so intoxicating. That faint fluttering feeling in her stomach had returned, only this time it lingered, spurred on by the solid heat of his body.

As he guided her forward, his arm draped around her shoulder, she clung to the the cloak tightly. At first, their destination was a mystery, but she quickly recognized they were taking the same path as during their last late night rendezvous. He pulled her into the secret corner she had shown him, and they sat down together, huddling for warmth.

Thalia waited for him to say something, but instead he stared quietly into the darkness, his lips pulled into a worried frown. The fluttering was gone again, replaced by the familiar churning of her stomach. He had bad news, didn’t he? Everything they had worked toward had fallen apart, and she was going to be sold to some greasy pig who was going to force himself on her, wasn’t she? Why was he being silent?

“What’s wrong?” she demanded. “Did your friends contact you about the plan? Did something happen?”

He stirred as she questioned him, as if he had been drawn out of a trance. “No, no. It’s nothing like that.” Thalia’s stomach settled a little as he gave her a guilty smile. “I’m sorry for worrying you. When I woke you up, you were having a nightmare, right?”

Thalia nodded at him, wondering if he was going to avoid her question or if he was going somewhere with this.

“Me too. I had a nightmare. This place… that room…” He seemed to be struggling to communicate what he was feeling, but Thalia already knew. She’d been tortured too.

“It won’t let you go, will it?”

“Exactly,” he whispered, his shoulders slumping defeatedly. “I needed someone to help calm me down.”

Thalia put a reassuring had on his knee, pressing her shoulder more firmly against him.

“I understand.”

She did. She was still terrified of that room. Until she had found out about Attica’s fall, every single night had been spent reliving her time in that room. Now, Thalia spent her nights alternating between finding out about her country’s fall and various renditions of the slaughter of her family, but she still sometimes returned to that room. It hadn’t let her go either.

“You do, don’t you...” he said quietly.

Thalia straightened as something warm wrapped itself around her hand, a gentle, comforting sensation that broke through every one of her defensive walls. It was too much. She should have pulled away. She should have restored the distance between them, but her fragile heart to trembled in her chest, withered and weakened from years of loneliness. This boy, he was going to breathe life back into her, wasn’t he? And she was going to let him, because she trusted him. She trusted him wholly and completely to save her again and again. He was her savior.

As the night stretched on, Thalia found herself seeking to be closer to Sinbad. The cold was a convenient cover for the truth— his touch was healing her. Years of darkness, pain, self-loathing, and guilt seeped from her body, and in its place sprung hope, trust, companionship, and something else that she couldn’t quite place.

They parted shortly before sunrise, just before their roommates would begin to wake. Sleepless nights were far from foreign to her, but this had been the first one she’d spent not replaying her terrible thoughts and fears since the night she’d realized Sinbad was on the island. She was exhausted but cheerful, giving extra praise to her fellow dancers and treating the children with extraordinary attentiveness.

Over the next two weeks, the other children kept telling her they’d never seen her so happy, but no one could figure out why. They made hundreds of guesses— that she had a secret boyfriend, that Lady Maader was doting on her again, that she had discovered a treasure hoard… Not one theory even touched on the truth— Thalia had been spending every night with Sinbad, letting him chase her demons away.

After those blissful two weeks, though, Thalia began to come down from her high, growing increasingly anxious about their rescue. It had now been three weeks since they had delivered the letter— nearly a month. Thalia had expected a quicker response, and now she was beginning to question everything.

“What if no one comes?” she sobbed into Sinbad’s chest one night. “What if I’m sold before help arrives?”

“Someone is definitely coming,” he soothed her, stroking her back. “I’ve told you my friends are reliable, haven’t I? They’ll pull through. They just need time.”

Thalia nodded, sitting up and sniffling. She was still terrified, but this boy had never let her down before. She trusted him. If he said they would be rescued, she believed him.

“Why don’t we talk about something that will cheer you up?” he suggested gently. “What’s the first thing you want to do once we’re free?”

“I… I miss the desserts of my homeland.” she confessed. “We have this pastry, layers of phyllo dough and chopped nuts drenched with honey.” She gave a small laugh. “I used to sneak into the kitchen and steal some whenever the slaves—” A wave of guilt hit her as she was reminded that the position she so loathed bad been the way of life for so many who had served her.

“We had the same thing in Parthevia,” Sinbad told her, reclining on the grass. “I never got to try it. It’s pretty expensive and I grew up poor.”

“What about you?” she prompted, resting her head down beside him. “What are you going to do?”

“Drink,” he told her with a wry grin. “I could really go for some wine.”

“Wine? Just straight wine?” She didn’t know what the drink tasted like, but it smelled awful. Thalia remembered her mother had wreaked of it. Simay was always stumbling around, carrying bottles, jugs, and glasses of the stuff.

Sinbad chuckled at Thalia’s grimace, the warm sound pulling her back from her painful childhood memories.

“You don’t like it?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“I’ve never had it,” she confessed. No proper Attican would touch uncut wine, and if it tasted anything like it smelled, she was certain she would hate it.

“Thalia!” Sinbad abruptly sat up, sounding personally offended. His over the top reaction sent her her into a fit of giggles. “I’m going to personally ensure we fix that, okay?”

“Good luck,” she wished him. He was going to need it. She had no intention to touch the drink that had taken her mother from her.

Their conversation died out, the rustling of trees drifting over them as a freezing wind kicked up. Even under Thalia’s cloak, her small body began to shiver. These late night meetings would be impossible during the winter. They were already getting difficult, but she never wanted them to end.

“You know,” she confessed, breaking the comfortable silence. “I’m really glad I met you. My entire life, people have told me I’m inferior or incompetent or weak, but you… you told me I was strong. You believed in me.” She drew her knees up to her chest. “You make me want to believe in myself.”

His hand rested on hers, warm and healing. “I meant every word of it, Thalia. You have potential.”

When his warm golden eyes crinkled into a smile, her heart rate spiked, and that fluttering, which was stronger than ever, stirred up once more. She didn’t know what this was, but she let herself feel it because she knew she was safe. Sinbad was safe.

“You… are so strange,” she told him. He really was like no one she’d ever met.

He let out a quiet laugh. “You’re the strange one. I’m actually renown for my charm and natural social grace.”

“I’m sure,” Thalia tittered sarcastically.

“I’m serious!” Sinbad looked away, a distant expression crossing his face. “I bet I could sweep you off your feet in a heartbeat if I wanted to, but… I don’t think that’s what either of us needs right now.”

   Thalia nodded agreeably. “What I really need right now is a friend.”

   “Then you’re in luck,” Sinbad told her, holding out a hand to her. “Because I’m one of the best friends you’ll ever make. What do you say?”

   “B-best friends?!” Thalia stammered, a silly grin spreading across her face. She’d only focused on two words in that sentence. He was moving a bit fast, but… no one had ever offered to be her best friend before. “I want a best friend! Yes!” She’d been too loud, but she didn’t care.  She shook his hand enthusiastically with both of hers. It was warm and big and sturdy, and she never wanted to let go.

   “Alright, then,” he whispered. His golden eyes glittered warmly as he placed his free hand on top of hers, lighting her whole body up with joy and comfort. “I’ll be your best friend if you promise to smile like that more often. It suits you much better than those fake ones you always wear.”

Both of them froze as the sound of armored footsteps approached.

“The noise came from this way,” Kil’s voice announced.

Thalia went stiff. Kil had heard them, and now they were going to be thrown in the punishment room and charged with plotting against their master. They would be tortured.

Sinbad shoved her onto her back, mounting her and pressing his forehead against hers. She immediately understood his intentions. If they were caught talking, they could be accused of conspiring. If they were caught in a lovers’ embrace, however, the penalty would probably be less severe. They might even be let off with a whipping since they hadn’t crossed any lines.

She positioned his hand on her waist before digging her own fingers into his solid back. Her breathing was hard, but he stroked her chin with a calming thumb as if to tell her that it was okay; they were in this together. Thalia gave a slight nod to let him know she understood, and, as the trample of several pairs of feet drew nearer, she closed her eyes and awaited her fate. It was all she could do.

“I knew I heard something,” Kil’s voice muttered as the footsteps paused. “Take these two into custody!”

Thalia dared to open her eyes as two armed adults pried Sinbad off her. She fought and clung to his clothing, begging them not to take him away. He was her safety. She couldn’t make it through this without him.

Once he had been apprehended, Thalia stared in horror from her place on the ground. He had the audacity to smile at her as though he believed everything would be alright. He was clearly lying. That wasn’t his place. She was the liar, but, right now, even she couldn’t bear to lie. Not to him.

She wouldn’t have been able to fight one of these over-muscled brutes, but two stepped forward to hoist her off the ground anyway. She hung limply, submission overcoming her body. Fighting was pointless when she was so weak. That was something learned that when Brutus had manhandled her during her kidnapping, and, over the years, the lesson had been reinforced countless times. Now, even if she had wanted to struggle, she couldn’t. Her body wouldn’t obey.

The guards dragged the pair to the shipment receiving areas and tossed them in two seperate cages. The enclosures were cramped even for Thalia. She could only imagine how Sinbad felt, contorted to fit in such a tiny space. She didn’t dare look, though. She kept her eyes fixed on Kil, who was standing with her hands clasped behind her back, glowering at each of them with contempt.

“Lady Maader will decide what to do with you in the morning,” the girl announced. With no further words, she pivoted and left, followed by all but one of the guards.

The remaining guard kept watch over them the whole night. Thalia knew better than to try to speak, and apparently so did Sinbad. She quietly watched him through her bars, refusing to make eye contact every time he tried to smile at her. Even though they had spared themselves outright torture, she knew he would be punished, possibly more severely than she. He must have known that too, but he still put on this act for her. She didn’t know if he was being stupid or kind.

The next morning, Lady Maader strolled in the room, rage bleeding through her fake smile. She let Sinbad out first and tenderly placed her hands on his shoulders, like a mother might do to a wayward son. Thalia grimaced internally, disgusted by the display. That loathsome woman was trying to win him back. Little did she know, she couldn’t. Thalia had already saved him.

“My dear Sinbad,” Lady Maader cooed, “you’re a growing boy. I understand you have urges. That’s normal, but think about it: how can you remain my child if you engage in adult activities?” She turned to the guard, still smiling venomously. “Take him to the punishment chamber. We will discuss his discipline there.” His whole body stiffened at the words “punishment chamber.”

Lady Maader followed Sinbad and the guard out of the room, and Thalia stared after them silently, unable to help her savior this time. After a while, as the guilt died down, she began to realize that the wretched woman hadn’t even acknowledged her. Could it be their master didn’t hold Thalia responsible for what happened at all? As worried as she was for Sinbad, she didn’t want to be punished either. Some of rigidity left her body as she selfishly celebrated her own narrow escape. Maybe she would be released soon without incident.

Maybe not.

Chapter Text

Thalia was stuck in that cage for two days, during which time she received two bathroom breaks a day and no one was allowed to visit her. She watched Finn, Shamhat, and Dinarzade each fail to talk their way past the on-duty guard. Masrur stopped by and gave her a small nod after intimidating the guard into submission, and she felt his silent encouragement. She’d always assumed he tolerated her presence because he didn’t care enough about her to tell her to go away, but now she realized he might genuinely appreciate her company.

On the third day, Kil came to release Thalia from her cage.

“You wreak,” the girl complained, waving her hand in front of her nose. “Get out and take a bath. Lady Maader wants to see you when you’re finished.”

Thalia crawled out of her enclosure, struggling to straighten her stiff legs. The fact that Lady Maader had requested to see her after all this time raised her hairs on end. She remembered what had happened to Fatima, how he had angered their master and had his body sold as a result, but stopped herself. She refused to allow her thoughts to go in that direction. The witch only cared about one thing— profits. In that regard, being caught with Sinbad wasn’t as bad as freeing dozens of slaves. She hadn’t done anything that would damage her own value, either. The monstrous woman probably wanted to personally issue a whipping because she would get some kind of sick joy out of making Thalia suffer. That was all.

The bathtub was large and warm, and Thalia was surprised to have it all to herself. Most children weren’t allowed to use this bath— it was Lady Maader’s personal one. This special treatment was strange, but it was nothing Thalia couldn’t explain away. She told herself the woman wanted to soften her skin before the whipping so that the lashes dug in deeper. The rich soaps she had been provided with had to serve that purpose too. She didn’t allow her imagination to get carried away. None of this was definite evidence that she would end up like Fatima.

After the bath, Thalia was still brushing her damp hair when Kil came for her, carrying a folded swath of sickeningly pink fabric. Sneering, she tossed the bundle in Thalia’s lap.

“Put this on.”

Thalia lifted the garment up by its shoulders, appalled at its plunging neckline. She turned her attention to Kil, staring at her incredulously. Thalia refused to acknowledge her growing suspicions about the significance of this dress, swallowing the bile rising in her stomach.

It doesn’t mean anything. None of this means anything. That witch is just messing with my head.

Thalia knew she wasn’t.

“I’m not walking around like that.”

“You will. You don’t have a choice.”

Thalia glanced at the fabric one final time, lowering it back into her lap. “If I refuse?”

“I’ll have guards come in here and dress you,” Kil snapped.

Thalia stared blankly at the wall in front of her. Perhaps some small part of her had believed if she hadn’t put on the dress, she would have been tortured instead. She wasn’t sure that was any better, but at least the damage wasn’t permanent. Wounds would heal. What was about to be done to her couldn’t be undone.

“What are you waiting for?” Kil crossed her arms in front of her chest expectantly.

Thalia had failed over and over and over in her life. She had failed her people, and she had failed herself. Her only success in sixteen years was bringing Sinbad over to her side. Even that much had been asking too much. This result was inevitable, because no matter how much hope Sinbad had given her, Thalia had known deep down that her existence was never meant to be a happy one. Every small joy she claimed for herself was eventually ripped from her. She had fought for nothing.

If Thalia had learned one thing in her years as a slave, it was that when she couldn’t fight, it was better to submit. She hadn’t lost everything yet. She would still come out of this alive, and that was her goal— not to thrive, but to survive.

She donned the low-cut negligee, which offered no protection from the air’s chill, leaving her trembling pathetically before a girl nearly a head shorter than her.

“Let’s go.” Kil marched purposefully ahead as Thalia followed, shivering with her arms wrapped protectively across her chest. The children she passed were too young to understand what was happening, and they ran up to her, praising her outfit and telling her she looked like a princess.

She had never felt less like one.

They eventually arrived at the west wing, the part of the building with bedrooms for especially important visitors, and more recently…

This was where Fatima had been raped. Thalia fought back a sob.

Pausing outside an open door, Kil motioned for Thalia to step in the room. She obeyed, hanging her head low. If she offended Lady Maader any further, it might not just be Thalia’s body that the woman sold.

“Echo, I have good news for you,” Lady Maader purred, pulling Thalia against her warm chest. “You’re going to serve a patron personally today.”

Thalia’s body remembered this touch. It had been comforting, motherly. Even now, her limbs grew weak, and she wanted to sob in this woman’s arms, opening up about her despair. Perhaps Thalia had been wrong. Perhaps there was enough love in this woman’s heart to spare a useless princess from a dreaded fate.

“Please don’t do this,” Thalia whimpered, burying her face in the woman’s bosom. “I was wrong. I know I was.”

“Oh, my dear Echo…” Lady Maader stroked Thalia’s hair tenderly, easing the girl’s trembling. “I thought this whole time you were lost beyond reach, but you are still my child, aren’t you?” The woman hugged Thalia against her firmly for a minute before speaking again, this time her voice devoid of its seductive affection. “Serve this man well and make money for your mother. This is your atonement. I’ll forgive you if he reports you were satisfactory.”

“No.” Thalia backed away from Lady Maader, shaking her head. The woman had managed to fool her again. Thalia had known this witch was a monster all these years, and she’d still given in during a moment of weakness. She set her jaw. “I won’t. I’d rather die.”

“Echo,” Lady Maader’s eyes gleamed dangerously in the dim lamplight. “You seemed to be quite eager to pursue these kinds of activities the other night. This is simply insurance that I’ll get my money’s worth out of you before you do something destructive.”

Lady Maader left the room and ushered someone in: Marcus. Thalia’s heart leapt with joy. Marcus had promised he wouldn’t buy her without her permission. Lady Maader must have lied to him and told him Thalia had approached her about a sale. If she just explained the situation he would understand.

“Marcus,” she cried, running up to him and clutching at his shirt. “I’m so glad it’s you!”

His hands slid up her back, gliding over the satin fabric of her dress before tugging her closer. He smelled musky and woody, the complex scent of expensive perfumes hitting her nose. Thalia stiffened in his arms as he began to silently undo the button holding her dress closed in the back.

“You have no idea how long I’ve waited for this,” he whispered in her ear, sliding one shoulder of her dress down her arm.

Thalia panicked. She had to stop him. He was misunderstanding.

“Marcus, someone lied to you. I haven’t agreed to this.” She pushed at his chest, forcing him to give her space. “Go back and tell Lady Maader to give you a refund.”

“Echo…” He stared down at her, his sea-blue eyes cold and unfamiliar. “You really think you still have a choice?”

Of course she had a choice. It was her body. He had promised—

“I told you didn’t I? If I see someone else threatening my property, I won’t hesitate to claim what’s mine.” His sweaty thumb stroked her bare shoulder with a tenderness that contrasted unsettlingly with his words.

“No one is threatening your property,” she assured him, pushing firmly on his chest. “I don’t even belong to you. Lady Maader is my master.”

“Not anymore,” He gave a sickening smile, uncovering her other shoulder. “She clearly can’t handle so many slaves. I’ve decided to take you off her hands.”

Thalia had to stop shoving him in order to hold the front of her dress up, crossing her arms protectively over her chest.

“She’s handling me fine,” Thalia lied. She was reluctant to defend the woman, but she was also terrified of being sold. Terror won out over reluctance.

“Clearly not.” Marcus firmly grasped her arms, prying them away from her chest and down to her sides. “She’s let a wolf among her flock, and he’s gone after the most vulnerable sheep.”

“Wolf?” She shoved him again as he began to tear at her dress. “You’re the one acting like a predator. I told you to stop.”

“I told you to stay away from that guy,” Marcus growled.

Suddenly, Thalia understood. He’d found out about her and Sinbad being caught together in the middle of the night. He was jealous. If that was the case, she just needed to set his mind at ease. It didn’t matter that he had no right to treat her like this. All that mattered was convincing him to stop.

“Nothing happened, Marcus. We were just talking when we heard someone coming and panicked.”

“I believe you,” he whispered, dragging her back into an embrace. “My sweet, obedient Echo wouldn’t let another man touch her.”

“Let’s stop this then,” she pleaded, resisting the urge to squirm away from him. “Let’s just sit on the bed and talk like—”

“I’m sick of talking.” He grabbed her chin and roughly brought his lips to hers, sending her into a state of shock. Her entire body locked up. This wasn’t right. Marcus protected her from the men that would do something like this. He wasn’t one of them. For two years, he had been her friend. For two years, he had let her cry on his shoulder. She had been alone with him countless times. He’d given her flowers. He wasn’t a monster. She knew he wasn’t.

She tried to speak, but his mouth was still smashed angrily against hers. His hands tore at her dress, successfully fending off her feeble attempts to fight him. Soon, she was naked and vulnerable, her limbs refusing to cooperate. Finally, he shoved her on the bed, his hands hot and moist.

“This isn’t you,” she pleaded. “You don’t have to do this.”

He was acting like a monster, but there was a genuinely good guy in there. Where had he gone?

He pushed back his hair, letting out a low breath. “You’re right. It’s not me. It’s you. You did this to yourself.”

He began to take off his own clothing. If Thalia had a chance to escape, this would have been it, but she wasn’t thinking straight. It didn’t even occur to her to run. She’d already been overpowered by him, and she’d done the only thing her body knew to do when faced with a larger adversary— she had submitted.

First he removed his shirt, revealing a bare chest with a sickly sheen. She usually thought of his skin as being golden, but right now it was sallow. As he began to take off his pants, she looked away, not wanting to see what was underneath. Its presence was still inescapable. It emitted a stench that exploded into the air— more pungent and more nauseating than mere sweat. The smell invaded her nostrils, making her stomach churn, and Thalia prayed she would puke. Maybe he would be too disgusted to continue if she did.

She felt the bed shift underneath her as he climbed next to her, grabbing her legs roughly and shifting them onto the mattress.

“Echo…” Marcus murmured, propping himself up next to her. Thalia’s body was frozen, and she could only move her eyes enough to look at his face. He smiled down at her condescendingly. “Do you know why I like you?”

Thalia swallowed, her tongue getting caught in her throat. She couldn’t answer him. She couldn’t even shake her head. Nothing would move.

“You’re so easy to manipulate,” he confided in her. “I give millions to charity each year, but all of that is for appearances. What I really like is control, and you are the perfect victim. No one loves you. No one wants you. You’re all alone, and you’ll put up with anything for a little kindness.”

Thalia trembled in fear as he stroked her cheek. What had appeared as affection before now seemed more like contempt. He was just like Lady Maader, only instead of torture, he used insults. He built her up just to tear her back down, leaving her too off-balance to stand up to him. He really was a monster.

“I know you’ll be angry at me for this, but you’re going to forgive me. All I need to do is dangle our friendship in front of you, and you’re come crawling back like you always do. I love that about you, Echo.”

He was wrong. She would never forgive him. If she had to spend the rest of her life alone, she would never so much as look in his direction again.

As he climbed on top of her, she found the strength to make one last attempt to stop him.

“Get off me,” she demanded, shoving against his chest with all her might. He was too heavy. It was useless. “I said get off!”

Ignoring her, he forced himself between her legs, a strange grimace crossing his face as he entered. Thalia’s limbs became too heavy to move again, and she could do nothing but stare into the flame of the lamp on the bedside table.

Her thoughts took her back to Attica, where if news of this got out, she would be scorned. She would have to find a way to suppress news of what had happened in this room. No one could know. Her prospects couldn’t be ruined if no one ever found out she wasn’t a virgin. Maybe she could even come up with a way to fake her virginity on her wedding night. The country needed stability, and a ruined princess was anything but stable. This would not be the end of her. This would not be the end of her country.

When it was over, Marcus sat on the edge of the bed, pensive. Thalia sat up, crossing her arms over her chest as his semen seeped out of her a little at a time. It dawned that she might get pregnant from this encounter, and she stifled a sob. She didn’t want to carry this monster’s child. She didn’t even want to look at him, but she did. She looked into his eyes, blue like the seas, and saw no regret in them.

“I had to do this, otherwise, you would never understand your place” he whispered. “I’m going to buy you. I’ll treat you like a queen, and as long as you stay my sweet, obedient Echo, I’ll never have to do this to you again.”

Thalia wanted nothing more than for this man to leave. He was a stranger to her now.

“Just go.”

Marcus stood up and put his clothes back on. Once he left the room, Thalia began detachedly inspecting her body for marks. Fatima had been covered with bruises. The world could see that he’d been abused after what happened to him, but Marcus hadn’t left a single mark. Looking at her, who would be able to tell how he’d damaged her?

Next, she checked the sheets for the red spot that she’d always been told accompanied the loss of virginity. The sheets were pure white, like untouched snow. There was no evidence at all of the crime that had just occurred, and somehow, that stung more than anything else. Would anyone believe her if she told them that Marcus Alexius, Reim’s beloved philanthropist, had done this to her? Of course not.

On the bright side, the lack of proof would make covering up what had happened on this day simple. The world would look at her and never see the difference…

… but she was irrevocably changed.

She’d known this moment would come. She’d been desperately trying to avoid it for years. Now, here she was, on the other side. What had all that fighting been for? What had she been dreading? The world hadn’t ended. She wasn’t broken. All she felt was numb.

Thalia put on that disgusting dress and shuffled out of the dreadful room in the direction of her dormitory, ignoring the pleas of the smaller children wanting her to play with them. She couldn’t. She just needed to lie down for a while. Then she would feel whole again. Then she would feel normal.

Once back in her room, she shed the sickly pink dress and put on something familiar, crawling into bed and burying herself under the safety of her sheets. She lay down for maybe an hour before two of her roommates poked their heads in.

“Echo…” Shamhat’s voice was heartbroken, but her pity just made Thalia angry. Thalia had been the one victimized, not her. She had no right to be sad on Thalia’s behalf. “We heard what happened.”

“Who did it?” Finn demanded. “I’ll fucking chop his—”

Thalia forced herself to sit up and faked a smile. “I think you’re confused. Nothing happened. I explained that I didn’t want to do anything, and he and I just talked for a while. That’s all.”

“So no one touched you?” Shamhat asked.

“No one… touched me.” Thalia’s voice wavered as she spoke. She was still shaken, ready to burst into tears at any moment.

“You’re lying in bed for fun?” Finn frowned, picking up the ripped garment Thalia had left on the floor. “This dress tore itself?”

Thalia could have explained away why she was lying in bed, but the matter of the dress was more complicated, and she wasn’t in the state to try to sweep it under the rug.

The color drained from Shamhat’s face as stared at the tattered gown. “Oh my god…”

Finn sat on the end of Thalia’s bed, her jaw set. “I’m gonna fucking say it. That woman is a monster.”

“Who?” Shamhat settled down next to her.

“You know fucking who. Maader Umm Mariadel. I-” Finn faltered, her voice cracking. “I’ve defended her for so long, but I can’t anymore. Echo didn’t deserve this. Not even Fatima did.”

Thalia should have been happy. Finn was finally acknowledging what a terrible woman Lady Maader was. Thalia had gained an ally. This was a victory.

Her heart continued to buzz with static numbness.

Shamhat stared at her hands in her lap. “I’ve been thinking the same thing, but I didn’t want to say anything because I was scared…”

“Echo!” Dinarzade stumbled against the doorway, flushed and dripping with sweat. Panting, she held up a small jug.

“I just… got back from… the herbalist.” She stumbled toward Thalia, prying the lid off. “Drink this… it’s a contraceptive…”

Thalia accepted the bottle, carefully avoiding brushing hands with Dinarzade. She stared at it for a moment. Medicine was expensive. Dinarzade shouldn’t have been able to afford this. She was a slave. She didn’t have any income.

“Where did you get the money for this?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just drink it.”

Thalia nodded and brought the liquid to her lips, relief flooding her. She wasn’t going to have to raise Marcus’s child.

The first time she walked into the cafeteria, she could feel the eyes of the older children on her. They all knew her body had been sold. Some praised her for serving Lady Maader so faithfully. Thalia lied and explained to each of them that all that had happened in the room was talking. Others avoided making eye contact. She represented the looming reality that they could be the next victims of their master’s greed.

When she sat down at the table with Sinbad, she was relieved to see he appeared relatively unharmed. She could tell by the way he winced when he moved that they had done something to him, but she didn’t dare ask about it in front of his roommates. Their conversations that night died quickly. Thalia’s mind was too far off to give more than one word responses to anything he said.

On her way back to her dorm, he called after her.

“Thalia!”

She paused, slowly turning around to face him. He stared her her, his shoulders slumped and guilt written over his face.

“I’m sorry… I couldn’t protect you.”

Thalia forced a smile. Finn, Shamhat and Dinarzade had figured out what had happened on their own, but the fewer people who knew the truth, the easier it would be to cover this up.  “Nothing happened in that room. I’m fine.”

He let out a relieved sigh and pulled her into his friendly, familiar embrace.

Thalia knew Sinbad would never, ever do anything like that to her. He’d more than proven himself trustworthy. So why was it that this time, when his arms wrapped around her, instead of feeling safe, she felt like she was underneath that horrid man once again?

Details Thalia hadn’t even realized she’d noticed began to flood her senses— the sensation of Marcus’s skin sticking to hers, the nauseating feeling of his weight pressing down on her… all those memories tumbled around in her mind, flooding her with rage, terror, helplessness, and shame..

“Don’t touch me!” she cried, violently shoving Sinbad away and curling into a ball. She was fully aware she had just given the truth away. She was also fully aware that she’d just made him feel like a monster. She couldn’t do anything about either of those things. She was too busy struggling to breathe, to control the angry sobs that forced their way out of her throat.

That was the first time what had happened actually hit her.

Chapter Text

 

The wails of hundreds of children rose like a symphony of misery all around Thalia. Their mistress was gone. She had vanished in the night, along with Kil and one or two other children, leaving the rest of her property behind. She must have received information from an informant on what was about to happen. It was too much of a coincidence that she left without a word the night before the military arrived.

Thalia collapsed into a chair as soldiers stormed into the dining hall, gathering the children and searching for a lost princess. She wished they’d come even just two days sooner. Then Marcus wouldn’t have had the chance to defile her. Then this victory wouldn’t feel so hollow.

“Thalia Alexandris! Which of you is Thalia?” Nerva Julius Calaudes’s grating voice called out for her. Thalia knew she should respond. She should face him, thank him even. Instead, she stared at the sea of children surrounding her. Ever since that had happened, the slightest of touches brought her back to that bedroom, leaving her in hysterics. She couldn’t navigate this crowd. It would be impossible.

“Who is he looking for?” Finn shouted over the screaming. “There’s no Thalia here!”

“Someone said that’s the crown prince!” Shamhat reappeared by Thalia’s side after performing her reconnaissance. “They’re looking for his fiancee. Apparently she’s been living as one of us for years. She’s a princess.

“No way,” Finn gasped. “Who—?”

“Thalia!” Sinbad plowed his way through a group of kids, looking straight at the girl everyone had called Echo for years. “He’s looking for you.”

Finn and Shamhat’s conversation skidded to a halt. Neither of them would have expected the humble Echo they’d eaten, slept, and trained with for four years would turn out to be a princess, much less the crown prince’s fiancee.

Thalia again turned her gaze to the swarm of children around her, her body beginning to tremble. They were packed together too closely. She would have to shove them out of the way. She couldn’t go to Nerva. She was terrified.

“I’ll have him come here,” Dinarzade volunteered. “You stay.” Without another word, the blonde left, weaving her way through the crowd of wailing children.

“Y- your name is Echo though…” Finn appeared to be having trouble processing the information she’d just received. “Why would Dinarzade go get the prince… he’s looking for a princess… You’re just Echo.”

Thalia shifted uncomfortably in her chair to face her confused companion. “Please refer to me as Thalia from now on. Echo is the name our master gave me to conceal my identity.”

“Y- y- you…”

“Princess?!” Shamhat’s eyes glittered. “Should we bow? We should bow. Finn, bow!” The raven haired romantic lowered herself into a curtsy as Finn continued to stammer.

“Please.” Thalia squirmed in embarrassment. “No one has bowed to me in years. Stop. It’s weird.”

“PRINCESS THALIA!” A voice like the cry of a strangled crow called for Thalia’s attention, and she turned to find Nerva Julius Calaudes shoving aside children to approach her, Dinarzade following meekly behind him. “You’re safe! Oh, you poor, tragic creature!”

Creature...?

Nerva twisted around to shout at a guard to quiet the children, which the guard then did with a bellowing command.

The din now at a more tolerable level, Thalia stood up and curtsied politely to her soon-to-be ex-fiance. She’d known since the fall of Attica the engagement would be cancelled when she was found. When Reim’s royal family had agreed to the engagement, they had signed up for the easy acquisition of a country, not an extension of their war with Parthevia. The only thing Thalia had to offer had been taken from her. In essence, she was damaged goods in yet another sense.

“Do not worry, sweet princess. I, the great Nerva Julius Calaudes have come to free you from that vile woman’s clutches!”

He calls himself “the great”?

Thalia put on a demure smile. If he wanted her to play the role of “sweet princess,” she would give him what he wanted. Despite the inevitability of their cancelled marriage, she needed to ingratiate herself to him. They would be the rulers of two neighboring countries one day, and if she insulted him now, the relationship between Attica and Reim might suffer for it later.

“Oh my… Nerva, is that you? It’s been so long. You’ve grown so tall!”

“And you’ve grown so beautiful,” he lamented. “It’s unfortunate we’ll have to cancel our engagement. With my rugged good looks and your refined beauty, our children would have been the most attractive princes and princesses Reim had ever seen.”

Rugged… good… looks…

Thalia stared at the prince dully. Perhaps if she found his personality attractive, his narrow, beady eyes and enormous nose might have seemed more endearing than repulsive. Unfortunately, he was as pompous as she remembered. He may have actually gotten worse.

When the initial shock of the degree of his vanity passed, Thalia gave him an understanding smile. Relief flooded her now that she officially didn’t have to marry this man.

“I agree. With the change in circumstances surrounding my situation, it would seem cancelling the engagement is for the best.”

“My father and I wish to convey our condolences for everything that’s happened Please…” Please? Thalia was surprised that word was in his vocabulary. He pulled out a large, jingling sack and held it out. “Accept this gift of consolation.”

Thalia took the coin purse from him, careful not to let their fingers touch, and held it in front of her stomach. “Your generosity will not be forgotten.”

In reality, no amount of money could bring her parents and her sister back from the dead. Even so, waging war to take back her country would be expensive. This wouldn’t be a drop in the sea of what she needed to raise to fund an army, but every bit would count. However much this gift of consolation failed in its purpose, it would bring her one step closer to her goal.

She exchanged a few more pleasantries with Nerva before he abruptly excused himself, claiming to have “important, official business” to take care of. That was it. She wouldn’t have to deal with him again until they met in a political capacity, which could be years away.

She sighed. What a relief.

“Strange guy,” Sinbad muttered, resting a hand on the back of her chair as she sat back down. “You deserve better anyways. Someone better looking, less stuck up— someone who appreciates you.”

Thalia smiled down in her lap, warmed by Sinbad’s kind words and the friendly wink that had accompanied them. They were a small comfort during this time of uncertainty. Her attempt at securing her own future had fallen through. She’d planned on marrying Marcus— god, had that been stupid— but now she had no one. No prospects.

Though, in her current state, she preferred it that way. Maybe she would put off thoughts of looking for a suitor for a while and focus on acclimating to life as a free woman. It had been so long since she’d known what that felt like. Even in the palace, her life had been restrictive, but now…

She looked up at the boy who had helped her obtain freedom. She would be in his employ indefinitely. When she was ready, she would make preparations for war— hunt down allies, procure an army… but not yet. First, she needed to piece herself back together.

“Sin!” Upon hearing her friend’s name, Thalia followed the voice to find a familiar sandy-haired boy making his way through the crowd. In his hand, he clutched an important-looking piece of paper. He beamed as soon as he locked eyes with Sinbad. “It worked. Sindria Trading Company has absorbed all of Mariadel Company's assets.”

Dinarzade squealed. “Does that mean…?”

Sinbad flashed each of the girls surrounding him a dazzling smile. “Congratulations, ladies. You’re free.”


 

Thalia boarded her the ship to her new life on the mainland in a haze. As soon as Sinbad had said the word “free” her tether to the outside world had snapped. She had a general idea of what was going on around her; she’d managed to focus enough to help Sinbad sort the children with families from the ones with no one to care for them.

She was also aware Finn and Shamhat had declined to join the company. Apparently, Shamhat had been keeping a boyfriend in secret for months. Rather than leave him, she’d decided to stay and build a new life together. Finn, on the other hand, had decided to join a convent. She’d said she wanted to really help orphans, not exploit them the way Lady Maader had. She’d claimed it was her penance for being complacent for so long.

Thalia was also aware the two girls, the ones she’d spent so long refusing to call her friends, had already left. She remembered they’d said goodbye, but she couldn’t remember what she’d told them in return. She couldn’t remember if she’d told them how she really felt— that she’d appreciated their support, that they had always been good to her. She couldn’t remember if she’d said anything at all.

As if she hadn’t been lost enough, her guiding light, her beacon in the fog, had slowly started to disappear. Sinbad had become absorbed coordinating the transportation of the children, ensuring their safety and the well-being of their families. He’d stopped showing up to their secret spot in the middle of the night. Sitting there, shivering alone in the cold, Thalia had realized that whatever they’d had on Ria Venus Island, it wasn’t going to survive the transition to freedom.

Before Ria Venus Island, he’d had an entire life full of friends, and there had never been room for someone like her in it. Sooner or later, he was bound to forget about her.

“Thalia.”

She snapped out of her brooding, tugged back by Sinbad’s voice. He hadn’t disappeared completely yet. Occasionally, he still noticed her.

“I’d like to introduce you two formally.” He gestured to the sandy haired boy at his side. “This is Ja’far. Ja’far, this is Thalia, one of our new employees.”

Wearing a charming smile, the young boy stretched out his palm in greeting. “It’s nice to meet you, Thalia. I look forward to working with you.”

Thalia stared at his hand blankly for a moment before she understood she was meant to shake it. As a slave, such greetings were not bestowed upon her. Handshakes were reserved for equals.Despite her overwhelming gratitude for being treated so respectfully, Thalia curtsied politely in response.

“It’s nice to meet you as well, Ja’far.”

.His smile faltered as his hand remained empty.

Sinbad came to Thalia’s rescue, as always, sparing the boy’s feelings. “Don’t worry about it, Ja’far. She’s a little finicky about touch.”

The boy glanced at her and then Sinbad. “Did something happen? A few weeks ago, she and Drakon—”

Out of the corner of her eye, Thalia caught Sinbad giving the child a swift warning glare.

“Right.” Ja’far returned his hand to his side. “Don’t ask. Got it.” He returned his friendly smile to Thalia. “I won’t be the one training you, but if you have any questions, feel free to stop by my office. I’m much more reliable than the boss here.”

“Ja’far!” Suddenly, Sinbad had the child in a playful headlock.

Thalia stumbled backward, a surprised giggle escaping her lips. The roughhousing between the two boys reminded her of how Drakon and Serendine sometimes used to—

Suddenly, her moment of levity was gone. The Serendine she had known was dead, replaced by a monster who’d killed her parents. If she never saw Serendine again, Thalia would be happy. She didn’t want revenge. She wanted to forget that the pink haired princess ever existed. That was all Thalia asked for, peace from the memories of that girl.


 

The Sindria company employees threw a feast to celebrate the return of their leader. After eating his fill, Sinbad brought his most trusted companions to Thalia and Masrur one by one, telling the two newcomers each of his friends’ names. The introductions were similar in format to Ja’far’s, awkward avoidance of handshakes and all.

Sinbad introduced Hinahoho, Rurumu, and their children all together. Next was Pipirika followed by Mystras of Sasan, Parsine of Artemyra, and Mahad and Vittel. So many new names and faces blurred together in her head that she wondered if she would ever remember them all.

The next person she would have no trouble remembering, though. Sinbad brought over Junior— they called him Drakon, now, she reminded herself— and introduced him mostly for Masrur’s sake. Drakon greeted her once again in a manner befitting a princess, kneeling respectfully. He’d become so docile compared to the prideful and rambunctious child she’d known.

“My, you really have grown since the days you insisted I was too ugly to be a princess,” she teased.

A hint of red shone through Drakon’s bright green complexion. “Princess, please forgive my rudeness when we were younger. I was much too brash and careless with my words.”

Princess. He kept calling her that. She’d thought they had moved past formal titles years ago, but maybe he was doing this on purpose. After all, it had been four years since they’d last spoken. Maybe it was naive of her to believe they could pick up their friendship where they’d left off. Even so, she would cling to him. She would stubbornly pursue him until he agreed to be her friend again, much like she had when they’d first met.

Thalia leaned forward, keeping her hands clasped safely behind her back. “There’s nothing to forgive. Now stand up.”

“It’s so nice to watch the two of you get along,” Sinbad sighed as Drakon rose from his bow. “If only you were this obedient with me, eh Drakon?”

“I still haven’t forgiven you for causing so much trouble.” Drakon scowled.

Thalia smiled. There was the Junior she remembered. He’d always masked his affection behind harsh words. In this same manner, he’d made her cry dozens of times in their youth. He’d never known how to handle her tears and subsequently floundered to cheer her up. Eventually, he’d realized his prideful attempts at “apologies” only further insulted her, and he’d taken to giving her gifts— seashells, flowers, rocks, whatever he could find lying around.

Sinbad didn’t cry, though. He wasn’t nearly as sensitive as young Thalia. Instead, he bent down and wrapped an arm around Masrur as though confiding a secret. “See what I put up with?”

“Mm.” The young Fanalis nodded.

“Allow me to translate for Junior,” Thalia interjected. “What he was really saying is that he’s been worried sick about you, Sinbad.”

“Thalia!” The red underneath Drakon’s scales was more visible now. Thalia winked at her old friend. Finally, he’d referred to her by name.

“Speaking of childhood friends…” Sinbad brought a thoughtful finger to his chin. “Drakon, didn’t you and Serendine grow up together as well? Thalia, do you know her—”

“Sinbad.” Drakon’s stern tone brought Thalia’s wellmeaning new boss to a halt, but it was too late. She had heard the name of the girl who’d murdered her parents fall from his lips as though…

“You know her?” Thalia’s stomach began to churn violently, and she thought she might vomit on his precious marble floor the same way she had the night she’d found out about the fate of her family.

“Yeah,” Sinbad said it nonchalantly, as though it were no big deal. “She works here too.”

Drakon’s eyes were fixed on Thalia, studying her as though he was trying to gauge how much she already knew. Thalia stumbled slightly, nearly losing her balance, but otherwise maintained a placid expression.

No matter how close they’d gotten on Ria Venus Island, she had no idea what Sinbad was like off it. She’d just gotten here, but who knew how long a history he had with Serendine? If she started making accusations against Sinbad’s friends, he could easily kick her out. Then she would be forced to work in a brothel, and…

Memories of what had happened in that bedroom began to drag her away from the present, the sensation of clammy hands groping her skin sending shivers up her spine. In a brothel, it would be that same thing over and over again night after night, a parade of Marcuses.

Lurking the halls of this building was the monster that had killed her parents, but outside these walls were even more monsters, ones that would destroy whatever was left of her.

“Are you okay?” Sinbad furrowed his eyebrows, reaching out to her before stopping himself. “You look pale.”

Thalia mustered all her strength and steeled herself for her performance. She wouldn’t break down. Not here. Not now. She could break down all she wanted later, but in this moment her survival depended on keeping herself together.

Faking a brilliant smile, she lied. “I’m fine, just a bit surprised that I would find myself working at the same company as my two dearest childhood friends.” She turned her attention to Drakon. “I can’t tell you how happy I am to be reunited with the two of you.”

Drakon seemed to let out a tense breath. She had convinced him she didn’t know. So long as she was at the mercy of other people’s kindness, she would never be able to tell the truth about Serendine.

Chapter Text

“So that’s the layout of the building…” Sinbad trailed off, a smile crossing his face as he watched the younger children, including Masrur, play under the supervision of Hinahoho and Rurumu. Thalia smiled too. Masrur had struggled to adjust, and her attempts to reach him had been fruitless. It seemed what he’d needed was to meet someone who was his match in physical strength, and the kind, fatherly Hinahoho fit the bill. Sinbad’s friends were turning out to be every bit as amazing as he was.

“Princess.” Sinbad turned back toward her, looking as though he wanted to say something.

What was it with the people who were supposed to be her friends calling her that? Hadn’t he promised on the island that he would be her best friend? What, now that he had other people he could talk to, all of that meant nothing? Was that promise just empty words? On Ria Venus Island they had spent hours together every single night. Now, she was lucky to see him for more than a few minutes at a time. Why was he pulling away?

“There’s no need to be formal,” she reminded him, attempting to hide the strain in her voice. “Just Thalia is fine.”

“Thalia, then.” He shoved his hands in his pockets. “These kids all got caught up in my fate, but I’m willing to take responsibility. I’ve already offered them a place as citizens in my country.”

“Oh.”

Thalia turned back to the children, willing away the bubble of envy rising in her chest. She had a country to go back to, and Sinbad knew that, but it still would have been nice if— 

“I’ve looked into the situation surrounding your home country.”

“I see.”

So now he knew. She wondered how much he had uncovered, if he had learned that it was her fault. Or maybe she just looked like a pathetic victim with no identity outside her tragic backstory. Would he still call her strong now that he’d discovered the truth?

Studying his face, she searched for signs of pity or revulsion. She found neither.

“Do you really plan on going back?” He furrowed his eyebrows. “Parthevia’s government doesn’t treat its own citizens well. I can only imagine what it’s like for conquered territories. Not to mention, given your identity…”

“That’s why I have to go back. I have a responsibility to protect my people.” 

The silence that followed wasn’t the comfortable kind they had shared in their secret corner. This one was awkward, the air saturated with things left unsaid. Thalia shifted her weight from foot to foot, wondering if it would be out of line to tell him she missed his companionship. 

At night, when her roommates had gone to sleep and she had nothing but her thoughts to keep her company, she would wander the grounds looking for him. She never found him. Perhaps he hadn’t had trouble sleeping lately. Perhaps he’d already recovered and left her behind. Perhaps all she was to him was a ghost, a reminder of a past he was trying to forget. He probably only offered to “take responsibility” because it was the nice thing to do.

The longer he held her gaze, the more she began to suspect that wasn’t the case. His mouth pulled into a grim line, the kind her sister used to wear whenever she caught Thalia getting into particularly unsafe mischief.

When Sinbad finally spoke, his voice was low. 

“Going back will be dangerous, you know.”

“I know.”

“Parthevia won’t show mercy if they discover your identity.”

“I know.”

“You could die.”

“I know.”

Taking a deep breath, Sinbad stepped toward her. “You can stay. I’ll take responsibility for you too, the way I should have years ago. Thalia, I…” His eyes darted to the ground. 

Thalia’s heart jumped in her chest. Was this her very own invitation to become a citizen of his country? She scolded herself for letting herself feel this kind of excitement. She still had a duty. There was no point in getting worked up over an offer she could never accept.

Even so, his concern warmed her. She rushed to reassure him.

“When I go back, it will be years from now, once I’ve gathered an army. Until then, I want to stay here… for as long as you’ll have me, of course.”

Sinbad let out a deep sigh, and Thalia interpreted it as relief. Maybe this new distance between them wasn’t a sign that he was intentionally pulling away. Maybe he did miss her. Thalia started to reach out for him, aching for his familiar touch. Before she had even moved far enough for him to notice, she froze, terrified that instead of warm and safe and comforting, he would feel sticky and sweaty and feverish. 

Another silence fell over them, this one even heavier than the last. Sinbad seemed completely lost in his thoughts. As Thalia studied his face for clues as to where they had taken him, she realized her assumption that he’d been sleeping well had been wrong. His eyes were as tired and bruised as they had been back on the island.

If he hadn’t been sleeping any more soundly, perhaps the reason he hadn’t sought her out was because there was someone else he’d been turning to, someone he trusted more. Of course, it made sense. His friends were all so amazing, and he’d known many of them much longer than he’d known Thalia, so it was only natural he’d rather turn to them… 

When he moved his gaze back up, it didn’t land on her. He focused on something over her shoulder instead.

“Sinbad.”

A voice from over her shoulder caused Thalia to jump. She scrambled out of the way, not wanting to stand between Sinbad and what was doubtlessly yet another of the friends she could never hold a candle to. Once safely out of the way, she dared to peek at the new arrival. What she saw sent her entire body into numb shock.

Pink hair… 

“Princess Serendine,” Sinbad greeted her.

It’s so short now… 

Memories of the countless times Thalia had imagined burying her face in Serendine’s beautiful mane clawed at her chest like a caged beast. Thalia had brushed it, had run her fingers through its silky softness, had lost herself in its scent. She’d loved it. Now it was gone.

Serendine was too absorbed in Sinbad to notice Thalia’s presence. The two stared at each other, Sinbad slightly startled and Serendine calm and confident. Thalia decided she’d been right to assume they were close. After all, Serendine had a natural charisma about her, an air of authority and elegance Thalia had only ever hoped to mimic. On top of that, Serendine was strong. She had never lost to Junior in a sword fight, not once.

Those qualities had drawn drawn Thalia in, convinced her to deliver her wholehearted devotion. It was unfathomable to her that someone else might be immune to Serendine’s draw. To Thalia, Serendine was worse than Lady Maader, her manipulations more effective and her betrayals a million times more painful. Even now, Thalia couldn’t muster the rage she should have felt at the sight of the girl who’d killed her family and conquered her country. Thalia should have demanded a blood debt. 

Instead, she watched quietly as Serendine meekly held out a bundle to Sinbad.

“Your clothes,” Serendine told him. “You can’t keep going around in just your underclothes, can you?” 

The smile she gave Sinbad was radiant, all wrong for the face of a girl capable of cold-blooded murder. Thalia shuddered, remembering the cold-eyed Serendine of her nightmares. That was the real Serendine, not this innocent act. It had to be.

Serendine continued, bowing her head respectfully. “I fixed them for you… sewed up all the holes and the frayed edges. So, if you want to, please wear them.”

With each word that left Serendine’s mouth, Thalia’s eyebrows knitted themselves further together. Where was the tomboy who’d never picked up a needle in her life? Where was the princess that had cut grown men down to size with a few well-chosen words? The one who’d never submitted to anyone and had scolded Thalia for being too subservient? Was this some kind of ploy…? 

Sinbad hadn’t moved to take the clothing from her, and Thalia watched as the cool-headed princess fumbled over her words, listing all the things she’d done in order to make herself useful during his absence. This was the monster had murdered Thalia’s family?

Thalia took a tentative step forward at the same time Sinbad accepted the garment from her former friend. If there had been some kind of misunderstanding, there was no reason for her to be angry with Serendine. Whatever hardships had brought her here seemed to have humbled her. Someone who would murder their friend’s entire family wouldn’t apologize to Sinbad so earnestly, right?

“S- Serendine…” Clutching the lapel of her uniform, Thalia stammered her old friend’s name.

Thalia had expected a smile, maybe tears of joy. Instead, Serendine paled, gaping at Thalia as though looking at a ghost. Something else was written across Serendine’s face as well, an emotion Thalia was entirely too familiar with.

Guilt.

“Thalia…”

Guilt over what?

“Thalia… It’s true then. You’re alive.” 

Guilt over an unresolved spat? No, they hadn’t fought before Thalia had been kidnapped.

“I- we thought you were dead.”

So why would she be guilty unless…?

“You were gone for so long.”

Thalia inhaled sharply. It’s true. Serendine really did… and Thalia had nearly fallen for her act, the same way she’d fallen for Lady Maaders’. Keenly aware of Sinbad’s presence, Thalia shoved down the building rage inside her, instead forcing out a pleasant smile. 

“It’s been so long since we last ran into each other like this.” 

“Everyone was looking for you,” Serendine took a step backward. “You were a slave this whole time?”

“It’s true.” Thalia lifted her head, mirroring the pride Serendine had once been so full of. “So much has happened since we last played together as little girls. We should catch up sometime soon.” 

Serendine finally managed to school her face into a calm and polite expression. “How lucky we are to run into each other again after all these years. I’m afraid my job keeps me very busy, but if we ever find some time, let’s catch up.”

Like I’d ever want to talk to you again, you traitor. Serendine wanted to avoid her? That was fine. Thalia had merely extended the invitation for appearances. If she actually had to talk to Serendine, Thalia didn’t know how long she would be able to restrain herself. She could already sense the bitter tears welling in her eyes.

“That sounds lovely.”

Thalia glanced at Sinbad, who was watching the frosty exchange grimly. Thalia had already noticed he was perceptive. It was difficult to deceive him completely, but his intelligence wouldn’t necessarily be her secret’s downfall. She and Serendine had a perfectly good reason to be at odds. Serendine’s country had conquered Thalia’s. That was the ready explanation he would likely come up with himself, and it wasn’t one that made Thalia look like she was throwing out baseless accusations.

Terrified she would come undone if she stayed any longer, Thalia made her exit.

“If you two will excuse me, I promised Dinarzade I would help her run an errand.”

“Thalia!” Sinbad called after her, but she picked up her pace, her carefully sculpted mask beginning to crack. As soon as she rounded a corner, Thalia allowed herself to collapse, sobbing silently. 

 The reality that she would be living with the monster that murdered her family was no longer something she could ignore. When the first two days had passed without any sign of Serendine, Thalia had begun to convince herself they would never run into each other.

Now that her hopes had been dashed, there was nothing Thalia could do but submit. She was no longer a slave, but that was still all she ever did, all she ever could do. Submit.


 

Hands. Sweat. Skin.

Thalia should have screamed. Someone might have tried to stop it if she had screamed. Why hadn’t she screamed? Didn’t she want it to stop? What if she hadn’t tried hard enough to stop it? What if it was her fault? What if— 

Something landed on her toe, and Thalia yelped. She’d dropped the box she’d been carrying.

“Oi!” Her manager, Abbas, rushed over. “Careful with—” The next words he spoke came out garbled. She knew he had to be speaking the common language— it definitely wasn’t the Torran language— but it made no sense to her. Lately, this was happening with increasing frequency. No matter how hard she concentrated, sometimes her ability to comprehend speech would just cut out. Then she was left looking like she hadn’t been paying attention.

“Do you mind repeating that?” she asked sheepishly.

He furrowed his eyebrows. “Are you okay? You look pale.” 

Suddenly, Marcus’s hand was on her shoulder. She panicked, smacking it away and toppling backward onto the cold stone floor in an attempt to escape. Her breath came out ragged as she realized he was about to hurt her again , but when she looked up, Marcus wasn’t there. It was her manager, giving her a dirty look while he cradled his hand injuredly. Around him, her co-workers gathered around her, their prying eyes locked on her.

“S- sorry,” she stammered. “I’m really—”

Abbas sighed. “Pack your things and leave. Don’t bother showing up tomorrow.”

“Please…” Thalia couldn’t be fired. She couldn’t lose her job here. There was nowhere else for her to go. Without a job, she would be forced to work in a brothel and— 

“What’s going on in here?” Sinbad’s voice boomed, amplified by the acoustics of the warehouse. He shoved his way through the invasive crowd until he froze, having caught sight of her hyperventilating on the floor.

“Don’t… f- fire me,” she croaked between frantic breaths. “I can- I can still…”

Sinbad turned to the witnesses of her break down and pointed in the direction of the shipment they were supposed to be working on. “All of you get back to work.”

As the grumbling group obeyed, he returned his attention to Thalia, squatting down beside her.

“No one’s going to fire you.”

“Well, she’s sure as hell not working under me,” Abbas cut in. “She drops things, she doesn’t pay attention, and this is the third time she’s thrown a tantrum like this. It’s disruptive to the other employees.”

Thalia let out a sob. She’d been trying so hard to prove she could be a good worker. She’d tried stay focused on a given task, attempted to commit instructions to memory, and avoided situations where she might accidentally touch someone, but she kept failing at every single one of those. 

Abbas was right. Marcus had been right, too. She couldn’t survive in the real world. Sinbad had overestimated her. He was going to realize that and toss her aside. Nobody wanted a slave with scars, and scars were all that were left of her.

Sinbad sighed. “Thalia, can you stand up on your own?”

She nodded, carefully lifting herself onto trembling legs before allowing him to walk with her to his office. When he pulled out a chair for her, she plopped into it, covering her face with her hands.

“I’m sorry,” she whimpered pathetically. “I really am trying.”

Sinbad sighed, squatting in front of her. “Don’t be sorry, Thalia. I know how hard you’re trying, and I’m going to keep protecting you. You’re not going to lose your job.”

Thalia didn’t know if she could believe that. If she was a liability to the company, Sinbad would get rid of her. That’s what a boss with any business sense would do. Sinbad hadn’t gotten here by hiring useless employees. 

She lifted her head, wiping the tears off her cheeks. “I don’t need special treatment. What happened wasn’t your fault. You don’t owe me anything.”

“I do.” Sinbad rested a hand on the arm of her chair as though he were placing it on her knee. “I owe you, but that’s not why I’m keeping you on as an employee. I’ve seen you work. You’re going to get past this, and you’re going to show everyone, even Abbas, how strong you are. They’ll be fighting over you.” He gave her a mischievous grin. “... and they’ll all have to admit I was right.” 

Despite herself, Thalia had to laugh. “So this is about your ego?”

“No.” He stood up, moving to his seat on the other side of his desk. “I just wanted to see you smile— and it worked.”

Thalia had to admit Sinbad had cheered her up.  When he said she was going to get through this, that these episodes were just temporary, she wanted to believe him. Thanking him for his time, Thalia returned to her dorm and spent the rest of the night reading until she fell asleep.


 

Hands. Sweat. Skin.

Now, on top of her nightmares about her family, her country, and the punishment room, a portion of her nights was allotted to reliving what had happened in that room with Marcus. It wasn’t always Marcus in her dreams. Often, it was a stranger, sometimes more than one. Some of the dreams were more realistic than others, but tonight was one of the worst yet.

She woke up to the sound of her own sobbing and the grumbling of the other girls in the room. Dinarzade was already sitting on the side of the bed, running a comforting hand over her back and murmuring, “It was just a dream. You’re safe now. I’m here.”

“Don’t touch me,” Thalia snapped, her body recoiling from her friend’s soothing attempts.

“Right. Okay.” Dinarzade pulled her hand into her lap. “Do you want to go outside and talk about it?”

Thalia opened her mouth to respond, but was cut off by one of the other girls.

“Go to bed. She’s insane. You can’t fix crazy.”

“Thalia’s not crazy,” Dinarzade snapped. Even in the dark, she seemed ready to pounce on the next person to insult Thalia.

“Then what the hell’s wrong with her?” another girl whined, her voice muffled as though she had her face buried in a pillow.

The blonde bristled. “It’s no one’s business.”

“It is our business. We haven’t gotten a full nights’ sleep in weeks,” a third girl grumbled.

“She can’t help it!”

Thalia buried her head in her hands. She couldn’t blame them for wanting to sleep without being woken up in the middle of the night by their broken roommate. She imagined if she could sleep through the night, she’d be upset by consistent interruptions too. 

“Don’t worry about me, Dinarzade. They’re right. It’s not fair to that my problems are affecting them. Just go back to bed.”

“But-”

“Please.” Thalia placed her hand next to Dinarzade’s, not quite touching it. This was her way of trying to placate her concerned friend. She’d picked it up from Sinbad. He mimicked comforting gestures on things near Thalia. Backs of chairs, tables, columns, anything. She wasn’t even sure if he did it consciously, but she appreciated it nonetheless and it worked. It was no replacement for the real thing, but she would take it for now. It was all she could handle.

These girls weren’t like Sinbad, though. They didn’t know what had been done to Thalia, and likely if they did they wouldn’t accept it as an excuse for her disruptive behavior. As painful as it was, Thalia had to accept that these girls would never like her. She sought comfort in the fact that she had no desire to make new friends. Her ability to put in the effort to juggle even the friendships she already had was slowly dwindling. She had Sinbad, and she had Dinarzade. Some days, she had Drakon. That was enough.

Chapter Text

After the episode that had left her on the warehouse floor, Thalia had been moved to a different position under a different manager. She now took inventory on the salesfloor in the mornings, before the shop opened, and on shipments during the day. She needed to be up early, but since she rarely slept through the night, it was no problem. This job was also less physically taxing and required little oversight, though it did test the limits of her concentration. Still, she almost always managed to make the numbers work, and when she lost control of her emotions, there was rarely anyone to witness. All in all, this new task was much more comfortable for her. She wasn’t good at it, but she wasn’t terrible either. She was perfectly average.

That’s why she was surprised when, several weeks in, Sinbad himself came to watch her work. It was unnerving, having the president of the company himself watch over her.  

Fourteen vases. There were fourteen vases… and sixty plates… and… 

She glanced back at her impatient boss. He didn’t speak as she shuffled from box to box, tallying the total of this particular shipment of Imuchakk goods. He just tapped his fingers on a crate, his eyes following her every movement. 

Did he want something? She didn’t like him here. There was too much pressure. If she stopped to greet him, she would forget which boxes she’d already counted and have to start all over again. So, she just kept plowing through, pretending she wasn’t aware his golden irises were burning into her back and that it wasn’t slowly draining her sanity.

When she finally reached a stopping place she sighed loudly, setting her clipboard down dramatically and turning to face him.

“Sinbad,” she greeted him coolly, refusing to let him see how off balance he’d left her. “What are you doing here?”

The tapping stopped. “I wanted to talk to you about something.”

Shit . He wasn’t here to praise her. She’d hardly done anything praiseworthy. So, he must have been about to fire her. Though her break downs had been occurring less frequently lately, they were still eating into her hours and she had expected as much for weeks. Even though she’d seen this coming, shame washed over her. He’d expected so much from her, and what had she done but let him down?

Opening her mouth, she prepared to give a long-winded speech about how sorry she was and beg him for some kind of recommendation letter she could show to potential employers. Maybe she could work at a fruit stand until they realized she was no good and kicked her out as well. She had enough money saved up that she could live on her own for a couple of months. Maybe it would turn out okay. Maybe— 

He spoke. “I want to train you for a management position.”

“I understand your decision, and I—” Thalia interrupted herself as his words sank in. He wasn’t firing her. He was promoting her. Blinking, she furrowed her eyebrows. This was not the news she had been expecting. “I’m sorry?”

He leaned casually against the crate he had been tapping on earlier. “Your potential is being wasted. I didn’t want to throw too much responsibility on you when you first got here because of… well…” She knew he was referring to the incident. “I know that was really hard on you. I wanted to give you time to process it, but you seem to be doing better now.”

Thalia fell onto a chair-sized box, soaking in his words. He still thought she could be useful. He thought she was recovering, and he was right. She was recovering… but management? Could she do something like that? She’d never even managed herself. 

“I don’t know how to manage people. What if they don’t listen to me?”

Sinbad waved her worries aside. “That’s what the training is for. It’ll be practice for when you’re queen.” 

Thalia didn’t tell him that if all went well, as a queen she’d do little more than sit in her room and support her king from behind the scenes. He seemed proud that he’d been able to make the connection to her long-term goals.

He continued. “I also want you to start attending lessons with me and Ja’far. We study business and economics under Rurumu’s guidance every day. You’re too smart not to have a tutor.”

“I haven’t done anything to earn any of this,” she argued. All she had done so far was obey orders and manage to make a pariah of herself. Sinbad was being too generous. Even if they were friends, this was unfair to all the people in the company more talented than her who deserved a better position.

Sinbad shrugged. “I guess you’ll just have to work extra hard to prove this wasn’t a mistake.” He paused and gave her one of his playful winks. “Though, I’m positive it won’t be. I have faith in you.”

There he was again, lifting her spirits with a few gentle words, telling her he believed in her. His encouragement was starting to feel less strange. She was terrified, but if he said she could do it, maybe she could. 

Smiling, she stood back up, holding her head high. “I won’t let you down.”

“I have one more request.” His demeanor changed instantly, the confident boy she knew suddenly failing to meet her eyes. “I want you to start eating dinner at a table with me and the other leadership. I know you’re close to Dinarzade and the children, but…” He turned slightly red. “I never get to spend time with you anymore.” 

Was he embarrassed to ask this of her? Why? He wasn’t alone. She’d noticed his absence as well. Thalia had been afraid to approach him while he spent time with his other friends, but he always seemed to be surrounded. Of course she would jump at any opportunity to spend more time with him.

She wished she could comfort him with a pat on the shoulder, but settled for placing her hand on the wooden box beside him. “Of course I’ll sit with you.”


 

Thalia’s promotion had been strategic on Sinbad’s part. She had tirelessly cared for the children back on Ria Venus Island, and though many of them still wished for Maader’s return, they did have some loyalty toward Thalia. He had hoped to use her to gain their cooperation, and it had worked better than he could have imagined.

He watched with pride as the children raced to efficiently fill out paperwork, hurried sound of pens scratching against parchment filling the air. In this office, there was never a dull moment. Thalia had turned work into a game. Today’s mission: the only way to save the company from an imminent pirate attack was to finish this paperwork by the deadline. 

“The pirates are fifteen minutes away!” Thalia called out, brandishing her quill like sword. “They’re readying their cannons!”

One of the little girls giggled, picking up her pace. “Faster, guys!”

The boy next to her let out a frustrated groan. “We’re not going to make it.”

Sinbad crossed his arms, surveying Thalia as she left her own paperwork to check on the boy, taking stock of his progress. She bit her cheek, thumbing through the stack of papers he had left.

“Who’s almost finished?” she called out.

Another boy raised his hand eagerly, bouncing in his seat. When Sinbad had proposed bringing the kids into the company, the others had scoffed at him and told him kids had too much energy and couldn’t focus. Thalia knew how to channel that energy productively, just as she was now.

Sinbad struggled to keep a straight face as Thalia sternly walked over to the boy and asked with a face dead serious, “Can you complete three more pages? The fate of the company depends on it.”

“We’ll definitely chase off those filthy pirates!” the boy cheered.

“That’s the spirit!” She laid the extra pages on his desk and returned to her own, completely ignoring Sinbad. Sinbad, however, couldn’t hold back anymore.

Once she had settled back into her seat and picked up her pen, he leaned over her and whispered, “Impressive.” 

Apparently he had startled her, because she jumped. His first instinct was to put a calming hand on her shoulder, but he held back. Thalia needed space. She needed time. She would let him touch her again eventually.

“I’ve asked you not to sneak up on me like that,” she grumbled, not looking up from her work.

“You knew I was here,” he laughingly reminded her. “For what it’s worth, I am sorry. Startling you wasn’t my intention.”

Sighing, she finally twisted around to look at him. “I’m working. What do you want?”

He knew better than to interrupt her. She took her work very seriously, and while she had endless patience for the children, she had no qualms shooing him away. He’d known he would get this kind of reaction from her. He’d known and he had come anyway because being around her gave him something nothing else could: peace of mind.

He wasn’t about to tell her that, though.

“I just wanted to tell you to keep up the good work.” He gave her an encouraging smile. “Productivity is up twenty-five percent and the kids are enjoying themselves.”

“I have to finish my paperwork too, or the pirates—” A slight pink brushed across her face. He’d disarmed her. Now he had to remind her who exactly she was snapping at.

“I’m your boss. I should be much scarier than imaginary pirates.”

When wide-eyed horror that flashed across her face, he realized that had come off as more threatening than he’d intended. He rushed to quell her anxiety.

“Don’t worry.” He winked. “At this rate, not only will you get to keep your job, but I might even give you a raise.”

“Might?” She balked, her mouth hanging open in disbelief. It seemed she had fully recovered already. “If productivity is up twenty-five percent, I expect a twenty-five percent raise for each of us.”

His lips twitching into a grin, he had no choice but to concede. He couldn’t say no when her department was now one of the most efficient in the company. “Fine. If this keeps up, you can all have raises.”

From their desks, the children cheered. Their enthusiasm lifted Sinbad’s spirits even further until he forgot about the pounding heart and sweating palms that had brought him here. Everything was normal again. He wasn’t in the punishment chamber anymore. He was here with Thalia and these children, and he was safe.

“I finished!” the boy who had been running behind earlier cried out, holding his last paper in the air triumphantly. “Thalia’s the only one left. Sin, stop distracting her! We have to save the company!”

Sinbad stepped back goodnaturedly and let Thalia return to her work. She was so serious, knitting her eyebrows together as she plowed through paper after paper. She seemed to throw herself into everything headfirst. In her eyes, even a simple task such as this seemed to be worthy of her full energy.

When she signed off on the last paper seconds before the sand in the hourglass ran out, the children all gathered around her, shouting and clapping. They’d defended the company from pirates successfully and were now celebrating their victory. Swept up in the mood, Sinbad laughed too. This was the most cheerful department in the entire company.

Thalia, he noticed, was returning more to her old self day by day. There had been a period when she seemed to be getting worse, but for a while now, with every sunrise, her smiles would last just a little bit longer, and her laughs became a little more genuine. Today was her best day yet. Laughter poured from her lips, carefree and mirthful. 

Silently, he wished for more moments like this, where Thalia forgot everything that had happened to her and just lived. After everything she’d been through, she deserved it. She deserved happiness. His hand resting on the back of her chair, he smiled down at her fondly. One day, she would return to her country. She would have to face the horrors of war, and if she survived, she would carry the burden of running a struggling country on her shoulders. That laughter and those smiles would disappear. Until then, he was determined to bring as much joy into her life as possible.

Speaking of which, he had an announcement to make. Though his visit had been expedited by his uneasy mind, he had intended to make an announcement before the end of the day, and now that work was over, it was the perfect time.

Beaming, he cleared his throat loudly, gathering the attention of the children around him. “Tonight, we’re all going to celebrate Meditrinalia!”

“Medi-what?” a girl asked, her head tilted to the side.

“Meditrinalia, the tasting of the freshest batch of wines.” It was Sinbad’s favorite holiday here in Reim, an excuse to get drunk and be merry. He loved it so much, he’d insisted on buying enough wine for all his employees to celebrate on the company’s tab. Who wouldn’t jump at the chance for free drinks?

The kids exchanged dubious glances. 

“That sounds boring,” one of them whined, kicking at the tile floor. “We’re probably going to play instead.”

Huh?

“And I’ll probably just read a book,” Thalia agreed, standing and gathering her things. Cursing under his breath, Sinbad stepped in front of her, blocking her path. He was not going to let her spend a dreary night alone reading another one of her history books. She could do that any night. Tonight, she was going to have fun. All he needed was to get her there.

Quickly, Sinbad came up with a lie. “No you won’t. Company management is required to attend.”

“Are they?” She sounded skeptical, leaning sideways to look past him as though she had better places to be. “That sounds like an arbitrary rule.”

“It’s not,” he insisted, even though it definitely was. “It’s a display of our company’s willingness to come together to support our lower level employees. Come on.” He pivoted, refusing to give her time to think. His argument would fall apart under the slightest scrutiny, and Thalia could easily back him into a corner. His only choice now was to lead her to the dining room and hope he could provide her with a night of distractions and fun.

As Thalia followed him out the door, he thought he heard her grumble something about having a tyrant for a boss. He chose to ignore it. He told himself she would thank him when she let loose and realized that life could be fun if she stopped hiding in her room all the time. If having her around kept him calm, that was a bonus.

 When Sinbad arrive with Thalia in tow, Mystras and Rurumu were setting up the final places at the table, putting out plates, glasses and snacks. Rurumu looked up first, her eyes falling on Thalia.

“Well, hello. It’s nice to see you could make it.”

She extended a gentle smile to Thalia, who returned it politely from her place at his side. Thalia had yet to warm up to the others the way she had to Sinbad. She answered their questions and kept a cool facade, but he could tell she was still uncomfortable around them, even after three months. That was his other goal for tonight, to get her to open up to them, even just a little.

Mystras looked up and gaped, his eyes locked on Thalia. “She came! I didn’t think she was going to come.”

“Why wouldn’t I have come?” Thalia responded coolly, her eyes fixed accusingly on Sinbad. “Aren’t managers required to attend?”

Mystras started to answer. “N-”

“Yes!” Sinbad cut him off, sending him a meaningful look. Thalia had figured the lie out, but Sinbad still might be able to play it off. “Didn’t you make sure everyone got the memo?”

Mystras shook his head, holding an empty glass against his chest nervously. “No, Sin. This is the first I’m hearing about this.”

Sinbad laughed awkwardly. “I told you yesterday, remember?”

“I feel like if you’d really said something like that, I’d remember—”

“Well, go tell them now,” he ordered.

Mystras nodded, making no attempt to hide his puzzlement. How could he be so clueless at a time like this? Couldn’t he tell how important this was? This night had to be perfect because… 

Sinbad glanced down at Thalia, who was nervously shifting from side to side. She understood him in a way he doubted any of his other friends ever could. She’d seen him at his most vulnerable and, instead of rejecting him, had patiently lifted him out of it. He wanted to do the same for her, even if right now all he could do was offer her wine and a good time.

“Shall we sit?” he offered, extending his hand out for her to take. He knew she wouldn’t. She never did, but he liked to remind her that the invitation was still open, that he was still waiting. Whenever she was ready, things could go back to how they were before.

Today, she did something unexpected. Her eyes lingered on his outstretched palm, and for a moment he thought she really was going to take it. Then, she turned away and seated herself in her usual spot, patting the seat next to her in invitation. 

Returning his hand to his side, he took his seat next to her. She hadn’t taken that step, but she’d thought about it, and to him that was a victory worth celebrating.

As others began shuffling in, Sinbad opened a bottle, filling Thalia’s cup first. Today was about him, yes. He was the wine lover, the one who loved parties, but he was sharing this with her. It was his responsibility to make sure she had fun.

Thalia raised an eyebrow and sniffed her drink cautiously. She must not have enjoyed the smell because she wrinkled her nose and pushed it away without so much as a sip. Sinbad sighed. Getting her to loosen up was going to be harder than he had hoped. 

“You’re not even going to try it?”

“I’m not,” she confirmed, turning up her nose.

Stubborn. Sometimes he found it hard to believe the former slave girl was actually a princess, but during moments like this, she certainly acted like one. What was wrong with just trying it? Couldn’t she at least humor him?

“Thalia, it’s the nectar of the gods! The greatest discovery of man after fire!” He took a large sip from his own cup and let out a refreshed sigh. 

She remained unmoved. “It smells awful.”

“I agree.” Ja’far sat down across from Sinbad, accompanied by Hinahoho and the others. “This whole party was a waste of funds.”

Sinbad pushed her drink back toward her as she nodded in agreement with Ja’far. She was never going to have fun like this. “That, my friend, is the smell of a good time. You’re both too uptight. Trying new things would do you some good, Thalia.”

“I try new things every day,” she countered. “I think you could use more consistency.” 

Ja’far butted in to defend her as well. “Sin, if she doesn’t want to drink, don’t force her.”

Sinbad waved his concerns away. “Thalia, just one drink. For me?” He gave her his most dashing smile. 

His plea, delivered with all the charm he could muster, failed to faze her. 

“Uncut wine is for barbarians,” she proclaimed with an heir of haughtiness he’d only seen rivaled in Serendine and Drakon. “It makes people act like lechers, fools, and brutes.”

“Ah,” Ja’far leaned in. “I’ve been reading a bit about Attican culture since you joined us. That’s a common belief there, right?”

Sinbad raised an eyebrow.

Thalia nodded slowly. When she spoke again, her voice was strangled. “It’s true though, isn’t it? I’ve seen it for myself.”

Sinbad imagined she was referring to the drunken patrons on the island. She’d mentioned there had been groping and pinching in her letter. There were definitely people like that, but the alcohol wasn’t the problem. It was their lack of respect.

“Nonsense,” Sinbad leaned back in his chair and pointed at himself. “Look at me for example. Would I do something like that?”

Hinahoho turned away from his conversation with Mystras to give his input. “Sin, you’re a terrible example.” He moved his attention to Thalia. “There’s nothing wrong with drinking in moderation. It won’t turn you into any of those things. The problems start when people drink excessively. Of course, if you don’t want to drink, you don’t have to either. That’s entirely up to you, right Sin ?”

Sinbad looked away from Hinahoho’s gaze guiltily. He supposed he had been a little pushy. He’d just been trying to share something he enjoyed with someone he cared about. She’d done so much for him. He wanted to return the favor.

“Right.”

Rurumu nodded in approval. 

Suddenly, in the corner of his vision, he saw Thalia’s fingers wrap hesitantly around the stem of the glass.

“Just a little won’t hurt me… right?” She looked to Hinahoho, who confirmed it was true.

To Sinbad’s amazement, Thalia brought the cup to her lips and tasted its contents, her face scrunching up as soon as it hit her lips.

“That was awful,” she grimaced.

Sinbad laughed, wiping a tear from his eye. He’d hoped she would like it and that he’d have a new drinking buddy, but her dismayed expression was an acceptable alternative. “It’s an acquired taste for most people.”

But she’d tried it. That’s what he cared about. She’d let him share this with her.

Hours passed, drink after drink making its way past Sinbad’s lips. Thalia was talking to the others— really talking this time, not just humoring them. She didn’t drink, but she laughed and smiled. She was having fun, and it was beautiful. She was beautiful, and not in the friendly way he’d seen her before. He imagined himself tracing his lips along the slope of her jaw and kissing her delicate neck until his name fell from her lips. He wanted her. He hadn’t wanted anyone in months, but now he wanted her. 

The drink might have been part of it, but he knew that wasn’t entirely it. This had been a long time coming. Thalia had been healing, and he had been too. Things were finally back to normal, and he was finally letting his guard down. Tonight, it was as though he were waking from a long slumber. 

  Slowly, the room emptied out until it was just him and Thalia alone in the dying lamp light. He picked up a glass of water to rehydrate, desperate to sober up before he said something rash. She wasn’t helping. Over the last hour, she’d been growing increasingly skittish, and every time she chewed her bottom lip, it sent his heart racing. Was she thinking the same thing he was? Was she just too shy to tell him she wanted him?

Probably not. The last time he’d touched her, she’d fallen apart. She’d gotten better, but letting him ravage her was a step he highly doubted she was ready to take.

He leaned forward, channeling an air of sobriety. He was good at faking, even when the room was spinning and his thoughts were still muddled. 

“Is everything alright?” he asked. 

She averted her eyes, hunching her shoulders, and he had to chuckle. Did she realize how charming it was when she acted so shy? She certainly wasn’t making this any easier for him.

“I know this is a really, really strange request, but can I touch you?”

The unexpectedness of her request caught him off guard, and he coughed to hide his sudden intake of breath. Yes. She could touch him any way she wanted, but he hadn’t previously been under the impression that she felt that way toward him, or anyone, at this point. It seemed too good to be true.

“If you’re ready for something like that,” he told her. Before he touched her, he wanted to be absolutely sure that it was something she wanted.

She nodded resolutely, her eyebrows furrowed. After taking a deep breath, she took his hands in her own trembling ones. He began to understand she hadn’t been offering herself to him. She simply wanted to face her fears. He almost laughed at himself for letting his imagination get carried away.

“You don’t have to push yourself.” He assured her, watching her chest rise and fall with her ragged breathing. 

Her voice shook as she responded, but he wasn’t sure if it was motivated by fear or anger. “I refuse to let my entire life be controlled by what one person did.”

“No,” he agreed. “You’re much too stubborn for that.” His hand moved to brush a hair out of her face, and she didn’t shrink away. “I like that about you.”

Her dark eyes searched his, and he didn’t dare break away. Could she see how much he wanted to be with her? He would be gentle. He would let her take the lead. They would go at her pace, even if it took months, years. Could she be ready to accept that he saw her as a woman?

Her eyes grew wider, horror dawning on her face as she began to understand his intentions. Scrambling backwards along the bench, she paced an uncomfortable amount of distance between them.

As she collected her things, her words were hurried, panicked. “It’s really late. I should get to bed.”

Now Sinbad really was sober, the shock of her rejection having cleared the fog that had been clouding his thoughts. Of course she wasn’t ready. She’d just been raped, and the last thing she needed was someone she trusted putting the moves on her. He stood up, taking a couple steps back to give her even more space.

“Are you okay? Can we at least talk?” He wanted to reach out to her, but held back for fear of further frightening her.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she insisted. “Goodnight.”

“Thalia!” he called after her, mentally kicking himself. She didn’t need a lover. She needed someone safe, dependable. So, he swore to himself that from now on, he wouldn’t treat her as a woman. She was like a sister to him. That was all.


 

Thalia wandered the hallways of the the company mindlessly. She’d finished her work for today, and had nothing better to do than scold herself for how she’d acted the other night. The look Sinbad had given her had terrified her. It spoke of desires she could not return. And yet, the next time she’d seen him, it was gone. She was beginning to believe she had imagined it. Maybe she really was losing her mind.

“Thalia, there you are.” Ja’far interrupted her thoughts by accosting her with a bundle of books. “I need you to post these journal entries to the ledger by tomorrow. You remember how, right?”

Thalia blanked. Accounting was not her strong suit, no matter how patient a teacher Rurumu was. “Assets equal liabilities plus stockholder’s equity?”

“What? No, that’s a balance sheet.” He scrutinized her closely. “It may be a mistake to trust you with this, but I’m already too busy, and it will be good practice for you.”

Thalia nodded. She’d been watching Ja’far for months. He was a diligent student and worker. He deserved a break, and she was happy to give him any sort of reprieve from his endless work.

But accounting really was not her strong suit.

Later that night, she pulled another candle out of a drawer and lit the wick as its predecessor flickered in its dying throes. What time was it now? She’d gone through at least two candles since sundown. She would have been done hours ago, but every time she attempted a trial balance, the numbers didn’t add up.

“Where is that stupid mistake?” she groaned under her breath, pulling at her hair. 

With a huff, she stood up. She needed a break. She wasn’t going to get anywhere like this. Picking up the candle holder, she made her way into the courtyard to get some fresh air. Maybe it would help clear her head.

Outside, the moon was bright and the air was cool. Thalia crossed her arms and leaned against a pillar, looking up at the stars. They shimmered playfully up in the sky, carefree and out of reach. She envied them. They would never know the touch of a man, never grow to fear it.

“Thalia?” 

Thalia jumped as Ja’far’s voice sliced through the air. She had believed she would be the only one up this late. Pushing aside the apprehension she felt at being alone with a boy she barely knew, she resisted the urge to run. As she had told Sinbad last night before she’d screwed everything up, she refused to let her fear control her. Besides, if Sinbad trusted him, she did too.

“Ja’far! What are you doing up?”

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” he said, scratching his head. “Could you not sleep?”

Thalia considered lying. What would he think of her if he knew she was struggling with what amounted to basic addition and subtraction? Then again, he would find out she hadn’t been able to make the ledgers balance tomorrow anyways. She explained her situation.

Ja’far’s brows knitted into a frown.

“Why don’t you let me look over it? You can go to bed. You’ve done enough.”

“You’ve been up late working too, am I wrong?” Thalia crossed her arms, staring him down.

He let out a haggard sigh. “I’m used to working this late.”

“I don’t usually sleep much either,” she confessed uneasily, hoping he wouldn’t ask for elaboration. “So it’s fine.”

The freckled boy stared at her for a moment before he acquiesced, his shoulders drooping. “Show me the ledgers.” 

She brought him back to the desk she had been working at and pulled out the chair for him to sit in. For several minutes, he studied her work, letting out an occasional grunt.

“Ah, I see,” he finally mumbled. She leaned in closely to see what his scarred hand was pointing at. “Right here, you forgot to credit the cash account for this transaction.”

Thalia rubbed her temples and took a deep breath. She’d combed through every transaction thoroughly for hours to no avail, and Ja’far had found her mistake in a fraction of that time.

“You’re amazing,” she told him, not even attempting to mask the awe in her voice.

“You’ll get better with practice,” he assured her, scooting his chair back to stand up. “Try to get some sleep. I know it’s hard after you’ve been through something traumatic, but it gets better with time. Trust me. I have first hand experience.”

“You do?” She’d often wondered about the scars that littered what little of his skin was visible under his uniform. She’d assumed that he’d gotten them during his days as an assassin, but now that she thought about it, he was already so young. How could he have chosen a past like that on his own? “Were you a slave too?” 

He pressed his lips together. “Something like that. I prefer not to talk about it.”

“Of course,” she responded, deflated. She hadn’t meant to pry, but the idea that Ja’far was a kindred spirit had both disturbed and delighted her. She had hoped to feel a little less alone.

“I need you to help me again tomorrow. Go rest,” he commanded.

“I’ll do my best!” she responded cheerfully, though in truth, she still dreaded closing her eyes and entering her world of nightmares. Would time really be enough to make them go away?

Yawning, he gave a lazy wave goodnight and returned to his chamber. Thalia watched him go, thinking of his scars. How many more scars did he have on the inside that she’d never seen? If he could recover, she could too.

Chapter Text

Thalia plopped a pile of papers on Sinbad’s desk, clapping her hands together as though she were wiping off the remains of the work she had just finished. Five order forms complete. She was done. Now she could go back to her room and hide, so long as—  

“Thalia! Just the person I wanted to see!”

Sinbad twisted in his chair to face her, a wide grin splayed across his face. She narrowed her eyes. That placative smile was one she was intimately familiar with. He was about to give her extra work, wasn’t he?

Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. Her brand new book about the recent unification of Kou, Gai, and Go would have to wait. Apparently, being a salaried worker was akin to selling your soul— or, at least, your free time.

“What’s with that expression?” Sinbad’s shoulders slumped. “Can’t a guy be happy to see his best friend?”

We both know that’s not what’s going on here, Thalia thought, tapping her foot impatiently. He was never this happy to see her unless he wanted something, and that something was usually work-related.

Crossing her arms, Thalia cut to the chase. “What is it and how much will it affect my bonus if I say no?”

“Huh?” Sinbad drew back in surprise before doubling over with laughter as though she’d just told him a hilarious joke. 

Thalia raised her eyebrow. Was what she’d said really that funny?

 When he finally caught his breath, he stood up, leaning his weight on one hand on his desk. “No, it’s not extra work.” 

Oh. “Oh.” So… if it wasn’t work, what was it he wanted from her? 

“Have you ever been to Balbadd?” With his index finger, he tapped the wooden surface of his workspace casually.

“Once or twice when I was small. Usually, we sent delegates to negotiate trades with them. Why?” 

He gave her that smile again, the suspicious one that made her think he wanted something from her, and sat back down, shuffling around papers on his desk. “Hinahoho, Ja’far, and I are sailing there to discuss the relocation of the headquarters with King Rashid.”

Ah. Sinbad would be leaving. She would be on her own for a few days, and he was just making sure she would be okay. His thoughtfulness made her lips twitch into a smile. Sometimes as a boss, he could be a bit of a tyrant, but he still had a soft side. She supposed she could forgive him for making her work overtime last week.

 “Anyway,” he continued. “I’ve thought about this for a while now… I think you should come.”

“Come… to Balbadd?” Thalia froze. She just did paperwork and supervised the children. What good would her presence be in Balbadd? “But why?”

Sinbad frowned, knitting his thick eyebrows together. “I’d like to have you around, just in case…”

“In case what?”

He shook his head and met her gaze. “Princess, court etiquette can be tricky, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Well, yes, but—”

“And who better to help us navigate than you, someone who spent most of her childhood in the heart of politics?”

Thalia leaned forward, scrutinizing his expression. His eyes gave him away. His explanation made sense, but it wasn’t the whole story. He was hiding something from her. Though, she supposed everyone had their secrets. She didn’t need him to be completely honest. She just needed him to be her friend.

Smiling, she straightened her back. “Of course I’ll go with you.” She would follow him to the ends of the earth if it meant she could stay by his side, but somehow, she felt telling him that would be crossing a line she couldn’t uncross. 

Instead, she asked, “When do we leave?”

He gave her a sheepish grin. “Tomorrow.”

“Tomorrow?” Inhaling deeply, Thalia rubbed her temples. Why had he waited so long to bring this up? Surely this entire thing hadn’t been planned at the last minute, so why?

“Who’s going to cover my shifts?” she demanded. “Dinarzade only has one day off this week, and there’s no way I could ask her—”

“Relax.” Sinbad motioned for her to calm down with his hands. “I’ll take care of it. Just go pack, okay?”

Thalia nodded obediently, confident that if Sinbad said he would fix it, he would. He could be a bit irresponsible, but he always made things work in the end. She was learning that about him every day. He seemed so carefree, but he knew exactly how long he could neglect his work before it got out of hand.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” she asked, brushing her hair behind her ear.

“Bright and early,” he confirmed, turning back to his work. Thalia stood over him awkwardly, bursting with questions. What should she pack? Was it okay to wear her uniform in the presence of a king? She opened her mouth to ask, but Sinbad looked so serious, concentrating on the papers in front of him. Rather than interrupting him, she slid out of the room quietly. She would simply have to figure it out on her own.

The next day, Thalia stood with her companions in the company’s shipyard. The huge vessel that would carry them to Balbadd dwarfed her. It’s primary purpose was as a shipping vessel, but it looked as though they would be hitching a ride on this delivery to cut costs for the company. Around them, the shouts of men unloading cargo echoed, giving the place a bustling atmosphere.

“Are you ready?” Hinahoho’s cheerful voice addressed her.

Thalia looked up at the blue-haired giant and nodded. She certainly hoped she was. She hadn’t known what to pack for a journey like this, and so she’d brought whatever she thought she might need— clothing, toiletries, and a small book.

Picking up her bag, she took a deep breath and took the first tentative step onto the wooden ramp, flinching as it shifted underneath her weight. Was this ramp safe? It didn’t seem safe.

“Come on,” Sinbad chided, striding past her with ease. “This isn’t your first time on a ship.”

He was right. She had been riding ships her entire life, but only once had she boarded a cargo ship, and at that time, she had been the cargo. Maybe what she was afraid of wasn’t the wobbly ramp, but that once she’d reached the other end, she’d end up with the boxes, below deck. 

“Thalia!” Sinbad stood at the top, the wind whipping his hair, his hand stretched out for her. Suddenly, Thalia felt brave. No one would hurt her. Sinbad was there, and he would never let that happen.

She bounded toward him, closing the rest of the distance between herself and the deck with ease. She was met with encouraging praise from the three boys accompanying her, although what she had done was hardly an accomplishment. Sinbad and Ja’far began discussing the course the captain was taking, and Thalia set down her luggage. Craning her neck to look around, she watched the crew busily securing ropes and moving cargo. Dread grew in her chest as she realized that not a single woman was among them. Was she really going to be stuck on a ship with a bunch of strange men for the next week? 

She shuffled closer to Sinbad, seeking his protection. She didn’t intend to let herself out of his sight until they reached Balbadd.

“What the hell is this?” Thalia jumped when a gruff voice rang out over the other sounds of the shipyard. Barreling toward them was a gruff, middle aged man. He appeared to have a limp, but it certainly didn’t hobble him. He shoved his way between her friends, reaching out for her. Thalia recoiled, but the man didn’t reach her. Hinahoho had blocked his path, and Ja’far had a knife pointed to his throat. 

Sinbad stood with his arms crossed and smiled diplomatically, a deceptively cheerful smile crossing his face. “Captain Reis, I presume?” 

“Aye, that I am.” The man stumbled back a few steps away from Ja’far’s knife, scowling. “Call off yer dogs and get that she-witch off me ship! Nobody said nothin’ ‘bout her comin’ along!”

“Thalia was a last-minute addition to our party,” Sinbad explained calmly. “We’ve already paid for her passage.” 

The captain’s beard quivered with anger, his already ruddy face turning violet. “I don’t care if ye paid! We can’t take off until the lass is off this ship.”

This kind of treatment wouldn’t have been unusual back in Attica, but this was the first time she’d seen it in Reim. She leaned over to look past Hinahoho and squinted at the man, attempting to make out any Attican features under all the wrinkles and wiry hair. Perhaps he was a refugee going by a false name.

“What the hell?” Ja’far interrupted her concentration with an uncharacteristic outburst. “Don’t forget who pays your salary, you dolt. You work for the Sindria Trading Company, and when we tell you to transport one of our employees, you need to fuckin’ do it or we won’t renew your contract.”

“Look around ye, lad!” Spittle flew from his cracked lips, splattering poor Ja’far. “Do you see any women? I ain’t never lost a ship because I don’t allow harpies on board, and I don’t intend to start!”

Thalia resisted the urge to return the insult and instead tried to engage calmly with this man. Attican superstitions were no more real than the goddess. If she could reason with him, he might see that as well.

“I don’t follow, sir. How would my presence cause a shipwreck?”

He looked at her incredulously. “T’would anger the gods, of course!” 

Of course. Thalia sighed, having little patience for those who would use religion to discriminate, but feigning it anyway.  “I’ve been on many ships throughout my life, and the water god has always granted me safe passage.”

“What do ye know about the gods, Missy?” He hocked out a wad of spit onto the plank floor. “‘Sides, even if yer presence doesn’t bother the water god, if I let ye on here, me men will be fightin’ over ye. If there’s one thing that causes strife among men, it’s a pretty lass.”

By now, Thalia was thoroughly convinced he was, indeed, one of her citizens, and a stubborn one at that. She picked up her bag, resigning herself to the fact that she wouldn’t be coming along for this trip.

“I’ll keep an eye on her.” Sinbad countered. “None of your crew will dare touch her.”

“T’will hardly stop them from trying,” the captain grumbled. Thalia shuddered. She was quickly becoming less certain about coming on this trip.

“Then we’ll pay double for her fare.” Sinbad took out his coin purse and began to count out several farsu .

The captain shook his head. “Sorry, boy. The gods can’t be bought.”

“Triple,” Sinbad tried again. “Plus, we’ll replace your ship with a better one in the event that it gets damaged.”

“Sin, we were trying to save money,” Ja’far hissed. “This is way over budget.”

Captain Reis stroked his silver streaked beard in thought. “Fine, fine. But she better not start any trouble or it’s the plank for ‘er.”

Giving Thalia one last warning glare, Captain Reis wandered off, barking orders at the crew. Hinahoho turned to Thalia and smiled at her apologetically.

“Ignore him,” he advised her. “Old fogies like him cling to their superstitions, but most of the crew are younger and more open minded. They won’t give you a hard time. And if they do, just let me know. I’ll take care of it.” To emphasize his strength, he flexed his giant arms.

Thalia giggled, finding his cheerful demeanor infectious. “Believe it or not, that mindset is common in my homeland. I’m more worried that you got scammed. Was it really okay to offer him so much?”

“No,” Hinahoho and Ja’far responded in unison.

Sinbad scowled. “It’s fine. The company could afford it, and we don’t have time to find another ship.” He looked to Thalia, and his expression softened. “I’m sorry you had to hear him talk like that. I promise, the crew won’t be nearly as bad as Captain Reis makes them out to be.”

“Why don’t we let Thalia set her things down,” Ja’far suggested, his eyes locked on her warily. “That bag’s probably heavy, right?”

Thalia decided to dismiss Ja’far’s strange expression as concern. Her bag was a bit heavy, and he had always been polite. Her discomfort must have been visible on her face. Why else would he be giving her that look? She hadn’t done anything wrong, had she?

Motioning for her to follow him, Hinahoho said, “Come on, Thalia. We’ll show you where we’ll be sleeping.” He led her to a door in the front of the ship, stooping through it. On the other side, two sailors sat on boxes, chewing beans. They looked up, sizing up Sinbad’s motley crew as they shuffled in. They seemed not to know whether to stare at Thalia or Hinahoho.

“A woman and a giant,” the red-head muttered, his eyes wide. “Do you think he’d crush me if I docked in her for a bit?” 

Thalia frowned. She’d had many crude comments like that directed at her over the years, and they weren’t nearly as charming or original as the people who made them seemed to think.

The boy next to the red-head giggled nervously at the joke, shinking away from Hinahoho’s glare.

“No one’s to touch Thalia.” Ja’far crossed his arms, his expression grim. “She’s a valuable employee and if we catch wind any of you are treating her with anything but the utmost respect…”

“You’ll have to deal with me,” Sinbad stepped forward, brandishing his scimitar.

The two boys looked at him, their faces remaining statically unimpressed.

“Who are you, exactly?” the red-head asked. “Some spoiled rich kid, it looks like.”

“I’m Sinbad, your boss.” Sinbad resheathed his sword and crossed his arms.

The boy who had not yet spoken straightened. “ The Sinbad? Like, Sinbad of the Seven Seas? That Sinbad?”

The other boy spit out his bean. “No way. Lady Killer of the Seven Seas Sinbad? Then is she your—”

“I’m not anyone’s anything,” Thalia interrupted. “Lady Killer of the Seven Seas? What the hell does that mean? Did someone murder a bunch of women and frame you, Sin?”

Hinahoho cleared his throat. “It’s an expression. You’ve never heard anyone called a lady killer?”

The sailors watched her, threatening to burst out with laughter. “How sheltered is this chick?”

Thalia could tell she’d said something wrong and brought her hands to her burning cheeks.

“You’ve never even come across that term in one of your books, Thalia?” Ja’far asked her, awestruck.

“No. Why would I?” 

“She mostly reads boring books about dead people,” Sinbad explained. “I doubt she has.”

“History isn’t boring,” Thalia quipped. “Modern novels are boring. What can I learn from them that I can’t learn by leaving the house?”

“Apparently what the term “lady killer” means,” the red-haired boy mumbled.

“Well, then. Educate me. What does it mean?”

“It means he’s good at charming the ladies,” Ja’far explained.

“Charming them into bed,” expanded the red-haired boy. “He fucks them.”

Fuck… like when a man and a woman… Thalia remembered the night she’d imagined him looking at her as though he wanted to do exactly that. But that had been her imagination. The lamps had been running out of oil, and it had been dark, and it hadn’t really happened.

Thalia felt a familiar churning in her stomach, something she’d long grown used to ignoring. It was something she hadn’t experienced in years and something she wasn’t willing to acknowledge even now. Sinbad was polite. He never touched her without permission, and certainly not the way a pervert would. Clearly, he’d never been inappropriate with a woman. There was no way he was a world renown lecher. 

“Well,” she huffed. “He’s always been a perfect gentleman to me.” She looked up to Sinbad, whose face was colored a bright crimson. That was not the face of a man who’d bedded hundreds of women, it was the face of an embarrassed boy. “It sounds like a bunch of unfounded rumors to me. There’s no way Sinbad would sleep around like that, right guys?”

Thalia waited for Sinbad to respond, but he refused to even meet her eyes. She looked to Ja’far, but he appeared equally uncomfortable, inspecting the ceiling nervously. Even Hinahoho was shifting his weight from foot to foot nervously.

“Guys?”

Sinbad sighed. “No offense, Thalia, but I really don’t want to talk about my sex life with you. Just pick your bed.” He gestured to the rows of bunk beds lining either side of the room.

Sex life. He talked as though he had one. The nauseous feeling in her stomach grew stronger, and suddenly she was angry with him— angry for taking that step into adulthood so soon, angry for not living up to her ideal, angry because right now, all she could think about was how what had been done to her, he’d done with someone else. She was furious.

Ignoring the red-haired boy’s howling laughter, Thalia silently tossed her bag onto a random top bunk, thinking if someone tried to assault her in the middle of the night, she would wake up from the sound of them climbing the ladder and have time to kick them in the face.

“Good choice.” Sinbad threw his things on the bunk below hers, and Thalia calmed down a little. Maybe he was the person everyone had said he was, but he was still Sinbad. He still wouldn’t touch her without her permission, and he still made her feel safe. 

Ja’far took a bed adjacent to them and Hinahoho looked at the tiny bunks wistfully. 

“Guess I’ll be sleeping on the deck, huh?”

This brought another round of laughter, this time from both the crew members. 

“Nasha! Ravi! Get over here, ya lazy scoundrels or ye’ll be walkin’ the plank!” Captain Reis’s voice carried in from outside.

“Shit!” the red-head cried. “He noticed we’re gone.”

The other boy nodded, and they both scrambled outside.

Even on the first day, life on the ship was already becoming monotonous. The sailors and her friends dealt with it by drinking heavily, but she hated the smell, and hated being around them. The book she had brought was small, but particularly dense. She could only stomach a little at a time before it gave her a headache.

So, instead, she entertained herself by leaning on the rail of the boat, watching the sun dip below the sea. She’d loved to watch the sunset from her room back in Attica, and that love was one of the few things in her life that had stayed consistent.

“Thalia~” Sinbad drawled her name, coming up from behind. She’d been aware he was approaching. She could smell him before he’d even spoken. He’d been drinking.

“Sin~” she mimicked playfully. 

He chuckled. “Do I really sound that bad?”

“You do.” 

 He grinned mischievously, leaning in toward her. “Good, that means I can say anything and you can’t get mad at me.”

Thalia pursed her lips. “I don’t know about that.”

“Has…” He hiccuped. “Has anyone told you you’re the most beautiful girl on this ship?”

Her lips twitched in amusement at his feeble attempt at a compliment. “I think that goes without saying, since I’m the only girl on the ship.”

“Exactly,” he asserted. “Most beautiful.”

“Is that what you had to get drunk to tell me?” She rolled her eyes. The joke was cute enough, but she wasn’t particularly fond of seeing him like this. It reminded her too much of her drunkard mother and some of the more handsy patrons. Still, she was growing used to it. Though she wouldn’t call him a responsible drinker, he seemed to have his habits under control and kept his touches respectful.

“Why would I have to get drunk to tell you that?” He leaned on the deck rail, and Thalia grabbed onto his wrist with both hands, worried he’d topple over in his current state. 

Tugging him upright, she asked, “Did you want something, Sin?”

He smiled, cupping his large hand over one of hers. “No, you just looked lonely over here by yourself.” 

“I’m not lonely. You know I don’t like to be around drunk people.”

He snorted. “Ja’far’s not drinking. Come over and keep him company.”

She glanced over to Ja’far, who quickly looked away. He had been watching. It seemed like he was always watching Sinbad, and as of this morning, he’d been watching her as well. He didn’t look at her the way he looked at Sinbad, though. The expression he wore when he looked at her was more like he expected to catch her doing something wrong. She’d explained it away this morning, but by now she couldn’t ignore it. He didn’t trust her anymore, and she couldn’t understand why.

“If you’re that concerned, you can watch the sunset with me. Otherwise...” She turned back to the horizon pointedly, removing her hands from his wrist.

“Hey,” Sinbad suddenly sounded very sober. It was uncanny how quickly he could rebound when he wanted to. He held up a flask to her eye level. “At least drink some grog.”

Her grimace made him chuckle.

“What’s the matter, Princess? You’re too spoiled to drink watered down wine?”

“It tastes terrible.” But, aside from the first sip she’d had earlier, she hadn’t had anything to drink today. Admittedly, she was thirsty. 

Grabbing the flask from him, she choked its contents down. Fresh water would have gone bad by the time they reached Balbadd, so the grog was her only option to stay hydrated. Still, with every swill it became harder to stomach.

“Welcome to the life of an adventurer,” he told her. “Not very glamorous, is it?”

She laughed indignantly. She hadn’t known glamor in years. “It’s not so bad. At least we’re free.”

“You’re right,” he agreed.

Thalia stared at the planks next to Sinbad’s feet, pondering the missteps and sacrifices it had taken to get to this point. Her pleasant mood began to sink under the weight of her guilt. Her family, her people, her country… everything that had happened was her fault.

Sinbad must have noticed she was getting lost in her own thoughts, because he quickly changed the subject.

“The sunset is beautiful, don’t you think?” 

She scoffed. “You’re not even looking.” 

“I don’t have to.”

Crossing her arms in front of her, she turned her attention to the saturated skyline. He was right. It was beautiful, as it had been every other time she’d seen it, but somehow, with him by her side, the colors seemed brighter, more alive.

She looked back to her friend, who was leaning over the rail, the last rays of light dancing in his golden eyes. His chiseled chin, his full lips, his long flowing hair… he was more breathtaking than any sunset. How hadn’t she noticed it before? He was… 

“Is something wrong?” he asked, raising an eyebrow. She’d been staring, and he’d noticed.

 She couldn’t tell him the real reason she’d been staring, that she had been admiring his perfect visage. He would definitely get the wrong idea and tease her. He didn’t think about her that way, and she didn’t think about him like that either. They were friends. They would always be friends.

Friendship was safe.

“No, I just… you have something on your face.” She reached up and stroked his cheek with her thumb, pretending to wipe something away. “There we go.” Bringing her hand to her lips, she pretended to blow an eyelash out to sea. “All gone.”

He was quiet for a moment, apparently mulling something over.

“You know,” His mouth twitched up into a lopsided grin. “I’m either drunk or there wasn’t anything there. Thalia, did you just flirt with me?”

 “Me? Flirt? With you?”Thalia forced out an awkward laugh, punching him in the arm. She hadn’t been flirting. Of course she wouldn’t flirt, not with him. “Sinbad, you’re definitely drunk. Maybe you need to sit down.”

He scratched his neck sheepishly, taking a step back. “You’re right. I should go sit down.” Her turned, heading toward the cabin.

“Sin?” she called after him, a gust of wind sweeping her cry out to sea.

Her call must have reached him anyway, because he turned around. “It’s getting dark. I’m going inside.”

Thalia hadn’t even noticed, but the sun was almost completely beneath the waves. Now Sinbad had left her alone with nothing but the desolate darkness to keep her company. Thalia glanced around at the others on deck, rugged men many of whom were nearly double her size. It occurred to her that she didn’t feel safe by herself. Feeling a chill creep up her spine, she scampered after Sinbad, seeking safety at his side.

By day two, Thalia realized that talking to the same three people every day would become old fast. For the sake of her sanity, she set aside her apprehensions and tried to branch out and talk to the crew members. She caught Ravi, the quiet sailor from the first day, reading a book. He was closer to her size than any other member of the crew, and seemed the least threatening. Sitting on the crate next to him, she peered over his shoulder curiously.

“What are you reading?”

“The Adventures of Sinbad,” he told her enthusiastically, holding up the cover of the book for her to see.

Thalia gave a sideways glance to her friend, who was playing card games over a few beers. He slapped Hinahoho on the back in a congratulatory manner. Apparently the Imuchakk had just played a decent round. “Someone wrote a book about him?”

“Several.” Ravi gave her a heart-warming smile. “He wrote them himself. I’m on the third book, but I’ve read them all at least five times.”

“I didn’t know he was a writer,” she mused, inspecting the hard cover of the book. “Can I borrow the first one? I might throw myself overboard if I don’t find something to do.”

He nodded, the braid framing the side of his face swaying with the movement.

“You really seem to look up to him,” she added.  “Why don’t you go up and talk to him for a bit? He’s really nice, I swear.”

Ravi lowered his book, his hazel eyes clouding over. “No way. Thanks to Nasha, I made a horrible first impression. He hates me. I know it.”

“Sinbad hates one kind of people: manipulative ones.” Like Lady Maader. “You seem earnest, and I think he’ll see that in you and appreciate it,” Thalia encouraged him.

“Will you introduce us?” Ravi scratched his tawny hair shyly. “I want him to sign my copy of his book.”

Thalia stood, pumping her fists enthusiastically. She was about to make this boy’s day.

 “Yes! Let’s do it right now.” Marching in Sinbad’s direction, she motioned for Ravi to follow.

“Are you sure?” she heard him protest from behind her. “He looks busy.”

Thalia waved away his concerns. Sinbad could make time for his biggest fan, couldn’t he? Besides, he wasn’t that busy. He appeared to be in the final rounds of a poker game, the only remaining opponent being Nasha, the red haired boy from yesterday. Sinbad announced which cards he was playing, but his dead eyes betrayed him again.

Without looking at his cards, Thalia immediately called his bluff.

He threw his hand down and rose to his feet. “Thalia? What the hell? Why are you helping him? That’s cheating.”

“You’re busy,” she shrugged. “I need you unbusy.”

“Fine. I fold.” He passed the winnings over to Nasha, who was cackling hysterically and howling something about Sinbad being whipped. “What is it? Is someone bothering you?”

“No, actually I’ve been getting to know one of the crew members.” She smiled, gesturing for Ravi to join her. “Ravi here has been wanting to talk to you. He’s a big fan of yours.”

Sinbad looked at the lanky teen and smiled generously. “Hello, Ravi. Would you like to pull up a seat and ask questions? Or we can just talk about whatever you’re interested in.”

“Sorry Nasha is an asshole,” Ravi blurted.

Nasha stopped laughing and pursed his lips, unable to deny the allegation.

Sinbad laughed heartily as Thalia brought over a chair for Ravi.

“Before you two get too carried away, can I go ahead and borrow that book?” Thalia asked.

“Sure,” Ravi replied. “It’s in the chest at the foot of my bunk.”

“What book?” Sinbad asked, leaning forward.

Thalia answered before Ravi could. “Just some boring autobiography.”

Sinbad leaned back, apparently satisfied with her answer. Ravi looked at her curiously before apprehension dawned on his face. His gaze oscillated back and forth between Thalia and Sinbad until it settled on her.

Thalia’s eyebrows knitted at his strange reaction, but she said nothing. So long as he kept her secret, she wouldn’t pry into what was going on in his head.

Thalia dug the book out of his trunk, burying her nose in it. She hadn’t realized before how little she’d known about her friend— that his father had been killed in one of Parthevia’s endless wars, that his mother had died of illness while he captured the famed first dungeon. She wiped a few tears from her eyes after reading those parts. It wasn’t just that Sinbad was so important to her, though that was doubtless a huge part of it. He had a way with words that kept her enthralled with the story’s twists and turns. 

She couldn’t put the book down, so she started carrying it around with her. Anxious about what her friends would think if they found out what she was reading, she was careful not to let anyone see the cover. She ignored Sinbad’s increasingly grand attempts to get her attention, in favor of getting to know the part of him within the books pages that she’d never been allowed to see. He would still be around after she finished reading.

As she sat stuffing a snack of nuts in her mouth, engrossed by one of the tales within the pages, Sinbad’s patience finally broke.

“You’ve been reading that book for three days straight,” he groused.

She nodded in acknowledgement. Actually, she’d only been reading this one since yesterday . She’d finished the first book and was now on the second.

“What could possibly be more interesting than your friends?” He grabbed the book from her hands and held it out of her reach, a victorious expression written on his face.

She panicked. What if when he saw that she was reading the book he’d authored, he thought she was some kind of stalker?

“Give it back!” she fumed, futilely hopping to grab at the book. She cursed her short stature now more than ever.

The smile dropped from his face as he saw how furious he’d made her. “Your face is really red. What are you reading that you’re so ashamed of? Smut?”

“Yes,” she huffed. “Now give it back.”

His eyes widened. He hadn’t expected an answer like that. 

“No way. Not you .” He glanced at the pages, reading them aloud under his breath. “What the hell, Thalia? I wrote this. It’s not smut.”

She quoted a passage from a few pages earlier. “‘The slumbering form of the queen of Artemyra was radiant in the moonlight, her breasts--’”

Now it was his turn to blush. “That was-- the readers like that stuff, okay? But you… you’re embarrassed because you were reading my book?”

He handed the bound pages back to her, and she clutched them protectively to her stomach. 

“Don’t get the wrong idea,” she muttered, looking at the planks instead of his face. “You’re a good writer.”

He ruffled her hair affectionately. “I’m glad you think so. There’s no need to be so shy about it.”

She suddenly felt guilty for having been so afraid of his reaction to her reading his stories. Of course he wouldn’t mind if she read them. He’d published them for the world to see. She didn’t understand why she’d been so afraid of him finding out. Somehow the idea of him thinking she had an interest in him terrified her.

Because that was definitely not the case.

“Did you learn anything?” he asked.

“Hm?”

“You said there wasn’t anything in modern novels you couldn’t learn by stepping outside,” he reminded her. “Did you learn anything?”

“Yeah,” she smiled at him, the weight of his tragic life now coloring the way she saw him. “I learned a lot.”

Chapter Text

The captain’s fears of angered gods and internal strife caused by Thalia’s presence aboard his ship never came to fruition. When they docked safely in Balbadd, Thalia disembarked with her head held high, having been vindicated. The sea god was just another Attican myth. Her presence on the boat couldn’t anger something that didn’t exist. 

Thalia’s memories of the kingdom of Balbadd were vague; she remembered the buildings made of golden-hued bricks, but she’d forgotten just how big it was. Thankfully, King Rashid had sent a guard to meet them at the port and escort them through the city. Where the streets of Reim were well-kept and modern, Balbadd had an ancient feel to it. The worn stone streets were uneven, the architecture crude and eroded in many places. It seemed to Thalia that Balbadd must have existed since the beginning of time.

The palace was no exception— at least, not on the outside. Passing through the doors was like entering an entirely different world, one lavishly decorated with creams, golds, and rich purples. Elaborately designed furniture and trinkets sat on display, as if to impress upon visitors the extravagant wealth of the owner. Thalia  had long forgotten that such a lifestyle was supposed to be normal for people of her station. Struggling to keep her mouth from falling open, Thalia kept a straight face. As a princess, none of this should have impressed her.

“Are we staying here?” she whispered to Sinbad as the guard continued to lead them through the towering halls. Her voice bounced off the walls, rendering her attempt at discretion ineffective.

“Only the best for my valuable employees.” He gave her a friendly wink.

“King Rashid has been generous enough to prepare three rooms for us,” Ja’far told her. “You were a last minute whim on the part of Sin, so, we weren’t able to send word ahead that there would be four of us. Sin and I will be sharing a room, and you and Hinahoho will have the remaining two.”

“What?” Sinbad objected, “I’m the head of this company. If anyone should get a room to themselves, it’s me.”

“I don’t mind sharing a room with Ja’far.” Thalia said without thinking. “Hinahoho will need a full bed to himself, and you want a room to yourself…”

“No.”

“No.”

Sinbad and Ja’far shot down her idea at the same time.

“Thalia can stay with me.” Sinbad decided, draping a protective arm over her shoulders.

“Thalia is a princess who has a reputation to protect.” Ja’far protested. “How will it look if she sleeps in the same room as ‘The Lady Killer of the Seven Seas?’”

Thalia struggled to see the problem. “I really don’t mind. We slept in the same room on the way here, anyways. I’d trust any of you guys. I know none of you would hurt me.” They’d proven as much over the months she’d known them.

“Is she always this naive?” Ja’far threw a scornful look in her direction only to receive a warning glare from Sinbad.

“If I may interject…” Hinahoho inserted himself forcefully into the conversation. “Thalia, Ja’far is right. You shouldn’t be sharing a room with any of us. It doesn’t matter what actually goes on in the room; it matters what people think is going on in the room. As a princess and a delegate representing the Sindria Trading Company, you have a responsibility to refrain from any actions that will reflect poorly on yourself or the company.”

Thalia grew quiet. Hinahoho was right. So far, she had managed to keep what had happened to her at Ria Venus Island quiet, but if rumors started about her and Sinbad, all that would have been for nothing.

Apparently, Thalia wasn’t the only one Hinahoho had persuaded. Sinbad let out a resigned sigh, removing his arm from her shoulders.

 “Ja’far can stay with me.”

The guard cleared her throat, and Thalia realized they had stopped walking a while ago. “Are you ready to go in?”

“Yes, of course. Our apologies.” Ja’far gave the guard a sheepish grin.

The delegation proceeded with Sinbad in front, followed by Hinahoho and Ja’far, and Thalia bringing up the rear as the lowest ranking member. To avoid drawing attention to herself, she bowed to King Rashid as though she were a commoner, flaring her skirts out to the sides before kneeling. She wasn’t here to make a scene. 

Sinbad completed the speech he’d prepared to thank King Rashid for his support of company and its move to Balbadd. There was a long silence afterward, and Thalia shrank in on herself, wondering if they had somehow offended King Rashid. The others tensed as well.

At last, the king spoke. “There is no need for such formality. Just speak to me as you always have. Welcome back Sinbad. It’s good to see you again.” His gaze turned to Thalia. He seemed to be measuring her up. “I’ve seen your other friends before, but not this one. Is this a new companion? She handles herself as though she’s been in court before.”

Having been acknowledged, Thalia had no choice but to answer. She rose, leaving her head bowed and her hands raised, manners that had been drilled into her since childhood. 

“Your Majesty is observant. My name is Princess Thalia Alexandris, daughter of the late king and queen Hypatos and Simay Alexandris of the subjugated kingdom of Attica. I appear before you today as a humble servant of the Sindria company.” 

“Ah,” King Rashid relaxed back in his chair. “Little Thalia. You were quite small the last time we met. You wouldn’t remember me. I wish to express my deepest sympathies for your losses.”

“Thank you, Your Highness.” Now that she had revealed her status, she remained standing as would be proper for a princess. To lower herself again would be to accept acknowledge Parthevia’s invasion as legitimate. She was the true heir to the throne, not the Parthevian Royal Family.

King Rashid turned his attention back to Sinbad. “The first time we met, you were unbelievably rash. You have so much courage, it could be called recklessness. I’m not sure whether that’s admirable or shocking.”

Sinbad scratched his chin sheepishly. “I’m sorry. I throw myself into the things I want to do wholeheartedly and then they turn out like this.”

“That’s for sure,” Ja’far grumbled. “Please try putting yourself in the position of those around you for once.”

Sinbad and Ja’far began a heated whispered exchange. Thalia cleared her throat to signal they were behaving inappropriately, and the two boys immediately ceased their squabble. 

Turning his attention back to King Rashid, Sinbad spoke, his voice subdued. “Actually, in becoming a slave, I realized something. The world is full of so many unreasonable things besides war. I’m glad I was able to discover that for myself. I learned that seemingly kind people are capable of terrible things, and that there are thousands of people out there like those children, people helpless to change their own situations.” He then unclasped his hands, forming a resolute fist. The next time he spoke, his voice was forceful and confident. “For the sake of people like them, I’m more determined than ever to build a country. Now that I have the resources, the time has come. I’m ready to fulfill my destiny.”

Thalia’s heart was stirred by the power in his voice, a fervent passion igniting in her veins. Yes, Sinbad’s resolve could make anything possible, even his ridiculous dream, and she was here, helping to make it happened. She didn’t have to choose between her destiny and his. She could help him now, take her time. She was only sixteen. She could put off finding a husband for a couple of years and focus on helping Sinbad. There wasn’t much she could do for her country right now anyway.

“I see.” King Rashid’s grip tightened around his scepter. “I have no problem with you building a country, but I do have one question to ask. What are you planning to do about land?”

Sinbad didn’t answer at first and Thalia stared in disbelief. How did he not have an answer ready? Hadn’t he thought about this before? Had he really never even considered—?

“I don’t suppose you could let me have a small corner of Balbadd?”

“No.”

He really hadn’t thought this through, had he?

King Rashid spoke. “A country’s foundation is its land. It’s both your assets and your resources. However, most land in the world already belongs to one country or another. Historically, the only way to expand a country’s territory has been to conquer and invade another country, and by doing so, it just promotes even more war. Isn’t that right, Thalia?”

Thalia nodded solemnly. She could not allow Parthevia continue its unjust reign over her people, even if it meant risking the lives of herself and countless soldiers. “You are correct, Your Majesty.”

He tilted his head in acknowledgement of her answer before pointing at the sword and necklace Sinbad had placed on the floor beside him. “But you have those, your metal vessels. This power of yours surpasses human knowledge, and should you use it, it wouldn’t be difficult for you to destroy a country in a single night.”

Thalia drew in a sharp breath. She’d seen Sinbad use his metal vessels once, creating a shimmering snowfall for his performance. They had been gentle and beautiful, fluttering around like weightless crystalline shards. She’d been in awe at the time, believing that this was the power of his metal vessels— to bring beauty into the world. What King Rashid was describing was a weapon of mass destruction. Could something capable of creating such beauty also be capable of such devastation? 

“I need one!” she blurted without thinking. Quickly, she covered her mouth, wishing she could stuff the words back inside. The outburst had been inappropriate, and now all eyes were on her.

King Rashid’s lips pulled into a thin line. “Princess, dungeons are dangerous places filled with perils that have killed the strongest of men. It is not a place to enter lightly.”

Thalia lowered her head further, heat flooding her face. Of course, the idea of someone like her fighting was ridiculous.

“You seem pretty interested. Do you like swords?”  

She was an Attican woman of nobility. Her role was to stay in her corner of her house— not to covet the world of men...

“I bet with some practice, you would be just as good as I am. Would you like to touch it?” 

… the world of peasants…

“Come to the palace sometime. I can order everyone away. No one has to know.”

… the world of barbarians… 

“That’s it. Go ahead and unsheathe it.”

If she tried to step too far outside that role, bad things happened. Bad things always happened.

“She’ll bring a curse upon this entire nation!”

“Forgive me, Your Majesty. I spoke rashly.”

King Rashid tilted his head and let out a small noise of agreement before returning his attention to Sinbad. “As I was saying, it would be awfully hypocritical of you to found your country through conflict when you dream of creating a country to end conflicts. So, what will you do, Sinbad? How will you create your own country?”

Thalia waited for Sinbad’s response, shoving her memories and her shame back into the locked box inside her chest. Things would be okay because Sinbad had an answer. He always had an answer.

Except this time he didn’t. Was his dream of a world without suffering and conflict really impossible?

“Don’t look so scared. I’m merely interested in your answer. However…” The king remained rigidly in his seat. “Let me give you some good news as an apology. South of Reim is a land commonly known as “The Dark Continent. It’s a place that’s widely considered to be savage and untouched.”

Hinahoho spoke up for the first time. “The Dark Continent?”

“That’s right. It’s a vast amount of land that belongs to no country. I can’t guarantee it’s the kind of place you’re looking for, but it may be worth taking a look at.”

Thalia let out a deep breath. Yes, of course: the Dark Continent. Growing up, she had seen it on maps, a vast swath of land few dared to explore. Parts of it were barren, other parts lush and thick with jungle. It was home to Heliohapt, a civilization that her country had lost contact with centuries ago, but from which much of their medical knowledge was derived.

King Rashid continued. “Don’t forget, Sinbad. Creating a new society will not be so simple, and creating a new country won’t be any easier.”

“About that…” Sinbad responded hesitantly. “As my mentor…”

Sinbad stopped talking, distracted by something behind the curtain on his left. Suddenly, Thalia heard it too— the grumbling of a child.

“Shut up. I can’t forgive having such a lowly thief in the palace! Mother said as the heir to the throne, I have to have the self-awareness of a king.”

Thalia let out a dismayed squeak as Sinbad rose— in the presence of a king— and marched over to the curtain. He’d asked her to help them navigate court, but she couldn’t fix this breach of manners with all the experience in the world. He should have known better than to act on his own. 

Pulling back the drapes, he demanded, “Quit your complaining. You’re being loud. Who are you two anyway?”

The two boys that had been hiding began to scamper in circles, the short one shouting about being killed by a lowly commoner. Thalia struggled to keep her composure as Sinbad further breached decorum, picking up what she could only presume were the royal children by their clothes.

King Rashid sighed, holding his head as though he had a headache. “You two… I thought I told you to stay out of here. Hurry up and go.”

“Hmm?” Sinbad held the squirming children up higher. “What’d you say? Who are these brats.”

Now he was using course language in front of a king! 

Rushing to apologize for Sinbad’s increasingly egregious blunders, Thalia cried, “Forgive him, Your Majesty. He doesn’t know—”

King Rashid raised his hand to cut her off. “There is no need for apologies, Princess. I know your father was very strict, but my palace is run differently. You may feel at home here.”

Grateful for the invitation to relax, Thalia lowered her hands and raised her head, just as Sinbad set the rambunctious children down on the steps leading to the raised platform on which King Rashid sat.

“As for these ‘brats’, they are my sons, Ahbmad and Sahbmad.”

Thalia approached them and knelt down so that she was at eye level with the two boys. “Hello, Ahbmad, Sahbmad. Do you think those are nice things to say about this young man?” She gestured to Sinbad. “Why don’t you apologize.”

Ahbmad spoke while Sahbmad cowered behind him. “It’s the truth! Why should I apologize?”

“Because—”

King Rashid cut Thalia off. “I’m afraid those two are beyond reasoning with. It’s best to just let them go.”

Thalia suspected that with a stern but gentle hand, they could be reigned in— she had yet to meet a child who was truly bad. Still, it was not her place to get involved in another family’s affairs.

She took a step back, “Of course, King Rashid.”

“So wait,” Sinbad said, pinching Ahbmad’s plump belly. “If these are your sons, how come they look nothing like you?”

“Please don’t torture the child.” Thalia shot her friend a stern look.

“I’m not!”

Ahbmad stomped his foot. “That’s right! This is torture! This thief is torturing me! You insolent thief, I’m going to have you thrown out of the palace immediately!

“I like to see you try,” Sinbad scowled. “I’m here on official business with the king, and I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Thalia coughed. “Actually you have several offenses.”

“You can’t treat me like this!” Ahbmad shouted one last time. “I’m going to tell mother!” 

With that the two boys finally scampered out of the room, taking their chaos with them.

King Rashid cleared his throat, casting his eyes to the ground. “I’m afraid this happens all the time, although it’s quite embarrassing. Maybe it’s because I left their education to their mother, but somehow they turned into little hooligans. It’s fine as long as I remain on the throne, but it hurts my head just thinking about one day leaving this country in the hands of my sons.” Burying his face in his hands, he let out a large sigh. “Even I have to put my all into maintaining this country. Nobody’s perfect.”

Lifting his head again, he continued. “No country is perfect either. You understand that, right, Sinbad? Your homeland is a good example…”

“Has something happened in Parthevia?”

“Parthevia has agreed to sign a cease-fire treaty with Reim.” 

Thalia scowled, remembering Nerva’s fake lamentations about the tragic fate of her family. They seemed especially empty now that she knew his father had agreed to a truce with the country at fault.

King Rashid turned his attention once again to Thalia. “I apologize, Princess. I understand Parthevia’s affairs must be a painful subject for you.”

Thalia accepted his apology gracefully, bowing her head and raising her clasped hands in front of her heart. “It’s nothing I can’t handle, Your Majesty.”

Rashid continued, “The previous emperor passed away and the princess went missing. The current emperor is too young. It seems all domestic affairs have been put in the hands of the General of the Royal Guard—”

General Barbarossa. It had to be him.

Her fingernails began to dig in to her palms. That injust mad had helped slaughter her family and was rewarded with more power than anyone of his position should have been allowed. It was disgusting.

“Thalia,” Ja’far hissed. “Are you alright? You look… scary.”

“Oh,” She focused on relaxing her posture and schooling her face into a serene expression. “I’m fine.”

She was fine. She had to be. She had to keep herself together or else everything could fall apart. Her grudge against Serendine couldn’t get out. Thalia hadn’t seen much of Serendine at the company, but someone as charismatic as her could weasel her way out of anything. After all, for years, Serendine had played Thalia like a fool, luring her in, making her think Serendine cared.

“—I think it would be a good idea to think about what you want to do, and why you want to build your own country.”

When Sinbad failed to respond, Hinahoho spoke up. “Thank you, King Rashid. We will take your advice into deep consideration.“ 

That night, the streets of Balbadd were noisy and boisterous, but Sinbad was silent. It was all Thalia could hear. She hadn’t listened to part of King Rashid’s speech, but surely whatever he’d said hadn’t been that bad. So why was it they were back to the way things had been after he’d gotten out of the punishment room? 

No, things were worse. He’d locked himself away in his room for dinner. Ja’far and Hinahoho had assured her he was fine, that he was just thinking things over, but Thalia was afraid. She was afraid of losing him again, that he wouldn’t bounce back this time. So, she stood outside his door, with her hand raised to knock. He might be mad that she wasn’t giving him space, but— 

Before she had a chance to move, the door opened. She and Sinbad stood there for a moment, neither one speaking. Thalia was too stunned, and judging by the expression on his face, he was too. His eyes locked on her hand, still raised in the air, and he cracked a subdued smile.

“I was thinking about going for a walk. Would you like to come?”

Thalia nodded rigidly, relief flooding her. He was talking again. She wasn’t losing him.

Gently, he wrapped her hand around her still raised fist and guided it back to her side.

After gathering the others, the four of them wandered through the city, exploring. They walked until rows of mansions gave way to shanties. In this new area, dirty children in rags began crowd around them, offering flowers.

“Don’t accept them,” Ja’far advised Thalia. “They’ll expect payment.”

Thalia stopped walking and accepted a flower, offering a generous sum in exchange. Ja’far watched this transaction with horror.

“You can’t just do that,” he groaned. “Once they think you have money, they won’t leave you alone.”

“It’s fine, isn’t it?” Thalia responded, accepting another flower, this time from a little girl.

“What are you going to do, try to save everyone here?” Ja’far challenged, looking at her small coin purse.

She looked into the big brown eyes of one of the children, her heart breaking. He was so thin. How often did he go hungry? “How am I supposed to say no?” she asked.

““I know you want to help,” Hinahoho sighed, “but Balbadd needs to sort out its own problems.”

Thalia looked at the scene around her: a mother huddling with her baby, people so ill they couldn’t sit upright. She wanted to ask how many people had to die waiting for the needed reforms to happen, but kept her mouth shut, putting her coin purse away. The children wailed, desperately clinging to her skirts, begging her to buy their flowers. She channeled every ounce of meanness she could muster into a single stern look, sending the children backing away obediently.

“Yeah,” Ja’far muttered his agreement with Hinahoho as a pair of younger children climbed around in the garbage heap towering above him “But this place is…”

“The slums, huh?” Hinahoho mused. “I guess it’s like King Rashid said. Building and maintaining a country won’t be easy.”

“Sinbad can do it,” Thalia asserted, joining her best friend at his side. Her eyes drifted down to his fist clenched so tightly, his knuckles had turned white, and she could tell. She could tell that seeing people in this condition made him as angry as any of them. “You can,” she repeated in a whisper. “If anyone can it’s you.”

He can certainly do a better job than this. She left that thought unsaid. King Rashid had said he was doing his best, but Thalia was beginning to wonder. Was he really doing anything to address this? If he was failing so many people this badly, was it really okay to leave him on the throne?

“You’re right,” Sinbad told her. When he turned around, he flashed a soft smile at their other two friends. “I’ve decided. We’re going to the dark continent.”

Thalia took his fist and gently pried it open. Neither of them could save these people now, but the future was bright. Someday they would both be able to make a difference. 

“Should we go back?” she asked quietly.

“Yeah.” He turned his smile to her. “Let’s go.”

Back at the palace, they settled down in their rooms, three suites right next to one another. Thalia lay on her back, supported by a soft mattress and plush pillows, staring up at the ornate ceiling. How long had it been since Thalia had a room to herself? Not since Attica, when she’d been a stupid, naive princess who thought she could run away from her problems.

If she’d been a good child, if she hadn’t run away, she would be like the rest of her family— dead. Or maybe not. Maybe she would have married Nerva and it would have saved everyone— her family, her country. If she hadn’t run away, maybe things would have been different. Her family’s blood was on her hands. She shouldn’t be here. She shouldn’t be alive.

No, she didn’t really believe that.

The fall of Attica wasn’t completely her fault, was it? None of this would have happened if it weren’t for Parthevia’s avaricious appetite to consume everything within its ever-widening path. Parthevia, the same country that had taken Sinbad’s father from him, was to blame. Moreover, she knew exactly who within that country was responsible, didn’t she? That General Barbarossa man and Serendine, the girl who had the audacity to smile in Thalia’s direction whenever they passed each other in the hallways of the company.

Something stirred within her-- something so hot it sent chills down her spine, so powerful it strained her breathing. It was the same thing she had experienced earlier that day in the throne room: rage.

Chapter Text

It seemed strange, traveling an entire week only to spend one night in their destination, but Sinbad was a busy man, and they couldn’t afford a prolonged visit. In the morning, Sinbad discussed the headquarters’ relocation with an official, who introduced him to a contractor. He spent the rest of the morning hashing out details for what appeared to Thalia to be a needlessly extravagant warehouse. In the afternoon, King Rashid bid them farewell, and they boarded the ship.

The others were so wrapped up in excited chatter about the dark continent that they hadn’t noticed Thalia was lagging behind, dragging her bag. Yesterday’s revelation about the state of Parthevia had shaken her, and not in the usual way. She had stayed up last night, pacing back and forth, stewing in resentment until the crack of dawn. Someone like Barbarossa should not be in power. He deserved to die for his role in destroying her life.

The moment Thalia’s feet hit the hard planks of the ship, an unfamiliar hand grabbed her, dragging her away from her distracted friends. Thalia violently jerked away, stumbling several steps backward. When she looked up, she realized the culprit was Nasha, the red-haired sailor who had mocked her the first day on the ship.

“What do you think you’re doing?” she growled, hugging herself protectively. “You can’t just touch people without permission like that.”

Nasha ignored her, striding toward her to make up for the distance she’d put between them. “Did something happen to you? You look more world-weary than yesterday morning.”

Thalia brought her hands to her face, trying to feel whatever he was seeing. “Do I? It’s probably just a lack of sleep.”

“No, that’s not it,” he folded his arms over his chest. “Trust me. I’m good at reading people.”

Thalia glanced in the direction of the others, still wrapped up in their conversation. Around them, she had to pretend everything was normal, but Nasha wasn’t her friend. She didn’t even particularly like him. She was too tired to play nice with him if she didn’t have to. She decided not to try to spare him from her foul mood.

“I see one flaw in your argument. If you’re as good at reading people as you say you are, then you already know I’m not in the mood to talk. So, either you’re wilfully annoying me or you’re a liar.”

Nasha whistled, looking her up and down. “Something definitely happened.”

She lifted her chin defiantly, willing him to look away. His only response was a disinterested stare that spiked her heart-rate. Thalia continued their stare-down, refusing to let him know she was intimidated. It worked until Thalia’s eyes began to sting and water. When she surrendered, blinking and wiping her eyes, Nasha let out a sharp laugh. 

Thalia was relieved when she heard Sinbad call out her name, giving her an excuse to escape.

“Coming!” she shouted cheerfully. 

“Oh, sure! You’ll put on a cheery act for him! ” 

Thalia ignored Nasha’s complaint, bounding over to Sinbad’s side. Of course she would put on a cheery act for him. He was her friend. She needed him to like her, to not ask questions. If her bitter mood persisted, she would have to put all her energy into acting for the next seven days.

Sinbad affectionately ruffled her hair, and she leaned into his hand, much like a pleased cat. 

“There you are.” He let out a relieved sigh. “I thought you wandered off somewhere.”

 Faking lighthearted laughter, she placed a reassuring hand on her friend’s arm. “Thanks for worrying about me. I’m right here.”

In the corner of her eye, she caught Nasha glowering in their direction. What was with him today? He’d ignored her most of the trip here, and suddenly he was watching her like some jilted suitor.

At dinner that night, Thalia sat quietly between Sinbad and Hinahoho, picking at her salted meat and potatoes idly as she replayed fantasies of Barbarossa being brutally murdered with a sword. Occasionally, she tuned back in to the conversation long enough to make thee others think she was engaged. She didn’t want anyone to ask questions. She didn’t want to talk about it. She doubted they would understand. They were so bright and optimistic. What did they know about revenge?

She glanced across the table to Nasha, who was once again watching her. When their eyes met, his lips pulled up into an obnoxiously confident smirk. She frowned in response before leaping to answer a question Ja’far had lobbed her way, finishing off her graceful social maneuver with a bright laugh. She dared to glance back at Nasha, who rolled his eyes.

As they stood up, cleaning up their places, Nasha leaned in from behind her, whispering in her ear, “Meet me below deck, in the hold.”

Sinbad’s face twisted into a scowl as Nasha pulled away. The two boys exchanged glances before Nasha slinked off into the dark.

“What was that?” Sinbad asked.

“I have no idea.” Thalia shrugged. Nasha was crazy if he thought she was going out of her way to meet him anywhere, much less in private. She doubted she’d even allow herself to be alone with non-threatening Ravi.

Two days later, after Sinbad and the others had gone to sleep, Thalia climbed out of bed and padded out of the room, seeking a private corner of the ship where she could drink in the moonlight. She wandered past the night crew, some of whom she’d gotten to know over the course of their voyage. Unlike the first night, she felt safe enough in their presence to at least go about her daily life. She settled in a quiet corner of the ship, reclining against a crate and fishing an apple from a nearby sack. If she couldn’t sleep properly, the least she could do was get some fresh air.

“You didn’t come.” Nasha’s voice came from a dark figure, clunking with heavy boots toward her. “You’re smarter than I thought.” 

Thalia sat up, spitting a bite of the apple out. “Nasha?”

“Relax. I’m not here to hurt you.” He was now close enough that she could make out the details of his figure, his broad shoulders, his sharp eyes, and his red hair. Squatting next to her, he took the apple from her hands and bit into it. When he finished chewing, he sighed. “I just wanted to talk to you one on one.”

Thalia sat up, narrowing her eyes. She didn’t trust Nasha. She had no reason to. 

“Why?”

He ran his fingers through his hair, and suddenly he looked less scary. He almost seemed docile. 

“You’ve got the wrong idea about me.” He sighed. “Yeah, I’m a liar. So are you. That performance the other night was pretty impressive, but you can’t fool me. I told you, I’m good at reading people.”

Thalia snagged another apple from the bag to replace her stolen one and issued him a sharp glare. “What’s your point, exactly?” 

“You don’t trust your friends, do you? You’re afraid they wouldn’t accept the real you.” Nasha tossed his stolen apple overboard and leaned forward, taking her hand in his. He was too close to Thalia for comfort, and when he spoke, she could feel his breath on her skin. “I already see you. The real you— the one with murder in her eyes.”

She flinched, reclaiming her hand and shoving him back. How did he know all that? What had given her away?

“My friends would accept me with blood stained hands,” she announced more confidently than she felt. 

“Yes, they would, wouldn’t they?” Nasha sat down next to her, so close their shoulders were touching. “That’s what makes them such hypocrites. No, what you’re afraid of is opening up to them, letting them know your true feelings— the dark ones, the ones that might make them doubt you. The catch is that the more you lie, the more they’re going to hate you, and it won’t be because you killed or stole. That would be forgivable for them. It will be because you deceived them. Ravi told me that boss of yours hates manipulative people.” He pointed to her forehead. “Thalia, that’s you.”

“I’m not like you,” Thalia responded evenly, scooting away from Nasha. “I don’t hurt people. I protect myself.”

“Think about how hurt your friends will be when they realize the girl they thought was so sweet and innocent is a cold-hearted killer deep down.” 

Thalia scoffed. Suddenly, she understood what was happening. Nasha was doing this intentionally, making her doubt herself. When she stood, she was the one towering over him for once.

“You thought you could mess with my head? Tear a rift between me and my friends? I see you too, Nasha. What do you want with me? Are you a spy from another company?”

Nasha’s surprised laughter broke the tension around them.

“No. I’m not working for anyone but myself. Sit back down. I promise I’ll stop being so pushy.” He held his hand out to her.

“Is a promise from you good for anything?”

“This time it is.”

Thalia refused to accept his hand, but sat down anyway. She was genuinely curious about his explanation and she got the feeling he really did mean to keep his promise.

“Alright, I’ll be honest.” He rested his head on the box she’d been reclining against earlier. “I want to sleep with you, and your friends are annoyingly protective, especially that Sinbad guy.”

That was it? No espionage, no intrigue? 

“That’s really… immature.” She attempted to massage the wrinkles out of her forehead, certain the stupidity behind his motive had aged her several years. 

“You caught me.” Nasha shrugged. “I won’t try to mess with you again, but if you ever need someone to be yourself around, come find me. And, you know, if you ever want a good time...”

“I might take you up on that first offer,” Thalia agreed, “but that second one is never going to happen.”

He gave her a knowing smile. 

“We’ll see.”

Over the remainder of the trip, Thalia spent most of her time around her old friends, but she did occasionally seek out Nasha to release the bitterness that dwelled within her. He was utterly repellant, but that was a comfort, in some ways. She didn’t care if he hated her. She could hurl abuses at him until she felt purged, and he would sit back and take them, completely unfazed.

They only docked at the company for a couple of weeks, long enough to plan the journey to the Dark Continent and procure any necessary supplies. Thalia hadn’t been expecting to come on this trip, but when she received another last minute invitation, she readily accepted.

Captain Reis’ ship was once again escorting them. Apparently, the captain had lowered his rates after gauging them last time. Despite the strange friendship she’d begun to form with Nasha, he didn’t look happy to see her when she boarded.

“What the hell are you doing here? We’re going to the Dark Continent. What’s your boss thinking, bringing you someplace like that?” he grumbled. “That guy is insane.”

“I don’t understand it either, but I’ll be fine,” she reassured him. “My friends are all really dependable. Especially Sin. He’d never let anything happen to me.”

“You have too much faith in him,” Nasha reprimanded her. “I know guys like him. He’s going to use you and throw you away.”

Thalia twitched with irritation. “I would more expect that from you, Nasha.”

“Yeah, but everyone knows I’m an asshole. They have no one to blame but themselves if they trust me. He goes around acting like such a good guy. It makes me sick.”

She sighed, rubbing her temples. Maybe she’d been wrong to try to befriend this jerk.

“Anyway,” Nasha said, changing the subject. “guess who got a promotion.”

Thalia assumed he was referring to himself, but considering he was slacking off every time she saw him, she wondered how exactly he got picked over his hard-working peers.

“Huh?” He leaned toward her. “What’s with that face. You don’t believe me?”

“No, I believe you,” she reluctantly admitted.

“I’m the boatswain. That means I’m the boss of all these scallywags.” He gestured to his co-workers, grinning confidently. “Basically, I’m the third most powerful guy on this ship, so if you like men who are in control…” He trailed off as a shadow fell across them, the grin fleeing from his face instantly.

“Is this guy bothering you, Princess?” Thalia looked up to find Drakon standing behind her, a stern look on his face.

“No more than a gnat,” she responded dismissively. 

“What the fuck is that?” Nasha asked, the color draining from his face.

“Who. Not ‘what’,” she corrected him. “This is my friend, Drakon. Drakon, this is Nasha, the boatswain.” 

Drakon continued to glare down at Nasha.

“A giant and a dragon,” Nasha muttered. “How’s a guy supposed to approach you when your friends are all scary.”

“They’re not supposed to approach me at all,” she winked, “and that’s the way I like it.”

Drakon bowed politely. 

“If you need anything, please let me know, Princess.” He left to join the others in preparing the ship for take off. Speaking of which…

“Shouldn’t you be busy, Mr. Boatswain?”

“Technically,” Nasha shrugged as if shirking his duties were no big deal— which, to him, it probably wasn’t. “One question before I go though. Why does that guy call you ‘princess’?”

Thalia wasn’t sure if she wanted to reveal her identity to someone as self-serving as Nasha, but she hadn’t been keeping it a secret so far. 

“What would you do if I told you I was one?”

Nasha crumpled over with laughter. 

“There’s no way. You let your boss drag you around like arm candy.”

“Sin doesn’t—”

“What in your job description says you have to go to a dangerous continent? How would your presence benefit the mission in any way? You know you don’t belong on this ship. You can’t stand up to that guy, much less lead a country. You’d raze it to the ground with your naivety.”

Thalia stiffened, his words cutting like a sword.

He continued, “You said you manage the children back at the company? You’re a babysitter, not a manager. Your boss doesn’t even trust you with real employees. He looks down on you, but you’re too damn nice to acknowledge it.”

“Shut up, Nasha.” 

“I’m just telling the truth. Sorry if it offends you.”

She forced out a laugh. 

“Of course it was a joke. How could a princess have a job? You’re the one that decided to get all serious.”

“It needed to be said. I’m just looking out for you.” 

Thalia sharply pivoted and marched away, making her displeasure apparent. He thought she was some kind of starry-eyed ditz? That she hadn’t earned her position on this ship with her own talents? Sinbad had a reason for bringing her. She wasn’t useless. She wasn’t.

 Spotting Sinbad and Mystras hunched over tying some ropes, she approached her friend and tapped his shoulder.

“Thalia, what’s up?” Sinbad greeted her.

“Hey, Thalia.” Mystras gave her a small wave.

“How can I help?” she asked, hands clasped behind her back.

Sinbad briefly pulled a hand away from what he was doing to ruffle her hair.

“There’s no need. We’ve got it under control.”

Nasha’s rant from earlier echoed loudly in her head.

“Then why am I even here?”

Sinbad frowned. 

“Because you agreed to come.”

She tried asking again, this time angling her question differently.

“Why did you invite me?”

He looked to Mystras for help, but the knight shook his head frantically. Sinbad scowled at him briefly before answering her.

“Why did I invite you? You’re an asset to the company.”

“A huge asset,” Mystras agreed, nodding exaggeratedly.

She rephrased her question once again. 

“How am I essential to this mission?”

“Did you not want to come?” Mystras asked.

“No, that’s not…”

“Are you afraid we won’t be able to protect you?” It was Sinbad’s question this time.

“Of course not.”

“Then what’s the problem?” Mystras reassured her. “How often do you get to go on adventures like this?”

Thalia touched her fingers to her forehead, furrowing her eyebrows. They hadn’t quite answered her question, but maybe Mystras was right. Maybe she was overthinking things.

“Just have a seat somewhere,” Sinbad guiding her away. “We’ll come keep you company in a little while.”

Thalia did as her friend instructed, sitting down at the table where the men often played cards, but their conversation had done little to put her at ease.  Was she too nice? Too naive? Just now, Sinbad and Mystras, had definitely dodged her question. Had she really become nothing more than arm candy? 

Shaking her head, she gripped the edge of the table firmly. Nasha was a jerk, and like he’d said, if anyone trusted him, they had no one but themselves to blame. Sinbad could keep his secrets. What did she care?

Except she did care. Nasha’s words about her ineptitude had planted the seeds of doubt in her head. If she couldn’t maintain an even footing with her own friends, how would she negotiate with the leaders of her army? Would she submit to Nerva if he bombarded her with too many questions, like Sinbad and Mystras had just now? Could someone like her really bring her war-torn country back from ruin? 

She sighed, pulling on her hair in frustration. In Attica, they would tell her not to worry. These were matters for men to think about and for men to handle. Thalia had no place pondering them, but she also had no man to do these things for her, at least not right now. It wasn’t like a wealthy and powerful husband was going to just fall in her lap. She had to handle things on her own, at least until she found a king, and she didn’t want to do that. She didn’t want the responsibilities that came with being a wife.

“Hey.” Mystras sat in the chair next to her, leaning on his elbow. “What’s with that gloomy look?” 

“Hypothetically, let’s say I managed to raise an army to take Attica back,” Thalia began. “Do you think I would run it to the ground?”

“I think we both have a lot of studying to do before we’re ready to rule anything,” Sinbad answered carefully, placing himself at her other side. “Even then, we’ll have to make mistakes and learn from them.”

“How can I afford to make mistakes when so many people are counting on me?” 

“It’s not realistic to think you can be perfect,” Sinbad assured her, but it was too late. She huddled over, clenching her roiling stomach. She’d already made so many mistakes, and others were suffering for it. She was a horrible, horrible person— worse than Nasha. Her failures had consequences beyond mildly annoying people. They had cost lives.

Mystras rushed to comfort her. “Just because you were born into a role doesn’t mean you have to live up to it. Look at me. I used to be next in line for the throne, but I left my country for freedom. Ruling just wasn’t for me.”

She stared at him incredulously. Did he seriously just tell her she could throw away her responsibilities to her people? His situation was nothing like hers. He had brothers, for one.

“No one can take my place,” she explained. “I was Father’s only legitimate child. What can I do, leave my people to Parthevia so that they can be treated like second class citizens? I’ve heard what Parthevia does— work its conquered peoples like slaves, beat them if they can’t keep up… How can I allow that to go on?”

Someone cleared his throat behind them.

“Thalia?” Ravi asked, “I couldn’t help but overhear your conversation. I think I have something that might help you find an answer to your problem. Do you mind coming with me?”

Thalia eyed him warily. He was barely taller than her, but she’d seen him hoist those heavy sails. He was a threat.

“That depends. Where are we going?”

“It’s just in my trunk next to my bed.”

Thalia nodded, following him into the crew’s quarters and leaving the door open behind them.

 

“While we were at port, I found this book I thought you might like.” he said, digging around in his trunk. “I remembered you said you enjoy history, so I bought it for you.”

He pulled out a thick leather bound tome and handed it to her. Thalia’s paranoia had been unfounded. Maybe the world was filled with Marcuses, but living on edge was exhausting. Perhaps it was time for her to let her guard down a little.

Holding up the book, Thalia read the cover aloud. “Governments Ancient and Modern.”

“I’ve skimmed it a little, and, well… it’s a little dense for me, to be honest, but I think it will help you find a solution.” Ravi scratched his curly hair sheepishly. “Not everything is about birth and titles. Reim, for example, has an emperor, but he has a senate of elected officials that he delegates power to. Before the imperial system, these representatives were the ones with all the power, and they ran what was called a republic. None of them were born into their positions. They had to earn it through elections.”

“Thank you, Ravi,” Thalia said warmly. As he spoke, everything he told her sounded familiar. She’d learned it long ago during her lessons in the palace, and then again under Rurumu’s tutelage. It still had never occurred to her to question her own place within her country’s government, or even the government itself.

She supposed it was time for a review. 

Since the countries were listed alphabetically, Attica’s entry was fairly early on. She scanned the entry out of curiosity. She knew everything about Attica, having had it drilled into her growing up. The book discussed the country’s history all the way back to before it had been an empire.

“Attica is, much like the Kouga clan, the remains of a once great Empire. At its peak, they even traded with Heliohapt and as far away as what is now the Kou empire. Heliohapt influence can still be seen in their medicines, particularly a concoction called me-rosh, made from a bright red flower, which in small doses relieves pain and and depression, and, in larger doses, induces sleep or even death. Their former territories and settlements have been claimed by Parthevia and Riem.”

Thalia skimmed through this part. The information was all so deeply embedded, she could have written the passage herself.

“Though Attica is now ruled by a king, this was not always the case. Much of the land it held as an empire was claimed during its time as a ‘democracy.’ Under this system, all adult male citizens voted directly on legislation. The ‘democracy’ was overthrown by Perseus Alexandris, who insisted an Imperial Monarchy would provide much needed efficiency over the older system. This new monarchical system worked for several generations. However, after reaching its peak under Thyestes Alexandris, the monarchy has steadily been losing territory and only retains its original holdings thanks to the skillful political maneuverings of its monarchs.”

Thalia sighed. She hadn’t found anything new. The democratic system had been inefficient, requiring a majority vote for any changes to pass. Getting that many men to agree with each other took time, and in the modern world, with metal vessels and magi interfering with politics, the flexibility afforded to a wise monarch was needed more than ever.

She turned to Parthevia’s entry.

“While the current Parthevian king is the 31st in the country’s history, the dynasty itself is relatively new, dating back only 150 years. After a period of stagnation and corruption in courtly affairs, the previous dynasty was overthrown by Arsaces I, a chieftain of a local tribe who claimed to be descended from one of Parthevia’s ancient hero-kings, but who, in all actuality, likely was not of the traditional nobility at all. This part of the history has been suppressed within Parthevia, but we know from other countries’ records at the time that this was the case.”

Thalia perked up at this. There was precedence of a commoner taking a throne. She would have to show Sinbad later, as she suspected he might find the news encouraging. Still, so far there had been nothing that helped her. She continued to page through the book for days on end.

A pattern began to emerge. Dynasties rose. Dynasties became bloated. Dynasties stagnated. Dynasties were replaced, in some cases by wise peasants, in other cases by powerful rivals.

Ravi was right. Blood could only sustain a dynasty for so long, until the family’s power dwindled. When she took Attica back, she would have to breathe fresh life into it somehow. She would have to break the cycle of collapse.

She needed the right allies, the right people to support her. Storming out of the cabin, she went looking for her friend.

“Sinbad!” she called, the briny sea wind whipping her hair around her face. Thalia didn’t know if the roaring in her ears was the wind or her pounding heart.

Her friend turned to face her. “You finally put that book down. Did you find what you were looking for?”

She approached him, stumbling slightly as the boat heaved underneath her. 

“It’s been right in front of me this whole time. It’s you, Sin. I need you.”

He stepped back, his eyes growing wide. “Thalia, there are people watching…”

Humbling herself before him, she bowed, pleading, “Please lend me your strength. Let Attica join the Seven Seas Alliance.”

Sinbad relaxed. 

“Oh. That’s what you meant.” He leaned over, putting a hand on her shoulder. “Stand up. Of course you’ll have our support. Did you think I would make you go through the process of rebuilding a country on your own?”

Thalia rose to face her ally. 

“You are truly a friend of my people. Thank you.”

"Land ho!" cried a scout from up in his lookout platform.

"It looks like you figured things out just in time, huh?" Ravi approached her.

"Your book helped a lot, but I still have a lot to do before I can rest easy."

"You'll figure everything out," Sinbad encouraged her. "Just give it time." He gave her a firm pat on the back, and she smiled genuinely for the first time in weeks.

"Of course."

Sinbad had been the answer. He was her strength.

Chapter Text

Sinbad watched Thalia closely as she wandered from stall to stall in the market at Cathargo, picking up trinkets and inspecting them. Did she see how she made heads turn? Did she hear the whispers, feel the stares? Behind him, a boy announced he was going to try to talk to her. Sinbad turned around and gave him a look that would have cowed the fiercest of men. Once the boy had scampered away, Sinbad returned to his original position, only to find his friend was laughing gaily as a man motioned animatedly, apparently telling some kind of joke.

What was she thinking, just talking to strangers like that? He set his jaw, ready to go drag her away. She would be angry, but surely that was better than let her continue to attract attention. She was just too pretty, too charming. The people of Cathargo never stood a chance.

“Sin!” Mystras's jubilant voice called for his attention. Sinbad looked up as the boy skidded to a halt by his side, pumping his fists excitedly. “I found the red light district! Let’s go!”

Sinbad shook his head. “I can’t leave Thalia. Look at her, she’s about to get eaten alive out there.” He gestured at his vulnerable friend who was picking up a necklace at another stall.

Mystras glanced over in her direction. “She looks fine to me. She’s in a crowded area. No one’s going to try anything. I know you like her—”

“I don’t.”

“You do. That’s why you brought her. I helped you out when she started asking questions on the ship, but admit it, Sin; she’s nothing but a liability to this mission. You knew that, but you were so lovesick you couldn’t bear to leave her behind.” 

“That’s not why I brought her.”

Sinbad didn’t want to admit the real reason he had brought her, that he still sometimes had moments where he wasn’t quite sure where he was and his mind took him back to that place, that Thalia was the only thing that gave him relief. Otherwise, he’d have been grateful for the chance to get away. He always had to be on his best behavior with her, pretending he didn’t notice the gentle sway of her hips when she walked, or that she’d recently let out the bust in some of her dresses. On the ship, he had to pretend that the sighs she made when she stretched weren’t driving him mad, that he was fine with not having privacy to take care of himself for weeks at a time.

“Sure,” Rolling his eyes, Mystras tugged playfully on Sinbad’s arm. “Since that’s the case, and you’re not together, there’s nothing wrong with having a little fun. Come on, Sin, let’s goooo!”.

Fun… in the red light district. Sighing, Sinbad stood up. It had been quite a while since he’d been with a woman. Maybe it would help get his mind off of…

He glanced back at Thalia one more time, her loose-fitting dress hinting at forbidden curves he would never see, much less touch. She didn’t see him that way. She might never see anyone that way. Why should he continue to put his life on hold? They were both better off if he pursued other people. 

“Fine.”

Mystras dragged him deep into the redlight district to a hole-in-the-wall brothel, insisting the locals had said it had the most beautiful women. The reception area was partitioned from what sounded like a rowdy dining area. Sinbad assumed there were also private bedrooms for later in the night, once the alcohol and the flirting had lowered his inhibitions.

“Is there anything I can get you two handsome fellows?” A busty redhead asked, leaning on her elbow and batting her eyelashes. “It’s 20 Farsu an hour for a girl, an extra 30 if you take her to bed.”

Mystras pulled out a sack of gold and dropped it on the wooden counter. “Bring us your two most beautiful girls and your best wine. We’ll take the full package.”

The woman’s eyes bulged as she counted out the coins in front of her.  “Yes, sir. Of course. Right away. Please sit down and your girls will be with you shortly” She hurried off to fetch their partners for the night and Mystras wrapped an arm around Sinbad’s shoulders.

“I told you!” the knight shouted. “This was a great idea.”

Sinbad hid his confliction behind a laugh. He’d much rather it be Thalia in the empty seat next to him, dressed in one of those outfits that barely concealed anything, her sweet laugh drawing him in until their lips met. He would only pull back to catch his breath, but she wouldn’t stop. Her lips would travel down his neck, and then—  

“Hi.” A woman draped in sheer silks took the seat Sinbad had just imagined Thalia in. The woman set the bottle of wine she’d been carrying down on the table, and Sinbad sized her up. She was his type— all women were his type, but she wasn’t Thalia. Her eyes were a different kind of dark, more like onyx than a deep amethyst. Where Thalia was small and waif-like, this woman was sturdy and well-endowed. Thalia’s hair was naturally straight, but this woman’s raven hair fell in tight ringlets around a lovely face. 

He hadn’t known what he expected. Perhaps he’d hoped Thalia had a secret twin, someone whose eyes he could look into for a few hours and pretend was her. Instead he had gotten someone painfully beautiful, but also so painfully different from the girl he really wanted to be with.

“What should I call you?” he aske

 “You can call me Denna,” the woman said, tilting her neck seductively. “And you?”

“Sinbad,” he responded, making no effort to jumpstart the conversation.

“You’re obviously not from around here,” she observed, though what exactly had clued her in remained a mystery to him. “So what brings you here to the dark continent?” She poured the wine into a goblet, leaning over so that he could catch a glimpse of her full breasts. Unexpectedly, his eyes lingered. He had to admit, he was curious. It really had been a long time since he’d let himself indulge in his baser instincts. Tearing his eyes away, he looked Denna in the eye to answer her.

“We’re looking for unexplored land to start our own country.”

His partner laughed, a bright, clear sound. 

“If it were that easy to create a country, I’d be a queen already.”

Instead of arguing with this stranger, Sinbad opted for flattery. 

“Forgive me for saying so, but you already very much look like a queen.”

After he said it, he realized it was true. Denna was worldly but refined. He imagined she navigated the trickiest situations with the same ease she displayed now, seducing a man who had shown no interest in her so far.

She raised a dark eyebrow, tipping his cup to his lips. “You’re very smooth. I like you.”

Sinbad nearly choked on his wine, his heart skipping a beat. He’d forgotten what it was like to have his flirtations reciprocated. Thalia had run off the last time he’d really tried. She was an impenetrable fortress, but Denna had opened her gates and offered him a feast.

“You’ll like me even more by the end of the night,” he assured her, sliding a hand around her waist.

“You think so?”

“I know it.”


 

Thalia rubbed her forehead, staving off a spell of dizziness. She hadn’t been sleeping well since Balbadd and she was running on fumes.

The conversation with King Rashid had left her thinking about her country, what had happened to it. She’d felt devastated and guilty when she first heard the news a little over four years ago, but now another emotion was slithering around in her chest: rage. The feeling had first sprouted when she first heard Serendine’s name come out of Drakon’s mouth after so many years. At the mention of the general of the Parthevian army assuming power, that sprout had grown like a weed, slowly choking out all her other emotions. It kept her up at night, and all she knew to do was try to distract herself however she could. On the boat, Nasha and Ravi’s book had kept her busy, but here she had neither of those things to comfort her.

 Instead, she sought distraction by going window shopping in the market. She glanced over at Sinbad, who was sitting at a table in front of a restaurant, watching her closely. Feeling reassured of her safety, she picked up a vase from one of the stalls and inspected it carefully. 

“I’ll give you a discount if you buy two,” the stall’s owner told her.

She shook her head. “I can’t right now. I have to travel lightly. Maybe next time I’m here, I’ll drop by.”

“You’re travelling?” The owner raised a scarred eyebrow. “Where to?”

“Nowhere in particular. We’re just looking for land.”

“Well, try not to die out there,” he joked. “ I’m looking forward to you coming back for those vases.”

She laughed lightly. “I’ll do my best.”

Moving  to the next stall, she eyed a necklace. It was stylistically quite different from any jewelry she had seen in Reim’s mainland. Its asymmetrical design was created using golden beads of varying textures, lengths, and sizes. She looked up when a shadow fell over her, only to find two men towering over her. 

“Are you lost?”

“It’s dangerous for a woman to wander alone in these parts.”

She glanced anxiously to where Sinbad had been sitting moments earlier. Where had he gone? She would just have to be careful navigating this situation. She knew from experience how quickly things could go south, as they had the day she’d met Sinbad.

“I’m actually not lost. My friends are just over that way.” She pointed to in a nonspecific spot in the crowd.

When she looked back, several more people had gathered around her, a crowd of murmering strangers. Now she was starting to panic. 

“Is she lost?”

“What’s a mainlander doing here by herself?” 

“Doesn’t she know how dangerous this place is?” 

The whispers reached her ears, and she relaxed just a little. It seemed all these people were genuinely well-meaning.

“I’m perfectly fine. My friends are nearby,” she repeated.

“Thalia!” the crowd parted for Drakon’s lumbering figure, and Thalia breathed a sigh of relief.

“See, I told you my friends were nearby. I’m fine,” she said, inching toward him.

When he reached her, he placed two scaly hands on her shoulders. “What’s going on?” 

“I’m okay. There was just a misunderstanding.”She gave him a reassuring smile. “They thought I was lost.”

“You thought it would be a good idea to go shopping by yourself?” He seemed appalled. “That’s a good way to get robbed in a place like this.”

“Relax, I barely have any money on me.” She held up her nearly empty coin purse to emphasize her point, but his eyebrows only furrowed further.

“That’s a good way to get robbed and killed.”

“Sin was with me.” Thalia looked around for him again in the sea of unfamiliar faces. “Kind of. He was nearby. I don’t know where he went. Do you think something happened to him?”

“No,” Drakon sighed. “I have an idea where he might have gone. Mystras was talking about going there. Still, I can’t believe he just left you like that.”

“I was fine! ” Thalia insisted. “Did you see how many people rushed to my aid when they thought I was in trouble? Imagine if I really were in danger.”

“Imagine if they didn’t have your best interest at heart. You would have been overpowered in seconds. You’re not like the rest of us, Thalia.”

“Because I’m a woman?” 

“Because you’re weak. If it were Serendine, I wouldn’t be concerned, but you rely entirely too much on the goodness of others. You wouldn’t be able to defend yourself if a situation arose where you needed to.”

Thalia bit her tongue, trying not to chew him out for comparing her to that woman . If being weak meant she had one less thing in common with Serendine, she was fine with it. She had Sinbad to take care of her anyway. If he’d really believed she could be in danger, he wouldn’t have left her. Sinbad always knew his limits, and he knew hers too. He believed in her. She sighed, scanning the crowd for a third time. “Where’d he go?”

Drakon coughed uncomfortably, not meeting her eyes. “ That is a matter that should stay among men.”

“Excuse me?” Thalia scoffed. She hated it when her friends pulled the boys only card. In Attica, women were excluded and sheltered most of their lives, but she’d been living in Reim for years. She expected her closest friends to treat her like an equal.

He sighed, scratching one of his fin-like ears. “I’m afraid if you knew, it would only hurt you.”

Thalia tried to think of what Sinbad could possibly be doing that would upset her.

“He’s not at a drug den is he?”

“No.”

“Then he’s selling the drugs.”

“No, Thalia. There aren’t any drugs.”

“Oh, thank god. Well, he’s not off selling slaves, so I can’t possibly imagine what he could be doing—”

“He’s in the red light district,” Drakon finally admitted, throwing his hands up in defeat.

Thalia’s nails dug into the palm of her hand so hard that it hurt. “That’s all? You made it sound like something serious.”

“Thalia…”

She blinked back tears, unsure what they meant. Was she disappointed in him? Why? Hadn’t he as much as told her he was like this on the way to Balbadd? Hadn’t she decided he was still her friend, even if she didn’t approve?

Forcing a smile, she looked at Drakon. 

“You seem to be misunderstanding something. I have no feelings for Sin. He has no feelings for me. What do I care what he does with other women?”

“Right.” Drakon looked down at her sadly. “Whatever you say.” 

She hated the pity in his voice. It felt like he was looking down on her, like he couldn’t trust her to handle her own emotions. She was almost seventeen, practically an adult, but right now she felt more like a child.

They walked in silence until Drakon stopped in front of a small tavern. “This is where we’ll be staying. I already checked us in. You can go check out your room if you want.” He pressed a small, brass key into her hand. 

“I think I’m going to hang out at the bar for a bit,” she told him quietly.

He nodded. “Alright. If you need anything, I’m just a couple doors down. Don’t hesitate to come get me.”

“Thank you, Drakon.”


 

Sinbad took a sip of wine out of a goblet and pulled Denna closer to his side.

“Want to go again?” she asked, tracing her finger down his sternum. Her touch was skilled, something that sent shivers down his spine. He did want to go again. He wanted to go all night until he made up for all the lost time he’d spent pining for a girl who didn’t want him.

He wished he could have stayed, but it was already late and he needed to be fully rested tomorrow. Besides, Thalia would be worried if he was out late.

“Maybe next time I’m in town,” he told her.

“Alas,” she sighed, throwing her hand up to her forehead dramatically. “It’s so hard to find a client who actually makes this job enjoyable.”

He cupped her chin in his hand, enjoying the seductive smile Denna flashed up at him. Thalia only ever looked at him like that in his fantasies. Seeing the real thing now, even on a different face, he nearly broke down and stayed. Instead, he stood and hunted down his pants, lost somewhere in the bedsheets.

“I’m sure there will be others.” Aha! There they were. He pulled them out from under the blanket and put one leg in at a time.

“Oh, there are always others…” she confessed, hunching her bare shoulders. “but I have to admit, tonight will be pretty hard to beat.”

He laughed, pulling on the rest of his clothes and fixing his hair before exchanging goodbyes. He’d needed tonight. All that pent up frustration, all that pining was gone. For so long, he’d convinced himself Thalia was the only one that could relieve the obsessive burning he’d been feeling toward her, but he’d been wrong. All he’d needed was a woman’s touch. It hadn’t mattered whose. He was back to his old self.

 On his way to the inn, Sinbad puffed out his chest and grinned. Now he could be the friend Thalia deserved. From now on, things with her would be simple.

Sinbad passed through the door with a big grin, only half surprised to find Thalia at the bar with a glass of water next to her. She was slouching with her back to him, her head supported by her elbows. His smile dimmed. Had she stayed up to wait for him or had she been woken up by one of her bad dreams?

Sliding into the seat next to her, he grabbed her glass of water, taking a sip.

“Get your own,” she muttered, rubbing her forehead with her hand. Sinbad raised his eyebrows. She usually didn’t mind sharing her food and drink with him.

“What’s the matter?” He set the glass down. “Do you have a headache?”

She gave him a sideways glance, the chill from her glare frosting the tips of his eyelashes. “Where were you tonight?”

He didn’t want to lie, but he didn’t want her to know the full truth either. Thalia was too sheltered and a little judgemental. It would have been better if he could keep her in the dark about tonight’s romp. He settled for a vague truth. “Out with Mystras.” 

“Where is he?” she grilled him. “You didn’t come back together?”

“We split up.” He leaned forward, surprised at her sudden intense curiosity. “Is something wrong?”

“No. Everything’s fine. I’m fine.”

“Really?” he asked skeptically. “Because you look like you’re about to rip out my throat. Are you mad because I left you back at the market?”

“I’m not mad. Why would you think I’m mad?” Her words were too hurried to be believable. “Whatever you do in your free-time is your own business. If you want to sleep with some whore —”

Sinbad reeled as the slur left his gentle friend’s lips. He’d known she wouldn’t react well if she found out, but this was taking things too far.

“Let’s get one thing straight here. The women I see are working a job just like you do at the company,” he said evenly. 

Thalia brought her water to her mouth with a shaking hand. “Whatever. Like I said, it’s none of my business. I don’t care.”

“What’s gotten into you tonight?” He reached out to her, but she jerked away.

“I have enough to worry about without you coming back this late!” She sat up straight, her chest heaving. 

Sinbad stared at her. Had he ever heard her raise her voice to anyone? This wasn’t about him coming back late. Clearly, there was more going on here. He leaned his elbow on the counter, nudging her water toward her with his other hand.

Do you want to talk about it?”

The change in her demeanor was instantaneous. Her shoulders drooped and the tension fled from her posture.

“No. Thank you for asking, but no.”

“Is it your bad dreams again?” he asked, observing the bags under her eyes.

He knew she had a penchant for nightmares, but she usually at least managed enough sleep that she looked refreshed in the mornings. Ever since Balbadd, she seemed to be becoming more and more run down. Something was obviously bothering her, but he had no idea what.

Her lips drew into a tight line. “That’s not it. I just can’t sleep lately.”

“I can stay up with you if you like,” he offered. “We can talk about anything you want. It doesn’t have to be what’s on your mind.” He glanced behind the counter for topic ideas, his eyes landing on a loaf. “Bread. We can talk about bread. There’s fluffy bread and flat bread…”

Thalia’s eyes welled with tears. 

“Sin, I...” Whatever she started to say, she seemed to think better of it. Instead she wiped her eyes, her fleeting moment of vulnerability gone. “Nevermind. Get some sleep. We’ve got a lot of walking to do in the morning.”

He reached out and tousled her hair, only to be playfully waved away.

“Goodnight then,” he told her.

She turned back to her cup and didn’t respond.

Chapter Text

After two days of slogging through the unchanging desert sandscape, Thalia felt like she was going to die. Her knees were stiff, her feet ached, and her legs refused to cooperate. When her maids back in the palace had told her stories of brave men going on adventures to distant corners of the world, they had neglected to mention that quite so much walking was involved. 

She thought about asking Hinahoho or Drakon to carry her the rest of the way to Heliohapt, but she had promised herself when she agreed to come on this trip that she wouldn’t become a burden for her friends. She simply persevered, bringing up the rear with Sinbad and Mystras, who hovered over her like hawks. She was glad. When she stumbled, or her knees started to buckle, one of them would catch her. Sinbad told her they could stop to rest, but she knew a break wouldn’t help. What she really needed was sleep. In a bed. With a hot breakfast.

Thalia interrupted Sinbad and Mystras's fascinating conversation about the differences between their sword fighting styles to ask how much longer the trip would take.

Ja’far had heard their question and turned his head to answer.

“It’ll be at least three days at this rate.”

She groaned. Three more days of endless walking.

Tuning out the boys’ rowdy conversations, she turned inward to the revenge fantasies that occupied so many of her thoughts these days. Sometimes, when she was feeling particularly bold and angry, she imagined impaling Barbarossa herself. It could be on a pike, a sword. It didn’t matter how he died, only that he returned to the rukh. No, he didn’t even deserve that. She wanted to erase his very existence. 

Thalia’s dark thoughts were interrupted by a gruff voice from above. “Heh! You’re crossing the desert with those kids? Why don’t you hand over all your belongings!”  High up in the sand dunes, a group of bandits saddled on camels cackled rancorously, laughing at their leader’s threat.

“Thalia, get behind me.” Sinbad pushed her roughly to the back, not bothering with his usual restraint when handling her.

“Bandits! It’s just like those guards said at Cathargo!” Mystras shouted, pointing excitedly. If Thalia weren’t so frightened, she would have marvelled at his ability to act like a child walking past a candy store in their current situation.

Without a word of warning, Ja’far threw out his arms, binding several of the bandits with wire. “I’m not capable of going easy on you right now, so… prepare yourselves.”

From there the fight began in earnest.  Hinahoho took out a half dozen men with one swing of his Rampaging Unicorn Horn, and Mystras decimated a line of five with one lunge. As Drakon picked a man up with his bare claws and shredded him to pieces, masrur kicked a man so hard in the chest that he coughed up blood. Even Sinbad— kind, gentle, patient Sinbad— was in the midst of the fray. He adeptly parried a blow before slicing through a man’s armor.

All the while Thalia stood back useless and helpless, fighting the urge to run. These people saturated in blood— which ones were the bandits and which were her friends? She couldn’t tell anymore. They all looked the same to her.

“Alright now, Missy,” Thalia squirmed when someone grabbed her from behind. Where had he come from? Had he broken off from the rest of his group? Images from that night flashed through her head: hands, sweat, skin . She heard a woman scream and it took her a moment to realize it was her, the scream was coming from her own mouth. As her assailant pressed a knife in her neck, her body went limp. 

“Pretty little thing you brought here!” her captor shouted to her friends. “It’d be a shame if something happened to her.”

"This one's dressed funny, but she's got a good face. Never seen one like it.”

Fight.

The battle stopped, everyone staring at her. She willed her arms to move, to break her captor’s nose, anything. The remained limp at her sides.

“Serve this man well and make money for your mother. This is your atonement. I’ll forgive you if he reports you were satisfactory.”

Fight!

Now, a group of twelve was closing in around a group of five, two of which were towering above the rest. Those were her friends. They were going to get hurt. They were going to get hurt and it was all Thalia’s fault.

“You are the perfect victim. No one loves you. No one wants you.”

Fight, damnit!

Thalia struggled to free her mouth, opening her her jaw wide and biting biting until she drew blood. He tasted absolutely foul, dirt, sand, and iron assaulting her taste buds. 

“Fucking bitch!” Stumbling backward, the man let her go. Thalia scrambled forward, fighting to push off from the shifting sand. She merely tumbled forward.  At the same time she twisted her head to look behind her, two figures flew past her. They descended upon the man with righteous fury, one slicing off the arm that held the knife, the other plunging a lance into the man’s chest.

Something hot and wet drenched her clothing, staining the white linen red. 

“Are you okay?” Sinbad asked. He walked over to her side, holding out a bloody hand to help her up.

Thalia nodded blankly, pushing herself up on her own. She turned around to view the body of the man who had attacked her. There was so much blood. The metallic smell filled her nostrils. She was covered in it. Now she too was stained, just like the others. This was what she had wanted for Barbarossa. This was what he had done to her family, and this was it would be like to kill him. She stepped back in revulsion, retching on the sand.  

Sinbad and Mystras joined the others in what little was left of the fray. They quickly overpowered the remaining bandits, sending the survivors scampering. They didn’t stop to bury or burn the bodies. They just kept walking.

That night, they stopped to rest. While the others set up camp, Thalia found a dark, quiet spot away from them and peeled the blood-stained gown off of her body, replacing it with a clean one. Even though most of the blood had spattered on her skirt, Thalia could feel it all over her. She scrubbed the sand into her skin, trying to rid herself of the blood stains. She scrubbed and scrubbed until it hurt, but the feeling never left her.  When she returned to camp, she left the stained dress behind to be swallowed by the desert, hoping her memories of the carnage would become buried with it.

“Hey, Thalia!” Hinahoho was the first to notice her return. He motioned for her to sit on the large boulder next to him, and Thalia obediently climbed on it, surprised to find it was still warm even in the chilly desert night. Then, he offered her a blanket, and she gratefully accepted, wrapping it around her shoulders. “What happened today… it must have been pretty scary for you, huh?”

Thalia nodded, resisting the urge to curl into a little ball. Sinbad had trusted her to be able to handle the Dark Continent. If anyone found out how badly shaken she was, it would just prove she didn’t belong here. She would let him down. “But it’s over now. I’m fine.”

Hinahoho scratched the back of his head sheepishly. “You know, it might not seem like it, but I’m no stranger to fear. Did Sinbad tell you about how he and I first met?”

“It was the Rampaging Unicorn you got your weapon from, right?” Thalia pointed to the tool in question, which was lying on the ground next to him. “You hesitated and your sister was in trouble.”

“Alright, Sinbad’s been bragging about me!” He gave her a cheerful grin before his face sobered. “I was so scared then. I guess what I’m trying to say is you can talk to me because I know what it’s like. Are you really okay? What you went through today was...”

“Of course.” The fire made a cracking noise and she flinched violently, wrapping her blanket more tightly around her.

 He sighed, leaning toward her. “You know any of us would be more than willing to talk to you if you decide you want to open up. It’s okay to be scared after something like that.”

She smiled gently, meeting his eyes.

“Thank you. I really am fine.”

“Ahaha!” Mystras’s laughter rang out across the campsite. “Drakon, did you see me out there? I was like bam! Whop! Pow!” Mystras mimicked thrusting his gavelin into an enemy and Drakon laughed loudly.

“You did well out there, but I’m certain I took down more than you.”

“What? No way!”

Thalia turned her attention from her friends to the fire. How were they acting like everything was normal? Didn’t they realize people were dead? She thought back to how she’d believed her friends couldn’t understand her desire for vengeance because they were too kind. Now she was the one who didn’t understand. They hadn’t even been fazed by today’s battle, and she was a wreck. 

“What’s going on here?” Thalia jumpsed as Sinbad climbed onto the boulder, taking his place at her side. “Are you and Hinahoho having a heart to heart about how awesome I am?”

Playing off her momentary panic with a laugh, Thalia said, “Actually, Hinahoho was just checking on me.”

Sinbad leaned over Thalia to look at the giant on her other side. “Was she honest with you? Thalia’s not very good about being honest with her feelings.” He elbowed her playfully and she returned the favor, only less playfully. 

“That’s funny, coming from you. ” Hinahoho winked mischievously.

“What’s that supposed to mean? I’m always honest.” Crossing his arms defensively, Sinbad looked to Thalia for support.

“Yeah, Sin is a saint. That’s why his hair is so luscious.” Picking up the end of his ponytail, Thalia ran her fingers through it. “The hair gods have blessed him for his purity, but if he lies, it will all fall out.”

 Hinahoho groaned. “This is what I’m talking about. The two of you don’t even try to hide it.”

“What do you mean?” Thalia wondered aloud.

“You two can’t stop flirting for five seconds.” 

Thalia dropped Sinbad’s hair. 

“We are not flirting!”

“We don’t flirt!”

Thalia and Sinbad objected at the same time. Thalia looked away, her face growing heated. She could feel Sinbad tensing beside her. He must have been equally uncomfortable.

From across the campfire, Mystras slapped his knee and cackled. “Did you guys hear that? They can read each other’s minds!”

“Creepy…” Masrur bit into his jerky and stared at them.

“You guys, leave the two love birds alone.” Drakon chuckled into his hand.

Hinahoho laughed as well. “All I’m saying is I want in invitation to the wedding.”

“Oh, come on, you guys! You know Thalia and I don’t…” Sinbad paused, and Thalia dared to glance up at him. He was red as well. “You know we’re not like that.”

 It was all too much. Just this afternoon, she experienced one of the worst moments in her life, and now her friends were teasing her and Sinbad about their unusual closeness. It was jarring, but they had made her forget about her worries, if only for a bit.

Thalia burst into whole-hearted laughter. “I never imagined I’d have such a lively group of friends,” she confessed. “Thank you guys.”

Though, one person had been noticeably absent from the teasing. Thalia glanced over to Ja’far, who was watching her with those same, wary eyes. Perhaps he was angry with her for endangering everyone earlier. Maybe she even deserved his ire. After all, if she hadn’t been so weak, or if she’d paid more attention to her surroundings, she might have avoided being captured.

“Let’s all be sure to get a good rest.” She hopped down from the boulder, wiping the dust off her skirts. “We have more walking to do tomorrow.”

When the others had cleared out, she walked over and knelt down beside Ja’far. 

“Hey.”

He didn’t speak at first. He just watched her, still as a snake ready to strike. When he finally did open his mouth, he said, “You don’t belong here.”

Thalia hadn’t expected to hear kind words from him, but his reprimand still stung.

“I know,” she agreed. When Sinbad had invited her, he’d surely never imagined there would be bandits who would try to hurt her. He couldn’t have known things would turn out this way. He wouldn’t have brought her if he’d known. Thalia was sure of it.

Ja’far continued, “You’re a distraction, and it almost got us killed.”

“You’re right,” Thalia shook her head, “but I’m here, whether I should be or not. Let’s just try to get through this alive, okay?”

There was a moment of silence before he responded. “Okay.”

“Hey, Ja’far!” Sinbad was over with the sleeping bags, waving the boy over. “It’s Thalia’s turn to put out the fire! Don’t spoil her! She’s got to learn to do it herself!”

Sighing, Ja’far stood and started to walk away, and Thalia set about doing her task, mixing the ashes to check for any leftover embers. 

“Hey Thalia…”

“Hm?” Thalia looked up to find Ja’far had paused, looking back toward her.

“If something like that ever happens again, I’m choosing Sinbad’s safety over yours.”

She smiled. “I never expected anything else.”

Sinbad was so much more precious than Thalia. She couldn’t imagine a world without him.

Ja’far frowned before turning his head and walking away.

Three days later, after a brief stop at an oasis where everyone had taken turns washing themselves off, the group finally arrived at the kingdom of Heliohapt. At this point, the only thing propelling Thalia forward was the promise of a warm bed. She trailed behind her friends, gawking at the pylons and pillars that lined the giant staircase leading up to the center of the kingdom. For such a small kingdom, it seemed vast. Streets bustled with people in strange clothing, and unusual buildings loomed above them. She had never seen anything like it.

Mystras stopped walking and Thalia, enamored by her surroundings, rammed into his back. 

“What’s wrong?” Sinbad asked, turning around after hearing an angry yelp.

“T-trouble!” the knight stammered. “The women here are even more exposed than they were in Artemyra!”

Thalia glanced in the direction he was looking. Gorgeous women with round, perky breasts were everywhere. She deflated. Big breasts were what guys liked, right? Idly, she brought a hand to her own chest. It had grown over the last year to the point that she’d needed to ask Rurumu to teach her how to let out her dresses, but how could she ever catch up to these women?

Wait, since when did she want anyone to be attracted to her? She used to find male attention a nuisance at best, horrifying at worst. Had something changed?

She glanced to her best friend, thinking about how he’d stolen her breath away on the ship. The memory brought scorching heat to her cheeks— or was that just the desert sun beating down on her?

“It must just be part of the culture here,” Sinbad said sagely. “It’s not a problem.”

Thalia’s insecurities lifted a little. Maybe Sinbad was mature enough that a few bare breasts wouldn’t faze him.

“What do you mean?” Mystras asked, fanning his face.

“I mean, we should openly ogle as much as we want.”

Or not.

Thalia twitched with irritation. It was perfectly normal that boys their age would be interested in the human body. She’d known about Sinbad’s lascivious side for a while. So, why did she feel betrayed? After all, they were just friends. Friends don’t get jealous over things like that, right?

The two boys started to run toward a group of women and Ja’far restrained them, yelling something about a queen and a pit. 

Suddenly a crowd had surrounded the seven of them, exchanging whispers. It reminded Thalia of her experience at the market in Cathargo. This time, she didn’t panic. She had her friends with her to protect her in a worst case scenario.

 Three young adults stepped forward. Around their arms, each of them was wearing a sash. They all had one hand over their hearts and bright smiles on their faces.

“Welcome!” the boy in front wore the biggest smile of any of them, his kind eyes lighting up. “Welcome, travelers, to the mysterious country of Heliohapt! It must have been hard crossing the desert.”

Thalia nodded enthusiastically. It had been hard, at least for her. Her friends just made it look so easy , but finally, here was someone who understood her.

“If you’d like, we can escort you to an inn.” In unison, the group gestured in what must have been the direction of the inn. “Or, if you’d prefer, we can give you a tour of a couple of famous sightseeing spots!”

Choose the inn, Thalia willed Sinbad. We’ve done enough walking. Choose the inn!

“The tour sounds great!” Sinbad shouted obliviously. 

Thalia slumped, praying for the sweet release of death. How did he still have energy? They’d been walking for days on end, and more over this place was basically a giant staircase. Who in his right mind wouldn’t choose the inn?

Ja’far shook his head. “I’m sorry. We can’t possibly ask that of someone we just met. If there’s a reason why you’re offering to help us, I’d appreciate if you tell us.”

Thalia glared at Ja’far. Clearly these were kind, empathetic people who had no ulterior motives and simply wanted to deliver her to the warm embrace of a decent bed. Was that so wrong?

The boy scratched the back of his head nervously. “Ah… Sorry, we’re not really used to this yet. I guess we haven’t really explained ourselves. Our country of Heliohapt is surrounded by desert, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had contact with the outside world. However, due to the new policy of the current king, we’re going to actively seek out contact with other countries. We of the younger generation will take the initiative to act as mediators between our country and others. That’s why we’ve been given the task of reaching out to any travelers who might visit the country.” The group bowed apologetically. “But we got over-excited and neglected to explain properly. Sorry for startling you.”

“Ja’far… if that’s the case, it would be fine to accept their offer, wouldn’t it?” Sinbad gestured to the welcoming committee.

“I agree,” Thalia planted herself firmly at Sinbad’s side. “We should go to the inn—”

“Sightseeing tour, Thalia!” Sinbad nudged her enthusiastically.

“But the inn has beds…”

“It’ll still have beds later.”

Thalia groaned, but the excited faces of the welcoming committee gave her just enough strength to resign herself to her fate. Sinbad was right. The beds would still be there later.

The sightseeing tour included a large idol of a sphynx, a gate that supposedly granted happiness to anyone who passed through it, and a royal palace. The palace consisted of three pyramids raised on a huge platform. Thalia estimated the number of stairs leading up to the main entrance to be at least in the hundreds, and she was grateful they had no plans to visit, especially not today.

Next, the tour guide took them through the markets. Exotic fruits and spices lined the stalls, few of which Thalia had ever seen before. From one stall hung some kind of spiky fruit that resembled a bunch of bananas, and in another stall, she saw the red flowers her country had imported from here hundreds of years ago. Lingering behind, she stopped to inspect them. The Heliohaptian ones were slightly different from the ones in Attica. They were less bright and fragrant, and Thalia wondered if they were as potent.

“Sinbad! What the heck is that?” Thalia looked up to see Mystras dragging Sinbad over to a stall on the other side of the market.

“What is this? I’ve never seen anything like it!” Sinbad picked something up, and held it up in the air.

“It’s edible, right? Ah! It moved!” 

Thalia left the merosh flowers and walked over to the two noisy boys, curiosity winning her over. What Sinbad was holding was a plant that looked like a little person, complete with eyes and chest hair. When the thing’s “leg” twitched, she recoiled.

“What’s that?” she asked the seller, leaning as far back from the disgusting thing as she could without falling over.

“You lot have quite the discerning eye!” He responded cheerfully. “Those are called Mandarulu. It’s a plant that only grows in this area. If you boil it alive, it becomes a medicine good for headaches.”

“Boil it alive? How morbid.” Thalia squinted at the eerily person-like roots, hoping their similarities to humans were merely superficial. If they screamed or started walking, she would have nightmares for months. “It really works for headaches, though?”

“Yes! The seller shook his head enthusiastically. He pointed to striped bell flower “That one’s called Toliri helmet. The nectar is good for your eyes, and these… ” He directed their attention to mushrooms that reminded Thalia of spirits rising up from the underworld. “... are cypress faces. They’re also good for headaches. And over here is the fang of the Maurenia Baboon…”

“That’s pretty amazing,” Ja’far admitted. “I’ve never seen any of these before.”

“These are only a small portion of what Heliohapt has to offer!” The pretty girl that was part of the welcoming committee spoke for the first time.

The leader placed his hand over his heart again, and Thalia couldn’t help but think it made everything he said seem that much more sincere. “The people of Heliohapt have been studying them since ancient times and cultivating our knowledge and techniques for preparing and mixing these plants. Our medicines work extremely well, and people come from all over the world to request them. For example, these…” He held out three small pellets. “... help to relieve fatigue. Try them.”

Thalia took one gladly, and Sinbad and Mystras took the other two for themselves.

“Amazing! It’s like all my exhaustion vanished in an instant!” Sinbad gushed. Thalia had to agree. She felt human again, like maybe she could last at least a couple more hours before she began to resent him for choosing the tour again.

“You look much better,” the boy assured her. “I’m glad it worked. That’s actually made from the urine of the Mauritania Baboon combined with Mandarulu that’s been pickled for a hundred days.”

While the two boys beside her purged themselves on the ground, Thalia clenched her stomach, wishing she had not been informed of the ingredients in this particular medicine. Urine? Why was urine a necessary ingredient?

“Is something wrong?” The tour guide wrang his hands nervously, but Thalia  flashed him a bright smile. 

“I’m sure their stomachs aren’t used to handling such effective medicines.”

When Sinbad finished emptying his stomach, he stood up, wiping the vomit off his mouth with his sleeve. “Ugh, but these medicines are amazing. If we could start trading them…”

Ja’far nodded, picking up one of the strange herbs. “It’s true that all the things here are unusual, and  on top of that, they’ve been perfected through years of refined techniques and research.”

“You!” Sinbad accosted their tour guide, grabbing his arms excitedly. “How much are these medicines? How much do you have in stock? Can you produce them in mass quantities? Do you trade?”

The young Heliohaptian man cocked his head to the side nervously, maintaining a polite smile. “If you’re interested in that, you should go to the palace, where they handle diplomatic matters.”

The palace? Thalia thought back to the enormous staircase and instantly dreaded the idea of going there. Sinbad, however, wouldn’t take no for an answer. He practically dragged the whole group to the giant pyramid complex in the center of the small kingdom.

Magic energy pills or not, Thalia did not want to climb those steps.

“How many stairs does this place need?” Thalia muttered as they approached the main entrance. She’d started off counting the number of steps in the Torran language, using the opportunity to practice what little she remembered, but lost track at around 200.

“I don’t see a problem,” Masrur grunted, his sturdy legs still holding strong.

“This is good, Thalia,” Sinbad said, keeping pace with her, “You’re going to need to become tough to take back Attica. Even if you’re just in the background giving commands, you’ll need to be able to endure some pretty tough situations.”

Taking heart from his words, Thalia clenched her fist in front of her to show her determination. He made an approving noise, patting her on the head and bounding ahead effortlessly.

She twitched. She had thought she was keeping up with him, but he'd been holding back. 

This jerk… Showing off… 

She pushed herself even harder, determined to prove she was just as capable as her friends, but her legs were so heavy and her lungs were aching. When they finally reached the top of the stairs, she nearly collapsed in relief, hunching over over to catch her breath.

“Greetings, travelers.” 

Thalia looked up to see a group of three people standing in the entrance. The one who had spoken stood in the middle, and Thalia couldn't help but stare. 

His white hair was cut short, a spiky cloud upon his head. Full lips curled into an easy smile, and his over-large ears gave his otherwise mature face a charming boyishness. He was handsome, and it sent her heart racing. She forgot her fatigue and straightened, tucking her hair back behind her ear.

 Then, he turned his handsome face to her, his emerald eyes boring right into her. She quickly looked away, a flush creeping up her neck. Now, her knees were weak, but it wasn’t just because they were tired. Was this what they called a crush? The only other time she’d felt like this was… 

No. Thalia refused to think about that.

The boy turned his head back to her friends, making that same earnest gesture the tour guide had been so fond of. She was beginning to think it was a cultural thing, some kind of gesture to show respect— almost like a bow.

“I am the king’s consul, Narmes.”

A consul… So he has experience as someone in charge of peoples’ welfare.

“Currently, our country is proactively seeking contact with the outside world. It seems the king would like to meet with you personally.” He guided them to a long halfway and gestured for them to step forward. When Drakon was about the pass, the guard in the bird mask stopped him. Everyone froze. If they realized he wasn’t human, how would they react? Would they be afraid? Would all of them be chased out of the country?

“You… I can’t believe it! We’re like a matching set!” The guard pointed to Drakon’s face and his own. “I didn’t think other countries had this tradition! We wear masks to ward away evil!”

Everyone relaxed. And Narmes waved them through, whispering something in the guard’s ear. When it was Thalia’s turn to pass, the guard stopped her. 

“Not you. You’ll have to stay behind.”

“Excuse me?” Thalia stood on the tips of her toes to look over his shoulder, watching her retreating friends. “Did I do something wrong?”

Narmes shook his head. “I need to speak with you in private. Come take a walk with me, will you?”

Shit. He’d caught her staring and thought she was suspicious. He was going to scold her, maybe even detain her. Thalia walked with him side by side, into what appeared to be a parlor of some sort. He motioned for her to sit down in a large, stone chair, and took a seat across from her.

“Narmes…” Thalia wrung her hands anxiously, hoping she looked pathetic and disarming, despite her bedraggled state. “I hope I have not offended you in any way.” It had been rude to stare, but honestly, she would do it again if she knew she wouldn’t get caught.

“Quite the opposite, actually.” He grinned at her mischievously, and she waited for him to elaborate. He just sat there, the live snake around his wrist staring at her curiously.

“I don’t understand.” Thalia scratched her scalp nervously, and a few grains of sand tumbled onto her lap. “Why did you pull me aside?”

 “What is your name?” he asked, his eyes twinkling. He was enjoying toying with her, and Thalia wasn’t sure she quite minded either. Her heart started racing again. This handsome boy wanted to know about her.

“T— Thalia,” she stammered.

“Miss Thalia, am I correct in assuming that you find me visually pleasing?”

Thalia coughed uncomfortably, certain she was expelling the spirit from her body. She could die from embarrassment. 

“That’s… um…” She vacillated between knowing that a lie would be futile at this point and wanting to try anyway.

Smiling warmly, Narmes reached out and took her hand. “It’s okay. Your face says it all, Thalia.”

Her free hand shot up to her traitorously hot cheeks. Of course he could see she was beet red. There was no way she could have hidden the way her heart was pounding right now.

He gave a gentle laugh. “There’s no need to be embarrassed. Your sentiments are not entirely unreciprocated.” He cleared his throat, turning slightly pink himself.

Thalia’s jaw nearly fell from the floor. She was covered with sweat and sand, but this extremely handsome boy thought she was pretty enough to want to talk to. Even though he was surrounded by the beautiful, lush women of Heliohapt, he’d still chosen Thalia.

 “That’s why I was thinking,” he continued, “if you wanted, we could try going on a date tonight.”

“A date?” Thalia withdrew her hand from his. Dates were what commoners did to get to know someone they were interested in romantically. As a child, she’d dreamed about going on dates, falling in love. Now, here she was with an opportunity to go on one. There was no father to tell her who she had to marry, nothing to stop her but herself.

He could turn out to be another Marcus. He could also be her king. There was only one way to find out.

“I accept.”

As soon as the words left her mouth, his face lit up. Thalia found his smile infectious and grinned in return. She was looking forward to this. She wasn’t going to let fear get in her way. She was ready to try and trust again. She didn’t have to marry him, she just needed to go on one date.

Standing up, he held out his hand to help her up. “Then, let’s join your friends in the throne room, shall we?”

Thalia gladly accepted, and they walked back through the large, echoing hallways, passing the guard and through the long hallway that lead to the throne room.

When they entered, her friends gave her prying looks. She avoided their eyes, too embarrassed to look at them. What would they think if they found out she was flirting while they were working? Ja’far would probably be mad, and the others all thought she had feelings for Sinbad, which obviously wasn’t the case.

“Ah, there you are Narmes,” a man in a golden headdress greeted them, flanked by a middle aged woman and a man with a dog mask. “You’re late.”

“I was merely asking the girl some questions,” Narmes snapped. “What do you want, Gafra?”

Gafra shook his head in a poor attempt at mock-despair. “I was just saying how disappointed I am in you for bringing foreigners to meet with the king at a time like this. Clearly, your lack of judgement proves that you’re not fit for the title of Consul.”

Apparently they had walked in at a bad time. What did he mean by “a time like this?” Was Heliohapt experiencing some kind of turmoil?

Gafra continued, crossing his arms smugly. “Don’t you see what’s going on? Ever since the death of the former king and the enthronement of Prince Armakan, this country has seen nothing but bad luck. You are aware, are you not? Of the increase in sudden deaths with no apparent cause… Healthy young people have started dropping dead for no reason. We’re using all our resources to investigate this phenomenon, but you know what they’re calling it in the city? A curse.

“She’ll bring a curse upon this entire nation. Guards!”

Is something… wrong with me?

Thalia shook off the memories that were threatening to well up in her. There was no such thing as a curse, but she certainly believed in people willing to murder innocent citizens for their own political gain. She was willing to bet this man was involved, as well. This is what she’d been trained to recognize in the palace: a power struggle. This other faction was using corrupt tactics to try to force the King into a corner.

“That’s right,” a middle aged woman beside Gafra said with a sneer. “Our great former king strove to keep Heliohapt an independent country free from foreign influences. Despite that, our current king has chosen to ignore the will of the former king and has decided to let these foreigners into our country. That’s unforgivable. I’m sure these actions have provoked the rage of the great former king.”

Narmes tensed at her side. “Lord Gafra! Lady Patra! You are in front of your king!”

Thalia found his rage understandable. A loyal servant does not tolerate such disrespect. His willingness to stand up for his king was a trait she found admirable.

“Our apologies.” Gafra held his hands up as though submitting. “We did not intend to be rude. It is just, we do not wish for this curse brought about by the ill-advised decision to reverse our isolationist foreign policy to affect our king.”

The dangerous gleam in his eyes told Thalia that he very much wished for the king to drop dead.

The trio that comprised the former king’s faction then took their leave, and Narmes scratched his head apologetically. “I’m sorry that you had to witness such a spectacle Let’s leave the negotiations to another day. We’ll pay for your lodgings as an apology.”

“Thank you for your generosity, Narmes,” Sinbad responded. Thalia wandered back over to his side, but kept a distance between herself and her best friend. If her friends didn’t accept that what she had with Sinbad was platonic, then she doubted Narmes would understand. 

They said their goodbyes and reunited with the tour guide. As they were walking to their accommodations, Ja’far asked, “That was strange how Narmes pulled you to the side. What did he want with you?”

“Oh, that…” She glanced up at Sinbad, who was listening intently. For some reason, her face grew hot. She suddenly didn’t feel like bragging about her plans for the night. “He just had a question, is all.”

Ja’far raised an eyebrow. “What kind of question?”

“Just how long we traveled to get here. I think he’s curious about the outside world, you know?” It wasn’t the best lie Thalia had ever told, but it was plausible.

“Still…” Ja’far stroked his chin in thought. “I wonder why he wouldn’t have asked the whole group.”

Thalia laughed and changed the subject before he caught her in a lie. Ja’far was much too clever to fool for long. 

“I wonder what the inn will be like...”

“This is it, just ahead!” the tour guide enthusiastically pointed out. The building was a quaint, sandstone structure with a surprisingly spacious inside.

Sinbad quickly checked them in and handed each of them their keys. While the others stayed talking to the tour guide, Thalia snuck off to find her room and get ready for her date.

Chapter Text

As soon as she found her room, Thalia pulled out all her clothing and laid each of her dresses out on the bed. She hovered over the pieces, inspecting each one carefully. While one had a bit of embroidery on the hem, they were all generally the same— dingy white, ankle-length dresses. She had just washed them at the oasis, but they would never again be the color they had been before trekking through the dusty desert.

Sighing, she scratched her head. She had no idea how to dress for a date, but surely none of these were suitable. What if she showed up in her plain dresses with her plain hair, and her date wasn’t impressed? Though, Narmes didn’t seem the type to mind. She supposed this was more about her. Tonight, she was doing something special. She wanted to wear an expensive dress and feel like the princess she was, even if it was just for a few hours.

She could go out and buy a Heliohaptian dress, but she had seen them on the women. Thalia was not willing to bear her breasts for the world to see, even if it was normal here. Those were something she wanted to remain private.

So, she decided to wear the one with the embroidery— not quite princess standards, but the closest thing that she owned.

Just as she leaned over to pick it up, she heard a rapping on her door. Thalia hurriedly stuffed her dresses back in her bag and took a deep breath. It was probably Sinbad asking her to do something tonight. She would tell him she had a headache. No, that wouldn’t do. The tour guide had shown all of them where to get medicine for headaches earlier.

Fine then, she thought, pounding her fist into her palm resolutely. I’ll just tell him I’m too tired to hang out. If he insists, I’ll slam the door in his face.

Bracing herself, Thalia padded over to the door and turned its handle, opening it. “I really can’t tonight, Sin, I have an appointment with my b—” 

She froze. It was not Sinbad on the other side of the door. In fact, it was two people, two Heliohaptian women carrying baskets of gold ornaments and perfume bottles. 

“Lady Thalia?”

“Th- that’s me.” Thalia stood completely still, her mind straining to comprehend the significance of their presence.

One of the women, tall with braided hair, raised her basket. “My lady, Master Narmes has instructed us to help you prepare for tonight.”

“Ah… um…” She struggled to pry her eyes away from the woman’s exposed breast, heat rushing to her face. When she did manage to regain her faculties, she marched stiffly to the side, allowing them space to enter. What was she supposed to do, turn them away? What if Narmes interpreted that as a snub?

Rubbing her arm anxiously, she watched the two women enter. They bowed before setting their baskets on the bed.

The one closer to Thalia’s height had short hair and nipple piercings. She gave Thalia a friendly smile and fished a white bundle of fabric out of one of the baskets. 

“Since you traveled through the desert, Master Narmes thought you might not have anything to wear tonight. He sends you this Heliohaptian tunic along with some other gifts.”

Thalia imagined herself in one of the dresses these women were wearing, one or both breasts hanging out, and her hands instantly shot protectively over her chest. There was no way she was wearing a Heliohaptian dress.

“I can’t…” she muttered, shaking her head. “I can’t go out like that.”

The two women exchanged glances, then the tall one giggled.“You mean, you don’t want to go out showing your chest?” The short one unfolded the bundle of fabric to reveal it was more like Narmes’s tunic had been— covering the chest but leaving the sides bare. “You foreigners are so interesting. Master Narmes thought you might be more comfortable with a men's tunic. Is this okay?”

Thalia let out a sigh of relief. “Yes, that’s fine. Thank you.” Thalia still wasn’t sure how she felt about showing her sides, but at this point, she was grateful she wouldn’t be going in rags.

“I think you’ll find this much more comfortable,” the short one said with a kind smile. “In Heliohapt, our clothing helps us to adapt to the extreme heat of the desert. The way you’re dressed is…” She drew in a sharp hiss of air, her eyes locked on Thalia’s long, cotton skirt. “Well, I suppose it protects you from the sun.”

Thalia picked up the heavy fabric of her skirt, pulling it away from her sticky legs and relishing the fresh breeze of air. It was true that she hadn’t considered the way her clothing would affect her in the heat. Balbadd and Reim could get hot but never to this extent.

The tall maid strode over, her hand on her chin as she looked Thalia up and down. “We have a lot of work to do. Shall we get started?”

“We”? Thalia frowned. She hardly needed help getting dressed. She had been doing it on her own for years. 

“I’m afraid I won’t be requiring your assistance.”

The two women glanced at each other, shifting uncomfortably. 

“We were instructed to serve you as thoroughly as we would royalty.”

Shaking her head, Thalia crossed her arms. “I’ll let you know if I need anything.”

“Yes, my lady.” They brought their hands up to their chests in the Heliohaptian salute.

First, they escorted her to an annex on the side of the inn. Three walls offered protection and privacy, but the far side consisted of two thick pillars, letting in ample daylight and providing a beautiful view of the expanse of the city below. In the water of the bath, delicate white lilies floated peacefully, beckoning for Thalia to join them.

After instructing the maids to wait outside, she stripped off her hot dress reveled in feeling the fresh air against her skin. Whenever she was traveling with the boys, she rushed her clothing changes and baths so as not to inconvenience Sinbad, who usually stood guard. This time, she didn’t feel the imminent threat of being walked in on. She was able to relax and enjoy herself.

Slowly, she lowered herself to the grainy tile floor near the edge of the bath and dipped one toe into it. The water was refreshingly cool, sending a pleasant shiver up her spine. She eagerly submersed the rest of her body next. The layer of sand and grime on her skin gently floated away, leaving her truly clean for the first time in a week.

She could have stayed in that bath forever, protected from the heat and the troubles of the world outside, but once she had washed her hair and thoroughly scrubbed the rest of her body, she re-emerged. After drying herself off with a towel, she slipped on the tunic. It fit well enough to serve its purpose. It covered her chest, draping down her stomach and back, then converging low on her hips. From there, it was more like a skirt, coming down to her knees.

She properly disposed of the towel in a laundry basket and gathered her dress before rejoining the maids outside.

Upon returning to her room, Thalia sat on the edge of the bed as she brushed her hair, inspecting the various perfume bottles and cosmetic containers. When her hair was tangle-free, she set the comb down and picked up a small bottle, opening it to sniff its contents. It smelled strongly of lavender, and she held it out to the maids.

“What is this? Perfume?”

The tall one rushed over to her side, apparently more eager to serve than Thalia had ever been. “We use an array of oils and creams to soften and protect the skin. This one is lavender oil, but we’ve also provided other scents too. Would you like us to apply them for you?”

Thalia shook her head vigorously. “I’ll put them on myself, but you know Narmes better, right?”

The tall one answered. “Master Narmes is a generous employer and an honorable man. We’re lucky to serve him.” 

Employer… so they aren’t slaves. Maybe Narmes doesn’t even keep slaves , Thalia thought hopefully. Her respect for him would triple if that were the case. The maid had also referred to him as “generous” and “honorable”, which Thalia found comforting coming from people who were close to him. If he really was such a good guy, she wanted to impress him. She wanted him to think she was attractive.

“Would you mind picking some out for me?” Thalia twisted a lock of her wet hair around her finger anxiously. “Some that he would like?”

“Use the sandalwood,” the short one whispered. “He likes when I burn sandalwood incense.”

The tall one nodded and handed Thalia an amber bottle. When Thalia opened it, a warm, woody scent hit her nose. It reminded her of the temple to Asena, where she had often burned the incense in a ritual to honor the goddess during festivals. The festivals were one of the few times she was able to leave her corner of the palace and interact with her people, and they had often come up to her, praising her and wishing blessings upon her. Thalia inhaled deeply, massaging the oil into her neglected and dry skin. When she was done, she handed the bottle back to the tall maid.

“Thank you.”

The tall maid responded with a smile, replacing the oil and pulling out a pink glass bottle.

“This is one of Master Narmes’s favorite scents,” she informed Thalia, popping off the lid.

The smell instantly hit Thalia, and it was more familiar than that of the sandalwood. It assaulted her senses, unearthing memories she’d been fighting to keep buried ever since she’d first seen that lovely, pink hair at the company.


 

Ten-year-old Thalia sat with Serendine on her bed, brushing her fellow princess’s silky, pink hair. The smell of roses wafting from it lulled Thalia into a state of relaxation. It was her favorite smell, a smell she associated with the girl in front of her. She’d loved it ever since the first time she’d been close enough to smell it. Being with Serendine like this was heaven.

“You know,” Serendine said, tilting her head back and staring at the ceiling. “Junior and I have been friends for so long. He’s like a dear little brother to me, but lately, he’s been acting differently. I just don’t know how to deal with it.” 

Thalia tried to think about what Serendine could be referring to. He’d grown less abrasive lately, calmer. He’d also started to stutter a bit, growing flustered whenever Serendine talked to him. Could he…?

“Do you think he likes you?” Thalia asked, her grip tightening on the comb as a wave of nausea hit her.

“That’s… no. That’s impossible. Who would like a tomboy like me?” Serendine turned around to face her. “Wouldn’t it be more fitting for him to like you? You’re so pretty, Thalia. You could have anyone you wanted.”

Anyone…? No. That’s not true.  

Thalia didn’t understand the jealousy that was welling up within her. If there was a blossoming romance between her two friends, she should support it. There was nothing else she could do. 

Thalia carefully pulled the comb through a tangle in Serendine’s hair. “I think he does like you.”

“Well, he’s closer to your age,” Serendine mused. “Do you have someone you like?”

“S-someone I like?” Thalia’s face grew hot, her heart skipping a beat. “I— no. I’ve never liked anyone.”

She couldn’t like anyone. Her father would choose a suitor for her.

“Me neither,” Serendine sighed. “Boys are dumb. All I need is a good friend like you.” Smiling warmly, the older princess took Thalia’s hand.

“Me too,” Thalia affirmed, surrounded by Serendine’s calming rose scent. “All I need is someone like you.”


 

“I hate roses,” Thalia snapped, more harshly than she’d intended to. The maid flinched, putting the lid back on the container. “Sorry.” Thalia concentrated on keeping her voice steady. “The smell just brings back bad memories. What about vanilla? Do we have that?”

The maid nodded and pulled out a yellow vial. She handed it to Thalia, who applied it to her skin.

 Next, Thalia opened a small container and inspected the black powder inside. It was khol. She had worn it whenever she performed back in her days on Ria Venus Island, but she had no idea how to apply it. That part was something Dinarzade had always done for her. Anything beyond basic hygiene had always been Dinarzade’s domain.

“Um…” Thalia held up the powder meekly, suddenly glad the maids had refused to leave. “Could you help me?”

The two women nodded eagerly. One wove her hair into a beautiful braid, while the other applied cosmetics— khol around her eyes and rouge on her lips and cheeks. They finished by adorning her body with gold ornaments: a chunky gold necklace around her neck, a chain around her waist, a headdress over her freshly plaited hair, at least one bangle for every limb.

“Oh my…” The short woman dug in one of the baskets until she pulled out a bronze mirror, holding it for Thalia to see their finished handiwork. “You look just like a princess.”

Thalia smiled into the mirror. “I do, don’t I?”

She turned her attention to the two maids, thanking them and offering to return the gifts she wasn’t wearing. The two women refused, claiming they had been given specific instructions to be sure Thalia received them. Then, they left Thalia alone with her baskets and her mirror.

Inspecting her face once again, Thalia lightly touched the golden tassels framing her face. She certainly looked refined, although as an Attican princess, she would never have been caught showing her legs, much less her sides. She smiled gently at her reflection, reassuring herself that it was okay to look like this. She was dressed modestly by Heliohapt standards, and no one from Attica would ever know.

Her heart skipped a beat as she realized she was about to do something incredibly improper. She was about to go on a date dressed like this. She used to hate showing skin, but now that it was her choice… 

…it was exhilarating. 

Her heart hammering in her chest, Thalia slinked out into the hallway, glancing around furtively. Luckily, no one was there. If no one saw her, she wouldn’t have to answer any questions. No one would see her like this, and they wouldn’t be able to look down on her for it. They wouldn’t know about this part of her, the part that had clawing at her consciousness all day. It was the part that wanted to push her boundaries, explore new experiences… particularly ones with boys, it seemed.

It was an innocent, fun date. She could handle that.

She let out a sigh and began to walk away when, from behind her, she heard the door to the room next to her open. She froze, caught in a trap. Now, what did she do? Run? No, that was even more suspicious. Maybe if she kept walking, whichever of her friends this was wouldn’t recognize her. Thalia resolved to do that, taking the first step forward.

Then, a hand landed on her shoulder, a voice purring in her ear. “What is a beautiful woman like you doing all by yourself?”

Shit. Sinbad had caught her. Cringing, Thalia turned around wearing a guilty smile. 

“Thalia?” He stumbled backward, eyes widening. His mouth hung open, as though he couldn’t believe the girl in front of him was real.

“Sin,” she greeted him begrudgingly.

“Why are you dressed like that?” He had regained his composure, but his amber eyes took on a dangerous gleam. She’d seen this look once before, back when she was still adjusting to her new life at the Sindria company. She used to believe she’d imagined it, but now that he was looking at her the same way, she was positive it had happened before. Back then, it had struck fear into her. It spoke of a desire that terrified her. This time, her blood spiked, but not with fear, exactly. This feeling was something new entirely.

“I have a date tonight,” she responded honestly, clenching the skirt of her dress. His eyes felt like they were burning into her bare flesh. No, burning wasn’t the word she was looking for. Burning was painful. Whatever she was feeling was strangely pleasant. She wanted him to look.

“A date?” he muttered, taking a step closer. “with who?”

“It’s really not your business.”

“It is.” He took two steps forward and moved as if to place his hand on her waist. Before he made contact, he stopped himself, confliction writing itself on his face. “I have to protect my employees.” He was close enough that she could feel his breath.

Her eyes trained themselves on his hand, inches away from her exposed flesh. He wasn’t touching her, but she could still feel its heat. He was so close, and she thought if he so much as brushed against her, she would melt. Her breath hitched and she willed away images of the two of them alone together, limbs tangled, her fingernails digging into his back, their lips pressed together.

She took a step back, shocked by the boldness of her own imagination. She didn’t think those kinds of thoughts, especially not about Sinbad. She wasn’t that kind of girl. She wasn’t— 

“Sinbad? Thalia?” Hinahoho’s voice broke the tension between them. He seemed to be taking stock of the situation. Sinbad’s hand was still reaching out toward her. She took advantage of the distraction and escaped, not stopping until she reached the exit. 

Outside the inn, she leaned against the wall, heart pounding and breathing heavy. What would have happened if Hinahoho hadn’t interrupted them? Would Sinbad have touched her? Would she have let him?

She clutched her sides protectively. Was it okay to let someone touch her? Was it okay to want it? A fundamental shift was taking place in the way she saw herself and the people around her. She hadn’t run because she was afraid. She had run because she wasn’t. That lack of fear was more terrifying than anything else she had experienced on this trip because it meant she was letting her guard down. Her friends had been patiently chiseling her walls into a state of disrepair for months, and now those walls were crumbling. Soon, she would be defenseless.

Any one of the people she came across in day to day life could be another Serendine or Marcus. Her fear kept her on edge. It kept her prepared. Without it, couldn’t someone hurt her again?


 

Sinbad stared at his own traitorous hand, still reaching out for Thalia. She’d backed away from him, eyes wide and breathing erratic. There was no other way to interpret it: he’d frightened her.

He wasn’t sure what had come over him. He knew what kinds of touches he could get away with when it came to her: platonic ones. He’d lost his composure. He’d tried to touch her like she was some other girl, but she wasn’t some other girl. She was Thalia— his best friend, the girl he’d sworn to himself he wouldn’t pursue.

Now she was gone. On a date with someone else. Looking like that. She was always beautiful, but he’d never seen so much of her. She had legs. He’d always assumed she had legs, but now he’d seen the visual evidence for himself. The rest of her, too, had been enticing beyond his wildest dreams. He’d never seen her lips so red or her skin so radiant. This whole time, she’d never put an effort toward her appearance for his sake, but this other guy…

“You didn’t do anything to Thalia, did you?” Hinahoho came up behind Sinbad, resting a giant hand on his shoulder.

Burning with shame, Sinbad brought his hand back to his side. 

“I— no, I didn’t touch her. You know I don’t think about her that way.”

Except he had just now. He’d wanted to touch her so badly. He’d stopped himself. It hadn’t been enough.

Hinahoho let out a skeptical noise. “You know she can be a bit jumpy,” he reminded Sinbad.

Of course he knew. He knew that better than anyone. She was like a deer, ready to take flight at any possible threat. Still, he’d tried to get too close. Even though he knew better.

“Thanks, Hinahoho.”

Sinbad wandered out of the hotel glumly, cursing himself for losing his self-control. He allowed himself to indulge in many things: alcohol, revelry, women— but Thalia was off-limits. He’d failed her and broken her trust. Would she ever look at him the same way? He remembered how intimate they used to be, how forcefully she’d pushed him away after she’d been raped, how long it had taken for him to earn even a fraction of her trust back. He’d thrown all their progress away with a single hand.

Pacing the streets of Heliohapt, he wandered until he found what he was looking for: the red light district. Last time he’d been with another woman, he’d been so clear-headed afterward. Maybe tonight, again, a little drinking and a pretty girl would allow him some clarity.


 

Thalia sat across from Narmes at his home near the palace. The building was a testament to how much power he enjoyed as the king’s consul. It was large, elaborately carved sandstone pillars holding up a beautifully decorated ceiling. Potted ferns and other plants lined the walls, and a brazier hung from the ceiling, illuminating the place with a warm glow. In front of Thalia was a dish of lentils and fresh greens.

Thalia picked at her food instead of eating. On her mind were the usual things— her family, her kingdom— but today she had yet another thing to add to that list: her best friend.

“Is everything to your liking?” 

Thalia turned her gaze to date on the other side of the stone table. He had already finished his food and was now watching her with a concerned frown.

“It’s wonderful, Narmes. I’m just not hungry today is all.” She gave him a reassuring smile, but her answer only seemed to further his distress.

“You don’t like the food, do you?” He hurried over to her side, taking her plate. “Of course, you traveled all this way to a strange country, everything’s so new… why wouldn’t you want something that reminded you of home? What do you usually eat? I’ll tell my chef—”

“Narmes.” Thalia interrupted his nervous rambling, standing and gently taking her plate back from him before setting it down on the table. “The food is fine. Everything is fine. I’m just excited to be here with you.”

He scratched his chin shyly. “You are? I mean— of course you are.” His demeanor swiftly changed. He took her hand and kissed it, his voice becoming low and seductive. “Since you’re so excited, would you rather skip to the other activities I have planned?”

“Oh, activities? Like games?” Thalia assumed he meant the sexual kind, but she played dumb, hoping he would take the hint that she wasn’t interested in those kinds of activities. At least, not with him. She flushed, remembering that less than an hour earlier, she’d been imagining herself with someone else— maybe not to the extent Narmes was thinking, but certainly past the line where she was willing to go with him. 

Narmes misinterpreted her reaction, and it spurred him on. He placed a hand on the small of her back and spoke softly into her ear. “We can play games if you want to. I know a few.”

His breath tickled her ear, and she felt faint echoes of the feeling that had overpowered her earlier that day. She ignored it. She wasn’t ready to explore this part of herself yet.

“I’m sorry, Narmes. I’m afraid I’m not interested in the kinds of games you’re wanting to play.” A small part of her was on edge, afraid that words would not be enough to stop him. Her concern proved to be unfounded.

Looking contrite, he immediately gave her some space. 

“Sorry,” he said sheepishly. “Seems like I misinterpreted the mood. Thanks for being straight with me. I do have other kinds of games we can play.”

He led her to a table set up with a board that looked much like the chess boards she was familiar with. “This is called Senet. Do you know how to play?”

She shook her head.

He spent the next few minutes explaining the rules. They played several rounds, and despite losing almost every time, she did have a lot of fun. The one time she did win, Narmes was even happier than she was, showering her with praise. She felt good, basking in his kind words like a cat in the sunlight. 

When the night fell, the air grew chilly. Thalia dreaded walking back to the inn in her skimpy clothing, but Narmes had already considered that. “I have one more gift for you,” he told her. He reached into a trunk and withdrew a beautiful teal shawl.

Instead of making her happy, she just felt further indebted to this man. Then a horrifying thought struck her. What if that was what he wanted? What if he was just treating her to all these things so that she felt like she owed him. What if this was all some ploy to guilt her into sleeping with him?

When he tried to give her the shawl, she handed it back. “Narmes, I can’t accept all these gifts. It’s not right.”

He gave her a puzzled smile. “Of course you can. I gave them to you because I wanted to. What’s not right about that?”

“I can’t repay you for these gifts. I don’t even know if I’ll see you again when I leave.” She pointed to the gold bangle on her left wrist that must have cost an entire year’s salary for her.

He waved off her concerns and wrapped the shawl around her. “I don’t expect anything in return. If I never see you again, it’s fine. I wouldn’t give you anything I couldn’t afford to. Plus, it’s not like you’re the only one getting gifts tonight. I got to go on an amazing date with a beautiful girl who was clever enough to beat me at Senet within her first few games.” He winked. “Now, let’s get you back to the hotel.”

Thalia refused to move. “Even if I accept your gifts, a can’t take them back with me. You know that, right?”

“It’s fine,” He put a hand on her shoulders, gently guiding her forward. “Once the trade deal goes through, I’ll send them to you on the first shipment out. Just leave them in your room when you leave. I’ll have someone collect them.”

She found it hard to believe this man was real. He had been genuinely kind without expecting anything in return all night. As a slave, she hadn’t experienced anything like this. Well, she’d thought she had. She felt a pang of regret, remembering how kind Marcus had been to her before…

Before he had done that.

But Narmes wasn’t Marcus, she reminded herself. He had stopped when she’d said no. She pushed the thoughts of that awful man aside, choosing instead to focus on the sweet one beside her.

“I really can’t tell you how much I needed a night like this,” she told Narmes, once again thanking him profusely. 

Her words put a triumphant grin on his face, and she was glad to see him feel as good about himself as he'd made her feel. 

Outside the inn, they stood in the dark, the only light from the stars and a torch illuminating the entrance. They both shifted their weight back and forth nervously, unsure how to navigate this farewell.

They started to say something at the same time and interrupted each other, laughing awkwardly. Another long silence stretched between them. Finally, Narmes cupped her chin with his hand and broke the silence. “Can I kiss you?”

Thalia thought about his request for a moment before deciding. “Only on the cheek.”

He leaned in, pressing his soft lips to her cheek, and she returned the favor. His skin was thicker than hers, soft and warm. She couldn’t help but smile when he pulled back several shades darker. She was starting to suspect he was about as experienced with dating as she was. 

“Well, then,” he squeaked before clearing his throat and continuing in his normal voice. “See you again tomorrow, Thalia?”

“I hope so,” she responded.

Narmes waved goodbye, and like that, he was gone.


Sinbad stumbled back to the inn, drunk and miserable. The women in the red light district were beautiful, but tonight even they could not distract him from his bad mood. In fact, he’d barely paid attention to them. His mind was so occupied with Thalia and her mystery date, what they might be doing, whether or not he was treating her well. It didn’t help that despite the numbness the alcohol provided him, he shivered in the cold. At least he was close. He could see the lit-up entrance from here, and two silhouettes hovering in front of it. One of them was very familiar. 

He hid behind a large potted fern and glowered at the couple. What were they doing? Just standing there? He growled as the man lifted his hand to Thalia’s cheek. Sinbad expected her to shy away, but she didn’t. Instead, the man leaned in and kissed her, and she kissed him back. He blinked, his vision distorted from the alcohol he’d consumed. Had he seen correctly? Could it be that it wasn’t romance she was afraid of, but him? 

The man was gone, and she was standing there staring after him. Sinbad charged at her, deciding he would confront her. 

“Who was that?” he demanded. He worried it came out more aggressively than he’d meant, and his fears were confirmed when she flinched.

“You’re drunk.” She folded her arms in front of her chest. “I’m not going to talk to you like this.”

“Am not.” Sinbad swayed a little as he slurred his denial. He wasn’t fooling anyone tonight.

Thalia raised an eyebrow and sniffed. “You reek of alcohol. And perfume.” With a resigned sigh, she put his arm around her shoulder to support his unsteady weight. “Let’s get you to your room.”

As they were walking, he noticed she was wearing a shawl he’d never seen before. She never wore colors, only plain white everything. It was nice to see her in something bright for a change. 

“Where’d you get that?” he mumbled. “It looks great on you.” 

She didn’t say anything in return, but he thought he saw the ghost of a smile play at her lips. When they stopped walking, Sinbad realized they were in front of his room. He waited for Thalia to open the door, but she just stood there with her hand out.

Finally, she grunted, “Key.”

“What?” Why wasn’t she opening the door?

“Where’s the key to your room?” She squinted as though she were supporting something heavy.

“It’s in my pocket.” Where else would it be? Why wasn’t she opening the door?

She sighed again, frustrated this time. “Which pocket?”

“The left.”

“Whoa, hey!” Thalia’s hand plunged into his pocket, feeling around for something. He had to hold back a groan as she brushed against his upper thigh through the fabric. This was the touch he’d been craving all night. It was her touch. He wanted to grab her and kiss her, but all the drink in the world could not make him forget her reaction earlier, how he’d scared her away.

 She withdrew the key, unlocking the door— that’s right, he did lock the door— and ushering him inside. After walking him to his bed, she helped him sit on the edge. The room was spinning, but Sinbad sat up straight.

"Wait here," Thalia instructed him. He watched her curiously as she lit a candle and set about opening and closing drawers, looking for something. Did she realize how exposed her sides were? He was positive he could see more than she wanted him to as she leaned forward, the fabric of the tunic falling away from her breasts. If it were anyone else, he would have ogled. Since it was Thalia, he looked away.

“Ah, here it is,” She held up a robe. “Put this on. I’ll wait outside.”

Sinbad slipped out of his clothing, stumbling to get his pants off, and put on the robe. It took a few tries and all his concentration to tie the knot, but eventually, he managed something functional. He opened the door to find her waiting. Her dark eyes firmly fixed on his face, Thalia helped him into bed, tucking him under the blanket. 

“Don’t go,” he pleaded, his tongue loose from the alcohol. 

“Sinbad, it’s late.” Despite her protests, she sat down on the side of his bed. He sat up too.

After a period of silence, he felt sufficiently sober to speak. “I just want to protect you. I know men. I know the way they think.”

“You know the way you think, Sin. Not all men are you.”

He smiled ruefully. “You must think I’m a pig.”

She thought for a moment before giving a wry response. “Pigs are pretty intelligent creatures, you know.”

He grabbed her delicate wrist and pulled her against his chest. Her breathing hitched, and her eyes widened. She pushed against him, trying to get away. He let her go, disappointment filling his chest. He didn’t know what he’d been hoping for. He knew better than to think she’d react any differently.

“You’re afraid of me.” It wasn’t an accusation, just an observation.

“That’s not…” she trailed off. She couldn’t deny it because it was true, he thought. Nothing he did or didn’t do was ever going to change that.

“Do I remind you of what happened?” He didn’t have to elaborate. She knew perfectly well he was referring to the rape.

“Why would you even think that?”

“You let that man touch you tonight. You never let me touch you like that.”

“We’re friends. Friends don’t touch each other like that.”

He was silent.

“Are you afraid if I start dating someone, it will threaten our friendship?”

He nodded. In truth, even he didn’t understand why he was behaving so erratically tonight. No, he did. He just refused to acknowledge it.

 She leaned against his chest on her own this time. Though he wanted to embrace her, he kept his hands to himself, afraid of scaring her again. 

“You’ll always be my best friend. No one can change that. I promise.”

Her words stung more than he would have expected after all this time. He reminded himself she was like a sister to him. That was all. He had no reason to want to change their friendship. And yet...

He looked down at Thalia, now sound asleep on his chest. Wrapping his arms around her, he lowered the two of them down to the bed and stared at the ceiling. The first time he’d seen her on Ria Venus Island, he’d thought she was Lady Maader at first. After all, Lady Maader was the one who usually let him out of the torture chamber. Thalia had rebuked him harshly for that mistake, he recalled. He’d been too weak to ask questions at the time, but he’d soon realized that she was risking her safety to help him.

Over those weeks in the punishment room, he came to associate Thalia with safety and comfort. They didn’t have many conversations then, but he’d watched her clean his wounds again and again, heard her curse the people who’d done this to him more fervently every time. Sometimes, she’d told him stories of gods, goddesses, and heroes. He had no idea where she’d gotten the strange tales at the time. Now he realized they were likely tales from her home country, but back then, he’d just been glad to listen to the sound of her gentle voice. 

Despite Thalia’s best efforts, Lady Maader had won him over. He’d tried so hard to please that woman. She wasn’t like Thalia. Thalia accepted him in whatever state he was in. She never withheld affection or told him he needed to change. She’d just waited until he came to her.

Eventually, he did.

Masrur was the one to thank for that. He’d shown Sinbad that he’d thrown away his pride to please Lady Maader. Every plan Sinbad had come up with to escape would have involved casualties among the children. He wasn’t sure if he could take his power back without dirtying his hands, but the memories of Thalia’s gentle defiance gave him hope.

He wasn’t naive. He’d known she wouldn’t risk her safety to help him for no reason. He’d known she wanted something from him.

So he approached her, this strange, patient girl, to see what she could offer him. Little did he know, she already had a solution to his moral conundrum. 

They’d escaped that horrible place, but neither of them had really escaped, had they? Sometimes during the day, he’d forget where he was for a moment and frantically search for her. If she was there, he knew he was safe. If not, he would go find her to still his racing heart. He would tease her, distract her, come up with excuses to stay around her for a while. At night, he still sometimes woke up in a cold sweat from dreams where he was back in that chamber, screws being driven into his skin, nails being pried from their beds. Those times were the worst because she wasn’t there. He’d have to calm down on his own, but that could take hours. It would have been better if he could always sleep with her like this.

He felt like he was losing himself. He'd always been able to see the flow of destiny, but since he’d become close with Thalia, everything had become murky. His decision to bring her had felt right at the time, but it had almost gotten her killed during the bandit attack. He’d always been able to trust his gut before. What had changed?

Since Ria Venus Island, his inner compass had been broken. Sometimes, when navigating at sea, a geological formation might throw off the magnetic field, leading sailors away from their true course. Thalia had become such a colossal force to him, her magnetic pull had skewed his inner compass, leading him further and further from his destination. He needed to reorient himself. His dream of founding a country had to come first.

Chapter Text

 

 

"You're afraid of me."

I'm not though. I'm afraid of the way you make me feel.

Because you make me feel things I'm not ready to.

I want to tell you.

I want to explain.

I want to.

I can't.

"You never let me touch you like that."

Because I want you to.

Because he means nothing to me.

Because you mean everything to me.

Thalia awoke the next morning wrapped in something warm and heavy. Mewling with pleasure, she stretched and opened her eyes. It had been a rare dreamless night, and for the first time in ages, she was well-rested. 

Drinking in her surroundings, she looked around. This was not her room. It was better decorated, bigger. Sinbad's rucksack sat on top of the dresser, his clothing spilling onto its cedar surface. Through the window, the morning sun shone brightly, making everything seem soft, surreal. 

Someone next to her let out a soft groan, and suddenly her warm wrappings were pulling her against a broad chest. Now, someone's breath was brushing against her ear, and Thalia's heart rate spiked. Why was she in a man's bed? Why were Sinbad's things in here? She blinked, the events of the previous night coming back to her. Narmes had taken her home. Sinbad had been drunk and overprotective, and she had helped him to his room and sat with him for a bit while he sobered up. She must have fallen asleep in here.

Gently, she untangled herself from his limbs, sitting up and studying his sleeping face. It was so sweet, so serene. She'd never seen him like this, his guard completely down. In his waking hours, he was reckless and fun-loving, but he was never vulnerable, not truly. He kept secrets from her, his reason for bringing her to Balbadd and then to the Dark Continent. 

Thalia brought her hand up to his face, cupping his cheek and tenderly stroking it with her thumb. He sighed, his breath still reeking of alcohol. 

"You've got to stop drinking so much," she muttered under her breath. "I'm not babying you next time."

"Mm." He rolled onto his back, his arm spread out to the side, further loosening his sloppily-tied robe. 

Thalia's breath caught in her throat, her heart thudding in her ribcage. She could see his chest, taught muscle under smooth, bronzed skin. She had seen it before, both in the punishment room and on their journey here, but now, she was seized with the urge to run her hands over his abdomen, feel the ridges beneath her fingers.

There was that fluttering again, this time urgent and demanding. Thalia needed to touch him, to kiss him— anything to appease this newfound hunger. She just wanted to know what it was like. Her shameful curiosity could be put to rest if she just gave in to temptation. He was asleep. No one ever needed to know.

What am I thinking? Thalia scrambled out of the bed, tumbling to the floor. Of course she couldn't touch him. First of all, feeling up a sleeping person would be creepy as hell. It would be a massive breach of trust. Even if he never found out, that couldn't possibly make what she had thought about doing okay.

The sound of her ragged breathing filled the quiet room. Why was she suddenly having these feelings? How could she after what had happened with Marcus?

Maybe, just as Ja'far had said it would, time was healing her, but what if she wasn't ready for that? She didn't even feel like she was allowed to move on with her life. She felt as though if she could move on so soon, it meant all the pain she had felt up to this point hadn't been real. Had her previous behavior been nothing but melodramatics?

She lifted herself off the floor, trembling with self-loathing. Whatever was going on, she couldn't accept this part of herself. It went against everything she'd been raised to believe. She had a duty to her country to remain virtuous and unspoiled. She couldn't change what had already happened regarding Marcus, but her newfound desire for Sinbad was within her power. Moving forward, she needed to remain chaste and virtuous, someone the citizens of Attica would be willing to follow.

  Quietly, she slipped out of the room, refusing to look back.

"Thalia," Ja'far had apparently been on his way to Sinbad's room and caught her sneaking out. He took in her disheveled appearance with confusion that quickly dissolved into anger. "Where were you last night? That boy from yesterday suddenly dropped dead while a few of us were talking to him. I tried to report it to Sin, but the two of you were gone."

Thalia reeled at the news, bringing a hand to her forehead. Their tour guide had been so bright and lively yesterday, and now he was… 

Yesterday's argument with the former king's faction flashed through her head— the discussion of young people mysteriously dropping dead, the deadly gleam in Gafra's eye.

"It was poison, wasn't it?" She asked quietly.

"Venom, technically," Ja'far corrected her. "It's funny. Serendine could tell it was foul play right away too. I guess you princesses are naturally suspicious."

"Serendine?" Thalia blanched, the mention of the name shaking her to her core. How could Serendine have made such a judgment from back in Reim? How was this even possible? Unless…

"She's here." Ja'far leaned over, looking at the door Thalia had just closed behind her. "That's another reason I was looking for Sin."

Thalia scratched her messy hair abashedly, stepping to the side. "Well, he's in there, but he's still asleep."

Sighing heavily, Ja'far marched past her. "I'll go wake him up. You go clean yourself up. You look ridiculous."

Thalia nodded, watching him enter Sinbad's room before stumbling back to her own, using the wall for support. When she reached her door, she fumbled with the key. Her shaking hands struggled to fit the metal object into the lock, leaving behind minor scratch marks. Twice, she dropped the small brass key and had to pick it up. When she finally succeeded in unlocking her door, she slipped into her room quietly, sinking into the stool in front of her vanity after throwing on one of the clean frocks in her bag.t

That kind boy, the one she'd believed to be so earnest, had died. Serendine was here. Thalia wasn't sure which revelation had shaken her more. 

As her trembling hands ran a comb through her hair, she gazed absentmindedly at the baskets the maids had left on the dresser yesterday. Out of the dozens of colored glass bottles, one caught her eye. It was the pink one from yesterday, the one that smelled so strongly of Serendine.

Setting the comb down, she lifted it out of the basket, holding it up to inspect it. It was the same vile shade as the dress Marcus had ripped off her, the same color as Serendine's hair. Thalia hated this color. She hated Serendine Dikumenowlz Du Parthevia. The image of the Parthevian princess, covered in blood and standing over the corpses of Thalia's family, flashed into her mind. 

Her shaking hands lost hold of the glass container, and it fell to the floor with a crash. Now there was no escape from Serendine. The scent of roses exploded into the air, bringing more memories unbidden to her mind— Serendine's smile, her laugh, her bravery… Thalia had admired Serendine so much, and she'd been betrayed.

She stared at the broken shards of pink glass littering the floor in horror. What had she done? Scrambling to her knees, she picked up the glass shards, trying to piece them back together. This hadn't been what she wanted. She hadn't wanted to break it, only to loathe it. How could she hate this broken thing? With nothing to hold the pieces together, there was no salvaging the bottle. Thalia lifted herself back off the floor, hands drenched with rose oil, and stared at her face in the mirror, smudged makeup from last night streaking down her cheeks. 

She couldn't pretend anymore. Even now, she loved the scent of roses.

"Why? Why why why? " Holding her head with her hands, she muttered under her breath. "Why did you do it, Serendine? I trusted you! Did you want to make your family happy? Didn't I mean anything to you?" She stood up, slamming her oily hands on the vanity. "Why?"

As she rambled, her stomach twisted into a sickening knot. Did the why even matter? Why should she mourn the loss of the friendship of a woman who had murdered her family? Smoothing her face into a calm mask, she smiled into the mirror. Then, with slow, controlled movements, she removed all the bangles and other finery and washed her face and hands with water from the basin. She was fine. Everything was fine.

When the knock came on her door, she was prepared. She opened the door with a serene smile. On the other side stood Sinbad, his expression grim.

"Oh, good, you're dressed." He sniffed, his frown deepening. Pushing her to the side, he furrowed his eyebrows, his eyes locked on the broken bottle on the floor. "Thalia, what happened here?"

"I dropped a bottle. It made a bit of a mess, huh?" She forced a soft giggle.

"You dropped it?" His eyes drifted down to her trembling hands, and he took them in his own. "I'm sorry things turned out like this. You must be terrified, but I promise no one is going to hurt you. We're going to get to the bottom of that boy's death. Until then, I'm keeping you close by my side, do you understand?"

she gave him her most convincing fake smile, grateful to him for providing her with a convenient cover for her current state. 

"I understand." Thalia let out a cough, the stench still invading her lungs. "Let's talk outside, shall we? It reeks in here."

Even in his dark mood, he chuckled. "You're right. We need to meet with the others anyway." He grabbed her hand and began to lead her out of her room.

"The others?" Thalia stumbled along behind him. He stopped to let her lock the door behind them, folding his arms over his chest.

"They're going to fill us in on the circumstances surrounding that boy's death. We're going to figure out how this 'curse' operates."

"There's no such thing as a curse," Thalia snapped. She didn't believe in curses. She couldn't believe in curses; otherwise, she would have to admit the things her father had said about her were possible: that she was unnatural, that something was wrong with her, that Attica's fall had been her fault.

If Sinbad noticed the undue hostility in her voice, he said nothing.

They walked until they reached the door to the lounge. When Thalia caught sight of a head of disgustingly pink hair, she hesitated to cross the threshold, breaking out into a cold sweat. Seeing Serendine now, after the ordeal with the scented oil, was too much. Thalia wasn't ready.

It was too late. Serendine had spotted them, and her rosen eyes rested coolly on Thalia. Weak and emotionally exhausted, Thalia flinched, casting her eyes to the ground. Her cheeks burned in shame for showing weakness to her enemy.

"Oh, good. You're finally here," Serendine said.

"Hello, Serendine." Thalia's voice came out strangled.

"Hey, are you okay?" Turning to Thalia, Hinahoho raised an eyebrow. "You're not catching a cold, are you?"

"I'm fine. This whole business with that boy is just so tragic, don't you agree?" She genuinely was upset at his death, but it also provided her with a convenient cover for her strange reaction to Serendine.

"Why don't you fill me in on what happened." Sinbad turned to Ja'far.

"Right, well." Ja'far scratched his temple. "Yesterday, we were down here talking to the tour guide. We were just saying goodbye, and I walked over to shake his hand. As soon as I touched him, he just dropped to the floor. His heart had stopped beating. That's where Serendine came in."

Serendine stepped forward.

"I inspected the body and found a small puncture wound where the venom would have been injected. Judging by the speed at which his body temperature dropped and rigor mortis set in, I deduced that the substance used would have been one that affects the heart. There is concoction made of rare ingredients that can cause death without any visible symptoms leading up to it. The police were called, and, after I explained the situation, we were cleared of any suspicion."

Gritting her teeth, Thalia hung her head. She didn't know about poisons and venom. Those were a murderer's trade. However, Serendine had just provided useful information when all Thalia had was a gut suspicion.

"It sounds like you seriously helped us out." Sinbad nodded approvingly. "Thank you, Seren. Now that we have that settled, do you want to explain what you and your maids are doing here?

"I was the one who wanted to come here," Serendine bluntly informed him.

Ja'far gaped at her in horror. "Why would you do something so dangerous?" 

Serendine remained resolute, as stalwart as any man. "I am a soldier formerly known as the Venomous Spider Princess, after all."

Thalia drew in a sharp breath at the sound of the name. This confirmed what she had overheard those two women say all those years ago. Right in front of her victim, Serendine had as good as admitted she had killed Thalia's family, and in such a casual tone. There was no more room for doubt or questions. Thalia needed to accept that Serendine had never cared about her and never would. Serendine was vile, absolutely vile. For years, she must have used Thalia, pretending to be her friend. This heartless monster's only goal had been to lead Thalia astray, win her trust only to betray her.

Serendine continued, either oblivious or indifferent to her admission. "I can fight my own battles and take care of myself. I won't be a burden to you."

Thalia remembered how the others had struggled to protect her during the bandit fight, how she had endangered them by being so weak.

"I want to become a source of strength to you too!" Serendine insisted forcefully, her hand resting on her ample bosom. "I can't just sit around and wait anymore!"

Something broke inside Thalia. The buzzing anger swarming inside her dulled to a quiet hum as another feeling swelled within her: inadequacy. How could someone so vile still be so radiant? Serendine was a mighty warrior with an iron will, and Thalia was just a kitten who'd been adopted into a pride of lions. There was nothing special about her. She wasn't powerful, nor was she a warrior, nor was she particularly strong-willed. Nasha's words echoed in her head once again.

"You know you don't belong on this ship."

"Let me join you on your journey," Serendine concluded. Her request drew Thalia out of the numb place she had entered and back into the fires of fury. Of course Serendine couldn't come along. There was no way Sinbad would let a murderer around Thalia. Hadn't he said he would protect her?

"Fine." 

As Sinbad turned his gentle smile toward Thalia's greatest foe, she bit back angry curses.

Of course, she couldn't blame him. His decision made sense, given what he knew. He thought Thalia and Serendine's differences were merely political, and he believed the two were mature enough to work alongside one another despite that.

He had no idea.

Forcing a smile, Thalia lowered her head politely to her fellow princess. "I look forward to working with you."

"Yes, it will be an honor," Serendine responded levelly, keeping her regal posture. Thalia was certain there was an implied "for you."

Once they had arrived at the palace, Narmes came to greet them. Thalia tried to block out the unpleasantness of Serendine's presence and focused instead on him, giving a warm smile. He returned it expectantly.

"What brings you all back so soon?" he asked, his eyes trained on Thalia, as though the question were meant for her alone.

The first to respond was Sinbad. "We experienced this 'curse' first hand. The boy who showed us around yesterday was murdered. Serendine here is familiar with poisons and was able to identify the one most likely used."

Narmes's smile fell, his eyebrows furrowing deeply. "I see. This is serious. His majesty is also worried about these cases. We'll move you to another inn immediately."

"You know, don't you?" Sinbad stepped forward, his arms crossed defensively over his chest. "That this isn't a curse, but murder?"

Thalia quickly inserted herself between them. She knew nobility, and she knew their mindset. She also liked to think that she knew Narmes if only a little. Whatever Sinbad's suspicions were, they were unfounded.

"Of course he knows. He can't act without evidence, so it's best not to throw around accusations." She looked back toward Narmes. "Isn't that right?"

Narmes closed his eyes, a pained look crossing his face.

"Why are you defending him?" Ja'far hissed. "This whole thing is suspicious. He could be the culprit."

Shaking her head, Thalia stood firm. "He's not. I know he's not."

From behind, a large hand landed softly on her shoulder, and she turned to see Narmes flashing her a contrite smile.

"Thank you for believing in me." He took a deep breath and continued. "Since you are all involved, I'll tell you the truth. A few months ago, the former king passed away. Because Prince Sharrkan, Prince Armakan's younger half brother, was only nine, he was not enthroned despite being the first in line. Soon after, Armakan's mother, the second queen, was murdered in the same fashion as the recent attacks. Other supporters of our King Armakan were picked off one by one in this same manner."

Slowly, Thalia spun around to face this loyal man who was so brave, braver than she'd ever imagined. Supporters of King Armakan were being murdered in cold blood. Yet, despite the dangers, Narmes remained vocally by his side.

Emerald eyes cast to the ground, Narmes continued. "The royal vizier soon started preaching that the former king's spirit had been angered by our opening of the borders. He claimed that the deaths were caused by a curse and that King Armakan must be replaced by young Prince Sharrkan. We quickly put together that someone in the former king's faction was the one doing the killings. If we let things continue like this, our country will continue to experience turmoil..."

"That's enough, Narmes."

At the sound of King Armakan's voice, Thalia quickly swept into a curtsy.

"We've caused you travelers enough trouble," The king continued. "There's no reason to drag you further into our country's problems. It would be better if you left immediately."

Thalia's grip on her skirt tightened. When she took back Attica, she would need allies. If she helped this young king now, he might be willing to provide soldiers to her later. 

"King Armakan, I cannot speak for my friends, but my country of Attica once enjoyed extensive trade relations with Heliohapt. It is because of our shared history that I feel compelled to assist you in any way I can."

Armakan stroked his false beard thoughtfully. "Attica… I do recall reading about such relations in our historical documents. However, you have no obligation to Heliohapt now. I'll arrange for a guard to assist you out of the country."

Thalia blinked away stinging tears. Her first attempt to negotiate on behalf of her country had been rejected without a second thought. If she pressed the matter, she risked offending him and earning his hostility. What was she supposed to do?

 "Furthermore," the king continued, "I will go to the royal family tomb tomorrow."

"Your Highness!" Narmes's posture went rigid, his breaths becoming shaky." You mustn't go! It's too dangerous!"

"It is the only way."

Thalia watched this exchange curiously. What was in the tomb that could frighten these two brave men who so valiantly faced the risk of assassination daily?

Narmes stepped forward, his fist clenched bravely. "Then I'll go with you!"

Approaching Narmes, she rested her hand on his arm. "Is it that dangerous?"

His glistening eyes turning to her, he covered her hand with his own. "Ever since it transformed into some strange structure, no one has come out alive. But don't worry, I'll definitely—"

"Tell us more about that structure," Sinbad interrupted. Thalia noted a hardness in his eyes, which were locked on her and Narmes's somewhat intimate interaction. Suddenly cowed, she quickly withdrew her hand, pressing it to one of her burning cheeks. Why did she feel guilty?

"The royal tomb is where the former king would have inscribed who he willed to be his successor. However, since that mysterious structure popped up, the tomb melded into it. If we were able to hold the former king's internment, then the issue of our king's legitimacy would be resolved," Narmes explained.

"And the former king's faction is using this uncertainty to push for control of the throne?" Ja'far surmised.

Narmes gestured to his two other companions. "We believe Lord Armakan is our king. If only that mysterious structure would disappear, we could prove it."

"Leave that building to us." Sinbad grabbed Thalia's wrist and guided her back to her place at his side. "It's undoubtedly a dungeon. Such structures are appearing all over the world. It's dangerous, but once we conquer it, the royal family tomb will return to its normal state."

"Hold on!" The vizier's voice rang throughout the hall, calling all attention to his faction's entrance. Thalia glowered at the three schemers as they shamelessly approached, showing no more remorse for their crimes than Serendine.

"How deplorable, Narmes!" the queen dowager lamented. "Making lies up about us scheming to poison people and pass it off as a curse… It seems no one is capable of running this country except for my son, Sharrkan! Please bring forth the true king!"

Several guards came forward carrying a child on a palanquin. He sat strangely regally for his age, as though he were putting on a performance. Thalia wondered if everything was as it appeared with this child, or if he was more like she had often been in the palace, playing a part to survive.

The spiteful woman continued. "Narmes, how dare you insult us by denying Lord Sharrkan his legitimate claim to the throne! You're an embarrassment of a consul."

The only thing embarrassing here was this plot to take the throne. How dare Patra insult Narmes? He had been nothing but a gentleman to Thalia and her friends.

Thalia spoke up in his defense. "Forgive my forwardness, Lady Patra, but at his age, your son will need an advisor to guide him in his decisions. Could it be that you intend to fill that role…?"

"What are you implying?" The queen dowager feigned offense, narrowing her eyes.

"I'm only thinking that whoever acts as this child's advisor will have an inordinate amount of power. I don't mean to imply any wrongdoing."

Of course she meant to imply wrongdoing.

Narmes came out and directly said what Thalia had been intimating. "You're taking advantage of the fact that we can't enter the royal tomb for our formal investiture and aiming to take control of the throne, aren't you?" 

The vizier sneered, raising his chin contemptuously. "Hmmph. With such uncertainty surrounding the throne, you sure seem to think you know everything. That's only further proof that our Lord Sharrkan is meant to inherit the throne."

"Gafra!" Pushed to his limit, Narmes began to lunge at the deceased king's faction. Only King Armakan's outstretched hand stopped him. Convinced she had come close to witnessing a physical altercation, Thalia took a frightened step backward. Sinbad's hand, which remained around her wrist, squeezed as if to issue a reminder that he had promised to protect her.

Armakan remained unruffled, speaking regally. "I am the 36th king of Heliohapt. No matter what schemes you put in place, I will not waiver."

"Shut up, false king Armakan!" This speaker was the child on the palanquin. He looked down at the people around him contemptuously. "I am the one who should be seated on the throne. I was entrusted with the will of the former king, and as the one with the most direct line of succession, I am the one who should inherit the crown."

He was undoubtedly more composed than Thalia had been at his age. She would have been a trembling mess at the prospect of ruling a country. She still was.

"Besides," the child continued. "I saw it. The name carved into Father's sarcophagus was my own."

He explained that the stonemason that had carved his name had come to him to plead for his life. It was a clever story, but Thalia refused to buy it so quickly. This faction was filled with murderers and schemers. This poor child had probably been told what to say ahead of time.

Refusing to be outwitted, Thalia resolved to play their game by their own rules. "Even so, with the circumstances around the funeral rights, all we have is Lord Sharrkan's word. There will always be room for doubt, which can be used to rally opposition. Without the formal investiture, the stability of Lord Sharrkan's reign will be severely jeopardized." Thalia bowed deeply. "Empress consort, I am only thinking of the young lord's safety. Please allow my friends to prove what your son has said here today is true."

Thalia had expected hesitation. If Prince Sharrkan had been told to lie by his retainers, they should have been reluctant to agree. Instead, Patra's expression pulled into a smirk. Could the child be telling the truth?

 It was the vizier who responded. "Very well. We will permit you to return the building to its normal state."

When the late king's faction had left, Narmes turned to her. "Thalia, you don't buy that farce, do you?"

Thalia shook her head. "Of course not. We no longer face any opposition, and once we're done, the interment can proceed as planned." She turned to King Armakan and bowed deeply once again. "I'm sorry for indulging them just now. I suspected them of lying and wanted to pressure them into letting us hold the investiture."

Armakan lifted his hand dismissively. "It's no matter. If you can get rid of that strange structure, we will be greatly indebted to you."

Sinbad wrapped his arm around her waist, pulling her against his warm, hard body. "That was amazing, Thalia," he raved. "This is why I keep you around."

Blood rushed once again to Thalia's face, her heart swelling with pride at being praised by someone as great as Sinbad. She wasn't useless. For the first time on this trip, she believed she wasn't entirely unnecessary. She looked to Narmes, wanting to share with him this moment of happiness. His eyes were focused on her and Sinbad, one eyebrow raised quizzically. It was then Thalia realized how this embrace must look to him, and she quickly untangled herself from her best friend, not wanting Narmes to misunderstand.

"Come on, everyone." Sinbad turned to the rest of their friends, raising an encouraging fist. "We have a lot of preparations to take care of before entering the dungeon."

Thalia knew from Sinbad's stories that dungeons were dangerous. She wasn't silly enough to believe Sinbad's "everyone" had included her, so she stood unobtrusively to the side as Sinbad doled out responsibilities. When he got to her, she expected him to tell her to wait for him at the hotel. Instead, he said, "No matter what happens in there, stay close to me."

"Huh?"

Ja'far scowled. "Sin, she's not coming. She'll get us killed."

Thalia nodded, positioning herself next to the wise twelve-year-old. "I would just get in the way. I can just wait for you to get back from here, and it will be safer for everyone."

From behind her, the others made noises of agreement.

Sinbad's golden eyes, so bright with determination and excitement moments ago, darkened.

"Sin, she can't fight. She's a liability in a place like that, just like she was in the desert." Ja'far narrowed his eyes at her accusatorially, as if Sinbad's sudden lack of judgment was her fault.

Thalia anxiously stepped toward Sinbad. "I like spending time with you too, but this is serious. Someone could get hurt because of me."

"We'll all just fight harder to protect you, right everyone?" His prompt was met with mostly grumbles.

"Sin, can I talk to you alone?" Grabbing his arm, she dragged him to the far corner of the room. When she turned back to face him, she suddenly became aware of how very small she was compared to him, her eye level set firmly at his collarbone. Fighting back the urge to let his height intimidate her, she frowned up at him. He was Sinbad. She could talk to him about almost anything.

"You can be pigheaded, but you're not stupid. What's going on?"

Sinbad sighed, scratching the back of his head. "Look, you're safer with me in that dungeon than you'll ever be here. The former king's faction is killing people. What if they murder you next? Dungeon time doesn't work like normal time. It could be months before we get back. Who would protect you?"

Thalia clasped her hands behind her back innocently. "What about Narmes? He seems pretty dependable."

Sinbad's eyes narrowed. "You two seemed awfully close today. Is he the one you went on a date with?"

Heat rose once again to Thalia's face. "I hardly see how that's relevant to the situation at hand."

His eyes darkened again.

"No. You're definitely coming with me," he commanded. "Bringing you here was my idea. I have to take responsibility for protecting you. I won't leave your safety in the hands of someone you just met."

"Sin!" she called out after him as he returned to the rest of their group.

"Thalia is coming," he announced. "There's no other option."

He gave each of them a look as though he were daring them to argue. No one did. Thalia responded to their annoyed glares by smiling apologetically.

"I also have something I would like to talk to you about," a small voice said, grabbing their attention. Before Thalia and her friends stood Prince Sharrkan, his eyes cast humbly to the ground. It was a marked contrast to the persona he'd displayed earlier. "I'm grateful to you foreigners. Thanks to you, I was able to divert Mother's and Gafra's attention. In this palace, I'm always supervised by the two of them, so my ability to take action is limited, and my views are unable to be expressed freely."

He looked at Thalia, "As you suspected, my mother and Gafra cannot control my brother, so they seek to place me on the throne instead. What I said before about my name being in the sarcophagus and the mason being beheaded was a lie."

Serendine spoke, her voice grating on Thalia's nerves. "I thought it was strange. Why did you tell such a lie?"

"Because if I didn't, Mother and Gafra would never have let you near that mysterious structure."

Thalia smiled at the child's quick wit. 

"It may be a mistake, asking foreign strangers for help, but please get rid of that 'dungeon.'"

"Prince Sharrkan," Ja'far addressed him worriedly. "Of course we intend to do so, but there's one thing… if your name isn't inscribed on that sarcophagus, it puts you in a tough situation, doesn't it?"

The boy lowered his eyes. "I know. I don't care if I'm hated… as long as I can return Heliohapt to the way it should be… that's my responsibility as a royal."

"Even if you're hated…" Serendine repeated his words wistfully. "Yes, that is the duty of a royal, is it not? To protect her country, no matter the cost… even if she wants something else."

The words stung Thalia, who had failed her country so spectacularly she had been the cause of its downfall. If she had been willing to make sacrifices the way this child and Serendine did, maybe… 

She bent down to his eye-level, blinking back tears. "If I had half your sensibility at your age, my country would have been a lot better off. Heliohapt is lucky to have a thoughtful prince like you. We'll take care of the dungeon."

Sinbad leaned on her, eliciting a scowl from his brooding armrest. "Yeah. Leave it to us."

The child let a surprised laugh escape his lips. "Thank you, foreigners. You are quite interesting."

Chapter Text

 

 

The dungeon was outside the city walls, which meant that, once again, Thalia was forced to tromp through the desert’s shifting sands to reach a destination. She grumbled under her breath with every exaggerated step, cursing nature and man alike. Nature had formed these wretched dunes, and man had made the decision to build the damn tomb out here.

When the mysterious structure came into view, Thalia let out a cry of despair. The entrance towered above them, near the top of the obelisk-like structure. To get there, they would have to climb even more steps than they’d needed to enter the palace. As queen of Attica, Thalia decided her first act would be to abolish staircases. If she ever saw another stair again, it would be too soon.

“That’s it,” she muttered. “I’m already defeated. I can’t do this.”

“Of course you can!” Mystras cheered. “Look at Sin! He was the same way when we went to Artemyra. Actually, I think you’re doing better than he did. He tried to get Hinahoho to carry—”

“Mystras!” Sinbad flew over to the knight, putting him in a headlock and whispering conspiratorially. 

When the two emerged from there huddle, Mystras scratched the back of his turban guiltily. “What I meant to say is that Sinbad was stoic and reserved the whole way there, a true vision of manliness. It was amazing to watch.”

Sinbad stood with his arms crossed, nodding approvingly at Mystras’s revised story. Thalia couldn’t help but giggle. Clearly, the first version of the narrative was the correct one, but she supposed it was flattering Sinbad was so invested in her opinion of him.

Narmes, who was further ahead dutifully escorting King Armakan, turned around and faced Thalia, his lips pulled into a deep frown. He marched toward her, showing no sign that walking on the unstable sand bothered him. As soon as he was close enough, his hand reached out and gripped her arm a little too tightly, emerald eyes set anxiously upon her. “Thalia, may I speak with you?”

“Is something wrong?”

His head swiveled around, taking note of her nosy friends. They had all stopped to stare, various degrees of curiosity written on their faces.

“I’d rather speak in private if that’s okay with you.”

“Of course.” She allowed him to guide her out of earshot, attempting not to wince at his overly-firm grip. He was scared, that much was obvious. She wondered if that was his reason for pulling her aside like this.

When they were far enough away from the other’s, he released her, scratching the back of his neck. “Admittedly, we’ve only been on one date, and I don’t know you that well,” he began, taking her delicate hand in his own. He studied it for a moment, stroking it with his thumb, turning it to view the palm. Thalia wondered what it was he was hoping to find. “I’m worried that you don’t seem to be much of a warrior.”

It struck Thalia that he was looking for scars, calluses, anything that might show she was experienced in battle. He was afraid for her safety.

With her free hand, Thalia shyly wrapped her fingers around Narmes’s own. His were strong, slender, and, like Sinbad’s, they were thick but well-maintained. She believed that if she were to remain here, those hands would keep her safe. Yet, there had been a time when she’d have made the same assertion about Marcus. The reality was, Sinbad was right. She didn’t really know Narmes, and with her friends gone, there would be no one to protect her. Thalia knew as well as anyone how people changed when they believed her to be defenseless. 

She took a small step back, removing herself from his grip and returning her palms to her side.

“I’ll be fine,” she assured him. “My friends are really dependable. Sin told you, didn’t he? He’s already conquered two dungeons. I’m sure he wouldn’t bring me along if he couldn’t keep me safe.”

In truth, she was terrified, but she wanted to believe that if Sinbad said it was okay, it was. He’d seen her at her weakest and still shown her kindness. He wanted her to grow, to become stronger. He’d never tried to hold her back.

Maybe the guy standing in front of her was the same, but one date wasn’t enough to put herself in his hands.

Narmes’s eyes wandered behind her to her friends. Thalia followed his gaze and winced. Once she and Narmes had left earshot, the others hadn’t gone back to minding their own business. They were still staring. They had seen Thalia hold Narmes’s hand. When she returned, she would have to brace herself for endless mocking.

“You really trust that guy, huh?” 

Thalia realized Narmes’s eyes were locked on Sinbad. Was he jealous?

“I trust all of my friends,” she corrected him, attempting to ease his insecurity. She’d chosen to go on a date with him, not Sinbad. In fact, the very idea that Sinbad was a romantic threat was preposterous. How could she ever love Sinbad? He was her best friend.

Narmes gave her a defeated smile. “Come back, okay?”

“I promise.”

As she returned to her friends’ sides, she cast one glance back. He gave her a weak smile and turned, heading back to his king.

“Thalia?” Mystras had his arms crossed and his eyes narrowed. “What just happened back there? You held that guy’s hand!”

“That’s my girl!” Hinahoho patted her on the back, a proud grin stretching across his face. “It’s good to see you expanding your horizons.”

“No!” Mystras stomped his foot into the sand. “It’s not. You’re a traitor to love, Thalia. A traitor!”

“Weren’t you the one who dragged Sinbad to the brothel several days ago?” Ja’far asked warily. “I don’t see how you can be upset with Thalia. Frankly, if it means she and Sinbad finally start giving each other some space, I’m glad to see her with someone else.”

“You support this?!” Mystras blanched.

“Right,” Hinahoho chuckled. “I told you she wasn’t ready, Mystras.”

Thalia furrowed her eyebrows. “What’s going on? What am I not ready for?”

Sinbad’s hand landed in her hair, ruffling it gently. “Don’t worry about it. I’m sure it’s nothing.”

Mystras clasped his hands behind his back. “Yeah, it’s nothing.”

Narrowing her eyes, Thalia leaned in. Had Mystras and Hinahoho been talking about her when she wasn’t around?

 “It sounds like something .”

“I just said it’s nothing!

From behind her, Thalia heard the sound of Hinahoho’s laughter. Sinbad sighed and nudged her toward the dungeon entrance. 

“Fight it out while we’re walking. Come on, guys.”

Together, Thalia, Sinbad, Hinahoho, Drakon, Masrur, Ja’far, Serendine, and her two maids began their ascent to the dungeon.

 When Thalia imagined a dungeon, she thought of strange monsters, exotic plants, and whimsical architecture. In that regard, her first impression of the dungeon was thoroughly disappointing. From the inside, it appeared to be an ordinary building. Stone lions spit streams of water out of crumbling walls into a pool that lined the room. Straight ahead, a set of closed double doors awaited.

Thalia assumed the real danger would begin once they passed through. Hugging herself protectively, she suppressed a shiver. A part of her wanted to turn back, remembering her adventures so far had led to her becoming enslaved and witnessing the wholesale slaughter of bandits, but it was too late. She would either die here, or her friends would conquer this dungeon. She had to put her faith in Sinbad. He’d already conquered two dungeons, so this should be easy.

Serendine stepped forward, her hand on the hilt of her sword. “From here on out, we’ll need to be careful.”

Thalia scowled. Serendine’s suggestion was perfectly reasonable, yet the very fact that it had come from her mouth made Thalia want to be as reckless as possible. She glanced at Sinbad, waiting for his orders. He was the one Thalia was following, and he was the only one she would listen to.

Drawing his sword, Sinbad approached the door and grinned back at them mischievously. “It’ll be faster just to cut through to the treasury.” A sigil glowed on his weapon, bathing him in light. It was so bright, Thalia had to squeeze her eyes shut. When she opened them again, her friend’s hair was cyan instead of purple, and… 

“You have a tail!” she cried, pointing to the reptilian protrusion.

“This is your first time seeing something like this, right, Thalia?” Sinbad asked. 

He turned around and gave her a playful wink. That might have been enough to throw her off balance in itself, but…

How could battle armor show so much skin? From behind, she hadn’t noticed, but from the front, his chest and abdomen were on display. The fluttering stirred again, sudden and disarming.  Thalia stumbled backward into Ja’far. 

“Watch it!” he mumbled, pushing her off him.

She apologized, scolding herself for allowing Sinbad to catch her off-guard. She was going to have to be more careful from now on. 

Straightening her back, Thalia tried to appear composed, as though the sight of her best friend hadn’t just sent her reeling. Sinbad’s eyebrows shot up, but he made no comment. Instead, he turned back around, raising his sword and beginning a chant.

“Bararaq sai—!”

 The floor suddenly dropped out from under Thalia’s feet, and she landed hard on the ground. The impact was so sudden, it knocked the breath out of her lungs. Pushing herself up, Thalia whipped her head around. What had just happened? Where was she now? She glanced at Serendine to her left, who was rubbing her back tenderly. She looked up and made eye contact with Thalia.

“Are you okay?”

Quickly, Thalia pursed her lips, issuing a reluctant grunt before averting her eyes. In front of her, Sinbad brushed off his clothes, apparently having released his djinn equip. Ja’far was cradling his head in one hand behind her. Mystras lay flat on his back, and Hinahoho and Drakon were already standing back up. 

With all her friends accounted for, Thalia dared to look around. The surface they had landed on was flat, metallic like gold. It may have even been gold. It dropped off sharply at the sides, plunging into clear water. Stained glass windows ran along the walls, keeping the room well illuminated. Under an arched ceiling was the focal point of the room, a towering pillar with blue gargoyle perched at the top.

“Where are we?” Sinbad asked, scratching his head.

“This is the treasury,” a voice replied. It came from the direction of the statue. “I’m rather attached to this dungeon. I’d prefer you not destroy it, so I bought you here. I am the djinn of spirit and puppetry, Zepar.”

That was when Thalia realized the blue goblin was no statue. It was the djinn. The djinn was talking.

Thalia brought a hand to her head, taking a deep breath. Djinn existed. She understood that. After all, she had witnessed their power for herself when Sinbad showed her his metal vessels. Even with that knowledge, Thalia had never believed . This strange creature challenged her entire worldview. She gazed at the djinn with apprehension. Having reality called into question was… unsettling.

She stood up, assuming her place behind Sinbad. The others gathered around him as well.

The creature sat casually with his goat legs crossed, his tail flicking about casually. Thalia couldn’t help but think he resembled a goblin of some sort. 

Smiling down at them, Zepar continued. “Welcome, humans.” When his eyes locked on Sinbad, he stretched his wings, swooping down to get a closer look. “You’re unusual, aren’t you? I see you’ve brought several djinns with you… just like that king.”

Thalia furrowed her eyebrows. Was there another king who had multiple djinn? As far as she knew, Sinbad’s accomplishment of capturing two dungeons was unprecedented.

“But instead of that king… you’re more like…” The djinn’s expression darkened. “No, nevermind.”

Ja’far took a step forward. “Um… this is the end of the dungeon, right?”

“Right, but it seems that one of you has already decided to be king. Even so, Sinbad, you possess a rare type of magic power. As you already possess numerous household vessels, you are undoubtedly the king vessel. However, it’s not your strength I’ll be testing.” Casting a cocky grin, the djinn pointed a taloned claw behind him. “As a king, how well do you think your allies will obey you?”

That was it? Thalia just had to obey Sinbad’s orders? Suppressing a laugh, Thalia relaxed. That tyrant had her run errands all the time. She’d followed him to the dark continent, crossed a desert for him— even followed him into a dungeon. What else could this djinn throw at her?

“So, the requirement of this test is that everyone passes, right?” Sinbad asked the djinn. He turned his attention to his followers. “Then what’s there to worry about? I believe in the strength of every one of you. We’ve made it this far fighting together because you guys are my friends and allies.” 

He locked eyes with her, and something inside Thalia melted. Yes, she could do this. She could do anything.

“First up, I’ll have your fellow allies fight each other here.”

… except that.

All eyes turned to her. “This is bad. Thalia really can’t fight,” Mystras whispered.

She supposed she shouldn’t be surprised that there would be fighting in a dungeon, but against her friends? She’d have a better chance against monsters. Once again, she felt like a kitten among lions.

Thalia timidly met Sinbad’s encouraging gaze, and her worries were put to rest. He believed in her. She could do this. She resolved she would do whatever it took not to hold him back. 

“You’re right, but I’ll give it my all anyway,” she announced more confidently than she felt.

“I haven’t even decided on the pairings yet!” Zepar complained. He pointed to Mystras and Hinahoho. “You two seem suited to fight each other.”

The two warriors agreed readily, dismissing Ja’far’s objections to their height difference. When they entered the ring, they fought valiantly, giving it their all until, both too exhausted to continue, the fight ended in a draw.

Zepar frowned, looking down at the two unconscious warriors. “That ending was a bit boring. A fight should be something a bit more desperate, a bit more of a life and death situation. At least, that’s what I’d like to see. Let’s make it a bit more serious this time.”

Zepar pointed at Ja’far and Masrur, his lips pulled into a gleeful smile. “Next will be a fight to the death. You two will fight until one of you manages to kill the other.” 


 

Ja’far was not a fan of the unpredictable and never had been. He liked routine. He liked order.

He did not like this djinn. Zepar wasn’t playing by any set of rules— at least, not any that Ja’far could make out. If Zepar was testing the strength of Sinbad’s allies, this was a strange way to do it.

“What do you mean ‘to the death?’” Thalia exclaimed. Ja’far watched her tense up in the corner of his eye. Admittedly, he didn’t trust her. Since she’d come around, Sinbad had been distracted. It seemed like they were always together, and when they weren’t, Sinbad seemed on edge. It was like she’d cast some sort of spell over him, like he couldn’t bear to be apart. It was sickening. Sinbad had even put everyone in danger by bringing her to the dark continent and then into the dungeon. That was another thing Ja’far didn’t like. 

“What the hell…?” 

At least Sinbad still had the capacity to understand the severity of the situation they were in.

Ja’far turned his head back to the djinn. “I’m going to have to refuse. You said you wanted to test our strength, so there should be no need for a fight to the death.”

Zepar let out a large sigh. “You just don’t get it, do you?” His large eyes held neither contempt nor pity. They were nothing if not business-like. “In a dungeon, the rules of a djinn are absolute. If I tell you to kill, you kill.”

“Wait!” Thalia shouted, pushing her way to the front. “We’ve all chosen to follow Sinbad, not you. We’ve chosen to follow him because he’d never carelessly ask us to lay down our lives for something as trivial as a test.” 

Ja’far raised his eyebrows. He couldn’t remember another time when she’d stood up for someone like this. 

Zepar’s turned his attention to her, his lips twitching upward. “Thalia Alexandris… I’m surprised. For someone who daydreams about nothing but violence, isn’t this pacifism a bit hypocritical?” Leaning forward, he lowered his voice tauntingly. “You see it every time you look at her, don’t you? Blood. The blood of your family, your people… she’s stained with it. I could give you a chance to avenge them later. How would you like to go next?” 

Thalia collapsed to her knees, clearly shaken, and Ja’far glanced back to Serendine, who was paler than usual. Zepar was almost certainly referring to her, but of course, he must be speaking metaphorically. Thalia and Serendine were civil to each other at the company, but it was obvious they avoided each other. Everyone knew it was because Serendine’s country had conquered Thalia’s. Ja’far doubted Thalia had it in her to kill anyway. He needed to change Zepar’s mind before he pitted poor, defenseless Thalia against anyone.

Ja’far wasn’t particularly fond of her, but he didn’t dislike her either. He certainly didn’t want her to die.

“No one’s fighting anyone to death,” Ja’far repeated.

Zepar turned his three eyes back to Ja’far, and something about his gaze felt invasive. Ja’far suppressed a shiver.

“I know all about you too, Sham Lash Chief Assassin, Ja’far.”

Ja’far winced at the mention of his former title. 

“You actually enjoyed killing, didn’t you? Tormenting, hurting, killing… you only really felt alive when you were out for blood, didn’t you?”

Images of the people Ja’far had killed flashed into his mind. Women, children, men— it hadn’t mattered. He’d murdered hundreds of innocent people, and the thrill… he didn’t miss it, but he remembered it. Shame rose in the pit of his stomach like bile.

The djinn cracked a smile incongruent with his words. “If it’s in your nature, what right do you have to refuse my request? You liked it, didn’t you? Killing?”

Ja’far hung his head. “I didn’t.”

It was all he’d known. He much preferred his current life to the hell he’d escaped.

“I don’t believe you, murderer.”

Something in Ja’far snapped. He pulled out his darts, ready to take his chances against a djinn. Before he could move, though, Masrur cut Zepar’s head off with a swipe of his sword. Zepar disappeared into a puff of smoke, leaving nothing in his wake.

The Fanalis child turned and looked Ja’far in the eye. “I’m not a slave anymore. No one can order me to fight to the death again.”

“You kids really don’t listen to what you’re told.” The smoke gathered back into a dense cloud, forming the djinn once more. “As long as you’re in a dungeon, a djinn is invincible. Not a single one of your attacks will work.”

Ja’far glared defiantly at the djinn. He wasn’t going to hurt Masrur. They could die here for all he cared.

Zepar scowled. “Fine. If you’re so set against defying my orders…” With one of his talons, he sent forth a bolt of light, striking Masrur. Ja’far called out to him, but he made no response. As the djinn slumped forward, eyes drifting shut, Masrur dropped his sword.

“Masrur?”

As a former assassin, Ja’far knew how to sense a murderous aura, and the one emanating from his friend was strong. Masrur’s hand curled into a fist, and he grinned up at Ja’far with a sneer. Something was wrong with his eyes. They had a vacant look, as though it wasn’t really Masrur looking through them. Kicking off the ground, the Fanalis child shot into the air. He ricocheted off the walls and came crashing down, barely missing Ja’far. His landing tore a massive rift in the golden platform, plowing through to the bottom.

Ja’far rushed to the edge, looking for his friend in the pit. “Masrur?”

Masrur’s striped headband came fluttering down, and Ja’far caught it. 

Down below, Masrur inspected his own hands, cackling gleefully. “So this is the power of one of the ancient red lions, huh? It much surpasses that of a human!”

A cold sweat formed on Ja’far’s neck. Something about the way he was talking… it reminded him more of Zepar. What was going on?

“This way we can have an interesting deathmatch, what do you say?”

Zepar took off in a sprint using Masrur’s small but powerful body. It was fast too. In a blink, Ja’far had lost him.

“Haha! Over here!”

Ja’far swiveled his head around and caught sight of a head of red hair on the other side of the massive room. Uncharacteristically, Masrur hopped around. It was as though it was his first time in his own body. In one tremendous leap, he landed behind Ja’far, cracking the platform beneath him. It was strange.

 It was as though… 

“It might be difficult to adjust to all this power, huh?”

That’s not Masrur.

“I don’t know what kind of power this is, but that’s you in there, isn’t it, Zepar?”

Masrur smiled ominously. “Heh. Bingo. I can meddle with people’s minds. I fiddled with the kid’s head a bit. His consciousness is asleep right now. This way, we can fight without any interruptions.” His hand shot out in invitation. “Let’s get started. A fight to the death.”

Ja’far nodded. He would have to immobilize Zepar as soon as possible. He couldn’t survive one of Masrur’s attacks, but if he managed to zap him with Bararak Sei, it should finish the fight.

“Ready?” Zepar shouted. “Let’s get going!”

With the reflexes of a snake, Ja’far struck out, sending his wires to constrain his friend. “Bararak Sei!”

An electric current ripped through the cords, wrapping themselves around… nothing? Sensing a presence behind him, Ja’far whipped around, throwing up his arm just in time to block a powerful kick. Luckily, it only grazed Ja’far’s arm, or the damage could have shattered his bone. 

Zepar whirred past him repeatedly, whipping the air up into such a frenzy it created shock waves, cutting into Ja’far’s skin. When the attacks died down, Ja’far slumped forward, cradling his injured arm.

“Hm.” Zepar inspected Masrur’s hands. “I can’t control this body very well yet. Oh well, as long as I can move it, I should be able to eliminate you!”

Ja’far shuddered, his heart pounding in his chest. Why did it feel like he was facing something overwhelmingly beyond human? There was no way Ja’far could win this fight. If he did, he would die. Everything in him was screaming to flee.

Zepar came at him again, and Ja’far did everything in his power to fend him off. His wires flailed like whips, thrashing around wildly in an attempt to land a hit on Zepar. He narrowly dodged attack after attack— from behind, from the side, from the other side. His body was quickly wearing out, his legs trembling under his own weight. He couldn’t keep this up. He needed to do something— anything.

Zepar paused once again to gloat. “Haha! Awesome! You’re barely standing by now, huh? I don’t have a scratch on me!”

Damn it! Ja’far panted, his cuts burning and his arm throbbing. Zepar was right. There was no way Ja’far could win… unless. Of course! Why hadn’t he noticed sooner? So far, Zepar had done nothing but charge straight at him. If he couldn’t dodge, all Ja’far had to do was set a trap.

Sending his wires into the ground, he waited for Zepar to resume his attacks. When Zepar charged forward, they broke free, wrapping themselves around  Masrur’s body. Ja’far sent an electrical current through them, effectively trapping Zepar.

“What?”

Ja’far allowed a victorious smirk to cross his face. “No matter how strong you are, you can’t break a metal vessel, can you?”

Masrur’s body squirmed, his mouth falling open.

“To a djinn like you, humans are lesser beings. The moment you got worked up by provocation was the moment that you sealed your defeat.” Ja’far increased the intensity of the power he sent through the metal vessel, screaming at the top of his lungs. “Now, get out of Masrur! Bararak Sei!”

Zepar writhed in his chains, screaming and bucking until finally, it stopped. Ja’far lowered Masrur’s unconscious body to the ground gently, kneeling over him.

In the end, I had no choice but to be harsh with him.

“Ow…”

When Masrur opened his eyes, Ja’far’s heart leaped. He was okay. He was going to be fine.

“Masrur! You’re awake!”

“Heh, that sure surprised me!” The boy lifted his head. “You almost knocked me out cold!”

Scowling, Ja’far took a closer look into his friend’s eyes. They still had that vacant look. It was still Zepar.

“Don’t make that face.” Zepar let out a small laugh. “I’ll leave Masrur’s body as soon as the match is decided.”

“Decided?” Ja’far screamed. “Isn’t it already decided?” Masrur couldn’t move. What chance could he possibly have?

“I said before, didn’t I? Zepar reached up and grabbed one of Ja’far’s darts, pointing them to his own chest. “The match is over when someone dies. Go on, kill him. You only pass if one of you dies.”

Ja’far looked into Masrur’s… no, Zepar’s eyes… and all he could see was his friend. He had to do something and fast. If one of them didn’t die, they would all be stuck here.

Then, Ja’far remembered a technique from his Sham Lash days. If he did this right, he could save everyone. If not, he would die. There was only one way to be sure.

He stood up, leaving Masrur’s body on the ground. “The requirement is that one of us dies, right? Then, it doesn’t matter which of us dies?”

Turning to Sinbad, he gave a reassuring smile. “Sin, I’ll leave the rest to you.”

Plunging a knife into his chest, Ja’far closed his eyes and collapsed.

…….

“Ja’far! Ja’far, wake up!”

Is that Thalia being so noisy?

“Junior, do something!”

So annoying…  

.

“Ja’far!”

She really cares, huh?

Chapter Text

Thalia's stomach churned violently at the sight of Ja'far's lifeless body. He carried himself with such dignity and maturity, it was easy to forget he was a child, but seeing him limp and frail in Drakon's large hands was a brutal reminder. He was so small, and Thalia should have protected him. She should have been stronger. She should have done something. 

Sinbad hovered anxiously over Drakon as he listened for breathing.

"Ja'far. Hold on, Ja'far." Sinbad slumped forward, reaching out tentatively as though he were afraid of hurting the injured child further.

"Sinbad…" Drakon's voice shook. "It's no good. He's already…"

Dropping to her knees, Thalia choked out a strangled sob. Why had things turned out this way? It was supposed to be easy. They were supposed to all come back together. 

Laughter rang out in the room, bouncing off the walls. "Good job, Ja'far! That's it! That's exactly how a loyal subject should act." Thalia had almost forgotten about Zepar in Masrur's body. She choked out another sob. She was powerless to protect Masrur too. "I just wanted to see how much pain you'd be willing to go through for your king. You pass."

Masrur's body fainted as the djinn's eyes reopened. "The fight is over. It was a good match, huh?"

"... A good match?" Sinbad's voice was strained. Thalia had never seen him lose his temper, but right now, he was dangerously close.

"Yeah!" Zepar tilted his head, an innocent smile upon his face. "The first two were able to surpass the limits of their own strength, and the second two showed their willingness to offer up their lives for their master. I couldn't have asked for better results. You've got yourself some excellent subordinates."

"Quit fucking around." In a flash of light, Sinbad equipped Baal, pointing his sword toward Zepar. Her best friend was about to fight a djinn, and he would win. The air around him seemed to crackle with energy. Thalia rose to her feet, the tears no longer streaming down her face. Zepar would pay. Sinbad would make him pay.

"What do you think you're doing?" the djinn asked in a low voice. 

"We're not your playthings," Sinbad snapped. "Can you lay down your life for your king? How much pain are you willing to go through for your king? If those are the things that make someone a loyal subject, I want nothing to do with them. I'll take it all upon myself! The pain, suffering… Whether it means putting my life at risk, my friends are everything!"

 "Sinbad!" she shouted. "You're not taking on anything alone." Suffering and pain? She would do everything within her power to make sure he never felt any of that again. He was her savior. Every breath she took as a free woman belonged to him. Turning to Zepar, she drew herself upright, trying to seem braver than she actually was. "Sinbad has earned all of our trust through his sincerity, but you? Playing around with the lives of children? You're pathetic."

Zepar scoffed. "What are you going to do, little princess? Fight me? It's pointless. Inside a dungeon, a djinn is..."

"Invincible, right?" Sinbad looked so small compared to the towering djinn, but he held himself with confidence. "But what about against another djinn. Are you sure you'd come away from Baal's attack unscathed?"

"Geez..."

Thalia blinked back a fresh wave of tears. Now she was hallucinating Ja'far's voice. Was this Zepar meddling with her head? 

"I said I'd leave things to you, and here you are throwing all my sacrifice away." Jafar sat up and spit blood.

"Ja'far?" Thalia's suppressed a joyous giggle, too elated to hold back. Drakon had been wrong. He was alive. She wanted to run to him, scoop him into her arms, and hug him until he threatened to fire her. Instead, she grinned and waved at him. Ja'far locked eyes with her briefly before looking away guiltily. 

"That's impossible!" Drakon exclaimed. "Your heart had stopped! I confirmed it with my own hands!"

"It's simple," Ja'far replied. "I only appeared to be dead. I opened a small hole in my chest that drastically lowered my heart rate for a few minutes." He turned to Zepar. "I was dead, so your conditions were met. You can't go back on your word now."

Sinbad dropped his djinn equip, his face crumpling with relief. Around her, her exhausted friends began to wake. Why had Thalia ever doubted that things would turn out well?

"What the hell is this?" the djinn growled. "I won't accept this. I won't acknowledge you as king! You'll spend the rest of your lives here in this dungeon."

Thalia grimaced. The last thing she wanted to do was starve to death in the same room as Serendine, but she doubted it would come to that. Sinbad always had a plan.

"Fine with me," Sinbad said.

"We were only here as a favor to Heliohapt anyway." Ja'far agreed.

Pointing his sword at Zepar, Sinbad shouted, "We'll force our way through!"

One by one, Sinbad's allies agreed to fight by his side. Even Thalia resolved to contribute to the effort in any way she could. Soon, the only person left was Serendine.

"Wait, Sinbad!" Serendine placed her hand upon her chest, poising herself pridefully. "Forgive our rudeness. Let's carry on with the trials."

Zepar crossed his arms petulantly.

"I refuse. I expect more from a King Vessel than what Sinbad has shown me."

"Um…!" One of Serendine's maids spoke up. "What if Serendine were to be your king vessel? Out of all the people here, she is the one who wants power more than anyone else! If she had more power, she could definitely take back the country she lost!"

Thalia scowled. Serendine had deserved to lose her country for what she did. If anyone deserved to take back her kingdom, it was Thalia. But, of course, Attican women didn't fight. Thalia kept her mouth shut, glowering at the princess in front of her.

"Fine." Zepar grinned. "There are two king vessels, so naturally you'll be the ones to compete. This fight is a showdown between your ideologies. In other words, a battle of the heart."

The first question was simple enough. 

"How do you intend to use your metal vessels?"

Sinbad answered first. "That's easy. I would use the power of the metal vessel to change the world. For that purpose, I have made efforts to create alliances with other countries and continue to advance my goal of creating my own country."

Thalia nodded proudly. He had a practical, concrete solution to an abstract problem.

He continued. "If the world is filled with injustice, I will create a perfect world free of conflict, where we can accept one another as we are. My intention hasn't changed since the moment I gained Baal's power!"

Quietly, Thalia clapped, her heart fluttering in her chest. Every time he talked about his dream, she wanted to make it happen with more fervor. Sinbad was amazing. How Zepar didn't see that Thalia couldn't fathom.

Serendine answered next. "I empathize with Sinbad's ideals. I have no desire to stand in his way, but…" She turned her gaze to Sinbad. "Your ideals are just a bunch of pretty words. There's no substance to them. Just what is this perfect world you keep going on about? Is it a world without poverty, a world without war, or a world without countries and discrimination? You can't even put it into words. Isn't the image of a perfect world you present too vague?"

"That's not true," Sinbad raised a hand to his chest defensively. "I've made many friends and formed alliances with those who agree with my ideals."

"That just makes it seem even more disingenuous!" Serendine shot back. "There's no one in this world who hasn't faced any injustice! Everyone wishes they could change something about the world! That's why everyone agrees with your desire to change things!"

Thalia wanted to yell back at Serendine. She wanted to prove her wrong with a few sharp words, but the truth was, Serendine was right. To create a world without suffering, Sinbad would need to identify specific issues to tackle them, but that didn't mean it couldn't be done. If anyone could do such a thing, it was Sinbad. He needed to put more thought into this, but Thalia could help him.

Serendine wound her way to her point: "I would use the metal vessel for my country and my country only."

Pursing her lips, Thalia narrowed her eyes. If Serendine intended to use her metal vessel for Parthevia, it would make her own mission of taking her country back nearly impossible. Sinbad needed to win this, if only to keep Serendine from acquiring that kind of power.

Sinbad stepped forward. "For your country? That wouldn't change anything then, would it? Are you saying it's enough to make your own country happy? That's just how Parthevia was back then, isn't it?

Bowing her head, Serendine cast her gaze to the ground. "I won't deny that."

"Then, why?"

"Sinbad." Serendine took a deep breath. "There's more to changing the world that using all your power against it. You wish to found a country as a means of changing the world, don't you? Because you think as the leader of a country, you'll be able to negotiate with other countries and influence their actions?"

Sinbad nodded. "That's right."

"If that's the case, you don't need a country. Just being a merchant is enough. You managed to eliminate the Mariadel Company and absorbed its resources. In doing so, you acquired all the property, assets, and human resources you could ever need. Money, capital, fame, power, you have it all. Doesn't someone like that already have the power to greatly influence the world? Even if you don't found your country, you already have everything you wished for, so why is it you want to build a country?"

"That's obvious." Ja'far stepped forward. "It would be easier to accomplish the things we want to accomplish with a country."

Shaking her head, Serendine scoffed. "In that case, none of you know what a country is. You aren't thinking of it as anything but a vessel for diplomacy! Have you any idea of what it takes to run a country? What about the population? What will you produce? How will things be organized? Will it be a monarchy or a republic? Currently, you're just a company made up of a few hundred people, but a country is different. They won't be your friends and allies that agree with your ideals. They'll be your citizens. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to keep domestic affairs stable and protect the livelihood of your citizens? It's just a matter of fact that foreign policy has to come second hand. As a king, wouldn't your duty be to protect your country and not the world?"

Thalia glanced at Sinbad, who stood frozen, and sighed. Serendine could try to scare him all she wanted, but Thalia knew politics as well. She knew how countries were run, and Serendine was intentionally misleading him.

"A king has advisors and delegates power to people below him. The idea that Sinbad will be so swamped with work that he will not be able to focus on the things important to him is a fallacy. No single man can run a country, but Sinbad has experience managing dozens of people who take care of things he only has surface-level knowledge of already. Business and politics are different skill sets, but in that regard, they're very similar." Sinbad glanced back and met Thalia in the eye, giving her an appreciative smile. "I, for one, think Sinbad has the potential to go down in history as one of the greatest kings to ever live."

"I disagree." Serendine turned from Thalia to Sinbad." Sinbad, you have the wit and resourcefulness to be an overwhelmingly successful leader. However…" Pointing at Sinbad, she shouted, "... it's because of those things that you're not suited to be a king!"

Sinbad stumbled backward. "What do you mean? You just said—"

"Because a king doesn't need to be a leader. If a king holds power, controls all, and commands those around him, doesn't that mean he has exceeded what it means to be king? That would make him a dictator."

Fuming, Thalia clenched her fists. Where was Serendine pulling this dictator bullshit from? They had just established that Sinbad hadn't decided on the form his government would take. There was no basis on which to attack him for his governing style.

"You've seen before how this works, haven't you? When the president of your company was gone, you put your heads together to come up with a solution. At that time, you were without a leader, weren't you?"

Ja'far raised his hands irritably. "Then what's the purpose of a king? Aren't you being contradictory?"

Serendine responded with a cold gaze. "I'm not being contradictory. That's because the role of the king is to be a royal symbol and nothing more."

Thalia chuckled disdainfully "You, Serendine Dikumenowlz Du Parthevia, are just going to sit on the throne and look pretty while you let the noblemen continue to run your country into the ground?"

"That's what you plan to do, is it not?"

Thalia raised her head pridefully. "Of course. The laws of my country don't permit a woman to claim the throne. It's my job to find a king, a leader , to rule Attica wisely. I don't have a choice. "

Serendine's lips turned up sweetly. "But Thalia, you've already found a king like that, haven't you? Or were you exaggerating when you professed your faith in Sinbad earlier."

"I—"Thalia choked on her answer. She hadn't asked Sinbad to marry her because she was unworthy, because he would say no, because she wasn't ready to get married. There were so many reasons, but none of them had anything to do with Sinbad. No, he was perfect.

Serendine turned back to Sinbad. "The most important quality of a king is blood."

This drew Thalia out of her stupor and back on the offense. "Blood? Do you think the peoples you conquered respect your precious bloodline? Or will you admit there's more than one way to assert authority over a country?"

"You're a princess, too," Serendine snapped. "You should know how important blood is to the peaceful transition of power and the stability of a country."

Crossing her arms, Thalia shook her head. "I understand blood can have tremendous sway over the public. But as you mentioned earlier, there are various forms of government, not all of which require a leader to be decided by blood. This should prove that a pedigree is not a requirement for a true leader. Instead, I propose an alternative interpretation of your theory. What makes a king are the people who support him. No matter how far back his family history goes, without the support of the right people, it's only a matter of time before he's overthrown. Is that not what happened to both of our countries? For me, it was the wrong alliances. For you, it was a military coup."

The scale trembled.

"Hold on, hold on, girls!" Zepar swooped down between the two hostile princesses. "Thalia, this is Sinbad's trial, not yours. Sinbad, call off your guard dog, or I won't recognize you as a king vessel."

Chewing her bottom lip, Thalia cast another glance at Sinbad.

"I want to win using my own abilities." He shot her a reassuring smile. "Don't worry about me."

Thalia clenched her fists, reluctantly keeping her mouth shut. He didn't know Serendine like Thalia did. He didn't know what she was capable of or how she would lure him in. She would lure him in and destroy him, just like she'd destroyed Thalia.

 Serendine turned to Sinbad with a thoughtful expression. "Sinbad, don't be so particular about creating your own country. Isn't the company you have enough? You can never truly become king. Despite that, do you insist on wishing for a country with which to change the world?"

Thalia winced as the scale trembled violently but remained even.

Sinbad came back quickly.

"I don't need blood. I'll be the same as my citizens. I'll create a country of traders!"

Remaining impassive, Serendine pressed him. "What will you do about land?"

"If we keep looking, I'm sure we can…"

"Ridiculous!" she shouted. "Sinbad, why did you decide to create your own country? Isn't it because you saw the condition of our homeland? In that case, shouldn't you be trying to save Parthevia?"

Sinbad cast his gaze to the floor. "Parthevia is on the way to recovery…" 

"Don't be so naive. You think Barbarossa is such an honest person?"

At the sound of that name, Thalia's stomach dropped, a wave of nausea overcoming her. General Barbarossa, the other guilty party to her suffering… he was the only one she hated more than Serendine.

Serendine continued. "He was the one spurring on all the wars in the first place! He had all the power! I can't let that man continue to violate my country. Sinbad, help me take back Parthevia! You can become the next figurehead to serve as the pillar supporting Parthevia."

A figurehead for Parthevia?

"Become my husband!"

Wha- what? 

Serendine reached out to him, absolutely radiant. She was beautiful— too beautiful. No one could have resisted her. Even Thalia wanted to reach out and… 

"I can give you what you wish for… I can give you everything you want!"

There was something in her eyes, something more than admiration or adoration. Those eyes had never looked at Thalia that way.

The scale dropped. Sinbad had lost. He had failed, and a marriage proposal had done him in.

"Ridiculous," she muttered. 

"Eh? She won fair and square." Zepar seemed content with the results, smugly reclining in mid-air with his arms folded behind his head.

"Ridiculous!" she repeated. "Sin, how can you take a word she says seriously? Don't you realize who she is by now? What she did?"

"Thalia, this is hard enough on him without you giving him a hard time," Drakon put his hand on her shoulder in an attempt to comfort her, but she jerked away.

"No!" She wasn't going to sit still while this monster took away the last thing she had! 

She marched in Serendine's direction, ready to give her former friend a piece of her mind. Her confrontation was impeded by a barrier of light that shot up around her, blocking her path. As it carried Thalia and her friends out of the dungeon, Thalia pounded her fists against it. It was no use. Serendine was gone.

Turning around to look at her friend, Thalia quickly sobered. Sinbad was slumped forlornly on a giant bag of gold. Why did he look so sad? She was furious with him for losing to her mortal enemy so easily, for even considering a marriage proposal from that woman, but Serendine had offered him everything he'd ever wanted. Sinbad could marry her, a powerful princess, and become king, offered legitimacy by his wife's bloodline. Everything was within his grasp, so why…?

Thalia sat next to Sinbad in silence. She remembered her own political marriage she'd been desperate to escape and thought for a moment that maybe she understood. Then she realized she really didn't. Sinbad wasn't like her. He wasn't a spoiled princess who'd had no choice in his role. This was a dream he had chosen, and he'd spent passion and energy pursuing it for years. Then, Serendine had offered him an opportunity like this, one that required going to war to achieve. His dream had been so close, but he'd have to compromise his integrity to obtain it.

"Sin…"

Slowly, he raised his golden eyes to her face. It wasn’t her stomach that fluttered this time. It was her chest. 

Timidly, she rested her hand on his knee and gave him a weak smile. Now that she had calmed down, she was able to properly take in her surroundings. Tiny glowing birds fluttered past them. Were those the legendary rukh? Beyond a barrier of light and rukh, stars sprinkled out in every direction, glowing debris in a vast sea of nothingness. And before them, bathing them in dull blue light, a giant blue orb sat watching them. It felt sentient to her, as though it were protecting them on their voyage back to their world.

The feeling of something warm wrapping around her fingers startled her. Sinbad had taken the hand on his knee inside his own. Thalia stared at it for a moment, a warm feeling flooding over her. For the first time since the incident with Marcus, she rested her head on his shoulder. Serendine didn't matter. Taking back Attica didn't matter. There was absolutely nothing outside of the two of them that mattered. They were on Ria Venus Island again, under the night sky sharing their dreams in a secret corner.

If the others noticed the two friends' private moment, they never said a word.

Chapter Text

Thud . Thalia's eyes shot open, her body hitting the sandy ground with a jolt. As a pressure released from her hand, she lifted her head from Sinbad's shoulder.

"What happened?" she asked groggily.

Sinbad flicked her in the forehead. "You fell asleep on me. My back is killing me because I couldn't move."

"Sorry." Thalia rubbed the stinging spot between her eyebrows, looking around. Hinahoho and Mystras were scrambling to dig themselves out of a mountain of gold. Masrur was stirring from a nap, and Ja'far slid down from a large sack of treasure.

"Is everyone accounted for?" he asked, his eyes scanning the treasure. A short walk away, Thalia spotted Drakon, Serendine, and her two maids approaching.

"It looks like it," Thalia confirmed begrudgingly. Though she was happy to reunite with Drakon, the rest of his party was another matter entirely.

Ja'far nodded at her with a polite smile, and for the first time since the way to Balbadd, his eyes held no contempt. Thalia grinned back at him, tilting her head curiously. Had something happened in the dungeon? Did he trust her again?

Sinbad stood up and stretched before glancing back down at Thalia. "How does it feel to be one of the few people in the world who've survived a dungeon?"

Hopping up, she joined him at his side. "Pretty amazing. Am I going to be famous like you?"

Nodding, he flashed her a mischievous grin. "I'll write you into my next book as the beauty who tamed a dungeon creature with her siren song." 

She furrowed her eyebrows. "Unless Zepar messed with my memory, that definitely didn't happen."

"But it makes for a good story." He winked conspiratorially, eliciting an exasperated sigh.

"You're back."

Thalia spun around to find the two Heliohaptian factions staring at them incredulously. Beaming, Thalia locked eyes with Narmes and signaled that she was okay. 

Sinbad lifted his hand to his chest in the Heliohaptian salute. "Sorry to keep you waiting, your majesty. We've conquered the dungeon and returned the royal tomb to its original state, as promised. You can now proceed with the interment and investiture."

Narmes drew back, his emerald eyes widening as they fixed on her friend. He was in awe of Sinbad. She understood. She must have looked at him the same way the first time she'd seen him use his metal vessels. She recalled believing he was a god, or as close to one as a person could come. He wasn't a god, as she had found out since, but he had this way of drawing people in, making them believe he was some kind of entity above them. 

Narmes looked to Thalia, his shoulders slumping. He didn't have to tell her what he was thinking. She knew. She'd felt it too, surrounded by all these incredible people. How could either of them possibly compare? Ignoring the prying eyes of the people around them, she walked up to him and took his hand. Her friends already knew about the two of them anyway. Right now, she just hoped to ease his insecurities.

"I kept my promise," she said softly.

His spine straightened a little, and he wrapped his fingers around hers. 

"Your Majesty, shall we proceed to the tomb?" Narmes squeaked.

Armakan's expression softened as he took in the sight of their joined hands. "Yes. I'm already much encouraged that Heliohapt is on its way to rejecting its isolationist past."

"We'll see about that," the Queen Dowager sneered as her party approached them. Raising her chin disdainfully, she glared at Thalia and Narmes. "You're disgraceful. Both of you."

Narmes' nostrils flared. He opened his mouth to say something but paused when Thalia squeezed his hand gently. Glancing down at her, he squeezed back. "Let's just go." 

He led the way through a canyon dotted with the remains of crumbling, ancient structures. This time, Thalia didn't complain about the sand. She'd survived a dungeon. She was supposed to be tough now. Besides, she wanted to be on her best behavior within earshot of Narmes. If he thought she complained too much, he might decide he didn't like her.

The tomb was carved into a cliff, guarded by four enormous statues of men with strange headdresses and a fifth, smaller figure above the entryway. Thalia said a silent prayer of thanks to the former kings' spirits when she realized the entrance to the tomb had no stairs. It appeared the architects of the country had finally taken mercy on her.

Inside, Narmes paused to light a lantern before leading the party forward. Thalia clung tightly to his arm, the flickering light of the fire illuminating looming statues. After meeting a djinn, Thalia was feeling a bit superstitious. If Zepar was real, who was to say vengeful spirits and reanimated corpses weren't? 

Narmes explained the building's significance to Heliohapt's history. Typically, Thalia would have hung on his every word regarding a subject like this. This time, she barely listened. Instead, she kept glancing back anxiously to make sure Sinbad was still nearby. If something attacked, he would protect her. 

"You can tell from the scale of the structure Heliohapt is a prosperous country," Ja'far mused from somewhere behind her. 

Narmes paused, his grip on Thalia loosening. Turning around, he cast his eyes to the ground. "I wish that were the case, but…"

King Armakan picked up where Narmes trailed off. "Our situation is actually pretty desolate. This magnificent royal tomb, the royal palace, and the other great structures were built many generations ago. We've only inherited the legacy of the past. Heliohapt no longer wields the power it once had. No matter how advanced our technology may be, this country is mostly desert. It's obvious we will one day rely on imported goods. In order to progress, we have to open up relations with the rest of the world."

"Hmph." Lady Patra scoffed. "As expected, the young king knows nothing. You think opening the borders will make this country prosper? This is why we can't have an inexperienced youth ruling the country."

Narmes narrowed his eyes. "What are you trying to say?"

Patra threw her hands up. "It's true, isn't it? What's the greatest threat to our country? The Reim empire! They've already extended their influence to Cathargo! If they attacked us, we'd be unable to defend ourselves! The only reason we've been overlooked is that we're a small country with no resources! What do you think will happen if we draw attention to ourselves?"

Thalia focused her attention on the small child on the palanquin, shrinking with every word thrown by his family members. Thalia remembered hiding in her room during her parents' fights, covering her ears with a pillow in an attempt to drown it out. During those times, she would have given anything for it to stop. Did they know what they were doing to him?

Clenching his fists, Armakan stood his ground. "I agree that's a possibility, but we should begin discussing diplomatic relationships with Reim."

"Oh! You want to discuss things with a country that does nothing but wage war? How optimistic. Not that it matters. In a few hours, Sharrkan will be on the throne anyway." Patra stormed off in a huff, bringing her followers and her son's palanquin with her.

As Armakan began walking, Narmes lagged behind to check on him. "Lord Armakan…"

"Let's go, Narmes." The king's grip tightened around his staff. "We'll see this through until the end."

Narmes turned to Thalia, looking down at where she was crushing his arm. "Are you alright?"

"Ah, yes…" She smiled up at him warmly. It was too soon to let him know how damaged she was. If she told him her life story, it would scare him off for sure. "It's just so dark in here."

Guiding her forward, he held his lamp up higher. "It is, isn't it?"

When Thalia glanced back to reassure herself that Sinbad was nearby, she scowled. He was hanging back listening intently to Serendine. They looked so at ease with one another. Her chest squeezed as a sense of possessiveness took hold. What poison was Serendine putting in his head now? Were they discussing their engagement?

The light flickering from Sinbad's lamp softly illuminated Serendine's delicate features. Why did she have to be so painfully beautiful? It was just another reason to hate her, Thalia decided. She contemplated marching back there and interrupting whatever kind of moment they were having, but stopped herself. It was getting harder to keep control around Serendine. If she let herself interact with that traitor now, Thalia might just snap.

Thalia was still glowering over her shoulder when Narmes stopped. Distracted and unprepared, Thalia stumbled into him, losing her balance. He caught her by the shoulder with his free hand, steadying her. 

"That was close. Please watch your step, Thalia. I'm afraid your friends will never forgive me if I let you get hurt." Though he gave her a wry smile, it didn't quite reach his eyes. She could tell that although he was trying to lighten the mood for her sake, he was too absorbed in his country's matters to find any humor in their situation.

"I'll be more careful," she assured him, shifting her weight guiltily. The future of Narmes' country was hanging in the balance. Meanwhile, Thalia was worried about a wedding that probably wasn't going to happen. Sinbad hadn't said no, but it clearly wasn't his first choice. He hadn’t exactly jumped to accept the offer either.

"Anyway, this is it." As Narmes spoke, Thalia took in her surroundings. Lined up in front of a set of stairs were Narmes, herself, King Armakan's faction, and Lady Patra's faction. Sinbad and the others quickly caught up to them, filing in next to Narmes.

"This is the king's resting place?" Ja'far asked, scratching his ear.

"Ignorant foreigner, of course it is." Patra spat.

Narmes' muscles tensed under Thalia's fingers, but his voice remained calm. "His sarcophagus will be at the top of this staircase. The name of the true successor will be written on top."

Armakan set his jaw. "Let's settle this once and for all."

Narmes nodded, stepping forward with Thalia at his side. The factions approached as one large group, gathering around the stone grave. Narmes' palms were sweating, but his grip around Thalia's hand tightened. His chest rose and fell heavily, his breaths coming shallow. 

Thalia helplessly stroked his thumb with hers, wishing there were more she could do. She barely knew him, but he had been kind to her. Silently, she resolved that if Armakan's name were not on the lid, she would do everything within her power to convince Sinbad to allow her to bring Narmes and Armakan back to Balbadd. There was a sinking feeling in her stomach that Patra would continue to view them as threats even after she assumed power. Their lives would be in danger.

"Now to confirm what's carved on the sarcophagus…" Narmes raised his lamp, the light washing over the smooth surface of the sarcophagus. "What?!"

"I don't understand," Thalia said, running her fingers across the stone to feel for the grooves that should have been on the surface. "You said the name should be written on the outside, right?"

Sinbad leaned forward. "Narmes, what's going on?"

Shaking his head, Narmes dropped Thalia's hand. "I don't know. Nothing like this has ever happened before…"

"The final words of the king must be somewhere!" Gafra cried. "Start looking!"

As the others spread out around the room, Thalia and Mystras shoved the heavy lid out of the way together. She assumed that if it was supposed to be on the outside, the next logical place to look was inside.

"There's a scroll." Thalia held back a gag as Mystras reached into the coffin and lifted a papyrus off the corpse's chest. Unrolling the scroll, he read its contents aloud. "I am Atenkumen. This is my final will and testament. This is a deviation from carving a will into the sarcophagus, a custom established by generations of kings. Listen carefully, you of the royal family. I am personally putting an end to this royal tradition. I will not choose the next king. Instead, I will entrust this task to you, Armakan and Sharrkan. As the two princes of Heliohapt, you must decide together who will be king."

"Give me that!" the Queen Dowager barked, tearing the paper from his hands. Her eyes widened as the words on the paper had just confirmed what had been read aloud.

"Arkaman and Sharrkan… choosing who will be king together?" Narmes stumbled backward. "The king has always announced his successor on the sarcophagus. That's the tradition. That's how it's always been."

"Things are changing, aren't they?" Thalia asked him gently. "Look at how the old system has torn these two brothers apart. It seems to me that the former king wanted nothing more than for his sons to work together."

"Ridiculous!" the queen dowager shouted, putting a hand to her sweaty forehead. "Do not speak as if you know the king's will, foreigner! You did not know him as I did! He valued tradition! No, this whole thing is a farce. Remember, Sharrkan saw his name carved into the sarcophagus!" 

Sharrkan trembled under his mother's manic gaze. Inching closer to the two royals, Thalia prepared to protect the child from his Patra's wrath. Thalia's father had only looked at her that way once, and it had led to the most severe punishment she'd received at the palace. She would not let this child suffer the way she had.

"Tell them, Sharrkan!" 

Sharrkan shrank in on himself, remaining silent.

Patra's expression darkened. "I see. So you deceived me." As Patra lunged toward her son, Thalia threw herself between them, blocking the woman's path. "Even though you're just a puppet! You deceived me!" 

As Patra clawed mercilessly to reach her son, Thalia fended off her attacks the best she could. Patra was taller, but trekking through the desert had made Thalia strong. She stood her ground, not allowing Patra to pass.

"He's not a puppet!" Thalia shouted angrily. "He's your son!" 

"Lady Patra, please calm yourself," Narmes begged, grabbing one of the queen dowager's arms. His grip was too respectful, too gentle. Patra ignored him, continuing her assault on Thalia.

"How dare you interfere with our family, foreigner! You have no right—" 

"That's enough," Sinbad ordered. He yanked the middle-aged woman off of Thalia by the neck of her tunic. 

"If things were going to turn out like this, we should never have let you foreigners enter that dungeon!" When Sinbad let go of her collar, Patra collapsed to the ground. "We should have kept using that curse as an excuse to dethrone Armakan!"

"So it was you after all," Armakan turned his steely gaze in her direction. "The person behind the deaths that you claimed were a curse was you."

"Isn't this Armakan's fault?" Patra threw her hands in the air, looking around for support. "If he hadn't insisted on opening the country up to Reim's influence…!"

"You say you're afraid of attracting Reim's attention, but you're part of Reim's new faction, aren't you?" Armakan pointed his staff at her accusatorially.

"What's wrong with that!" Patra lifted herself off the ground, throwing out her hand emphatically. "If we ally ourselves with a great empire like that, they can protect us! Otherwise, a small country like ours has no chance! Protecting this country all costs… isn't that the royal family's duty?"

Thalia suddenly understood. Patra's fears were real. After all, hadn't her own country suffered the very fate this woman was so desperately fighting to avoid? But her tactics were unforgivable.

"Don't we also have a duty to free ourselves from Reim's grasp?" Narmes challenged her. "If things continue like this, nothing will ever change!"

The two factions began to argue back and forth until Thalia finally decided to step in. They could go on like this all day, but it would get them nowhere— not without the kind of solution Sinbad had provided her on the ship to the Dark Continent.

"It may not be my place to say so, but you're all wrong." All eyes turned to her, and she resisted the urge to back down, straightening her back and speaking impassionedly. "My own country was swallowed by the insatiable appetite of an empire. We had done everything we could to please them for over a hundred years until, finally, we took one misstep and they turned on us." Turning to Narmes and Armakan, she continued, "However, they are right to be afraid. Reim is powerful and already has holdings on this continent. Cathargo is only a few days' march away. If you do attract the attention of Reim, you won't be able to withstand them using your own power."

"Then what would you have us do," the vizier sneered.

Thalia looked to Sinbad, wondering if he had understood her intentions. He smiled approvingly as he nodded.

"I can answer that." Sinbad stepped forward, bring his hand to his chest. "You should join the Seven Seas Alliance."

"How is that different from aligning ourselves with Reim?" Narmes asked, crossing his arms skeptically.

Thalia folded her hands in front of her, eagerly answering his question. "The Seven Seas Alliance is a group of loosely aligned small countries. No one country has the ability to dominate the rest. Membership is voluntary, and its countries continue to operate with relative freedom."

Sinbad expanded upon her sales pitch. "As a dungeon conqueror, by myself, I have power that rivals Reim's. If you rely on me, I'll be able to protect you, and you can live freely."

"That's ridiculous," Patra spat. "One of you is a merchant, and the other just admitted to losing her country to an empire." Thalia winced. Had her openness about the fate of her country just ruined Sinbad's chances of making this deal? "How could we trust the future of our country to either of you?"

Sinbad’s hand curled into a fist at his side. "The world is full of people who are tired of suffering, who cannot choose a life of their own. It's wrong for someone with more power than you to take away your freedom and your right to decide your own future."

Again, his words resonated with Thalia in a way that left her breathless. She'd had her freedom stripped from her for four years as a slave and again as she'd been pinned down on that bed. Her right to decide her own future had been taken away when her father had agreed to marry her off to Reim. She knew what it was like to have her power stolen. Clutching her pounding heart, she stumbled closer to her magnetic friend. She wanted to realize his ideals so that, maybe, in the future, some small girl could be spared a similar fate.

"I feel the same way toward this country," Sinbad continued. "I want to protect it. As a metal vessel user, I have the power to destroy a country overnight. This is more than enough to help a small country stand up to a bigger country. Imuchakk, Sasan, and Artemyra are my allies. When Thalia manages to take back Attica, her country will also be one of our members. We do not invade, nor do we let ourselves be invaded. We're built on the basis of cooperation."

"That's absurd," Patra responded. "We're so far away from any of those countries you just listed. How would any of them be able to come to our defense? Besides, what kind of idiot would believe you have as much power as you claim?"

Sinbad nodded. "I understand. I'll show you."

As he led the group outside, Thalia found her way back to Narmes' side, taking his hand. She leaned over and whispered excitedly. "You've got to see this! It's so cool!"

Narmes responded by pulling away and staring at the ground. "I bet it is."

She frowned, looking down at her empty hand. It seemed she'd accidentally reopened Narmes' fountain of insecurity. She didn't know how relationships worked, and she wasn't sure she was ready for one, but it appeared that when the time did come, her friendship with Sinbad was going to be a problem.

If that's how things were going to be, maybe she'd give up on this dating thing. She wouldn't give up Sinbad for the world.

"Sin, please try to use some restraint," Ja'far requested as Sinbad readied his djinn equip.

Thalia clapped eagerly when Sinbad gave a cocky grin. "What are you talking about? Of course I'm going to give it my all." Lifting his sword to the sky, he shouted, "Bararaq Saiqa!"

A massive bolt of lightning crashed from his sword, tearing a chasm into the desert. Thalia reeled backward, nearly losing her balance. When he'd displayed his powers for her in the Napolia Amphitheatre, he had created gentle, beautiful snowflakes. She'd assumed he was going to recreate that moment. Was this the kind of power King Rashid had been describing back in Balbadd? She shuddered. What she had just witnessed was terrifying. 

Stumbling to the ledge, she fell to her knees and looked down the vast hole in the desert floor. She couldn't see the bottom.

Glancing back at Sinbad, her best friend who'd always seemed so gentle, she drew in a deep breath. Now, he'd killed a man and torn a hole in the earth in front of her. What more didn't she know about him?

He switched to his other djinn equip, Valefor. In this form, animal ears protruded from his loose-flowing, white hair. Thalia's shoulders relaxed as she studied this new appearance. Would he let her tug his ears if she asked nicely?

"Each metal vessel is different," Sinbad explained to the group. "Some can be used as weapons; others can be used to protect those around you. However, if you misuse them..."

Ice sprayed from Sinbad's hands, creating crystalline spikes across the desert.

"You can cover an entire desert in ice. If I wanted to invade Heliohapt, it would already be mine," he finished.

As the Heliohaptians discussed the proposal among themselves, Thalia touched one of the ice spikes, relishing its chill in the desert heat. 

Turning to Sinbad, she said, "I want one. With the treasure from conquering a dungeon and the power of a djinn, I could hire an army. You said not all metal vessels are used for fighting? If I could get my hands on one that can support my allies, I should be able to take back Attica."

Sinbad's lips turned up. "You're not wrong," Sinbad agreed, "but as you saw in Zepar's dungeon, a djinn has to deem you worthy. You displayed strong leadership skills today. If you keep growing like this, it will certainly factor into a djinn's decision, but you still have a huge weakness. How do you expect to earn a djinn's respect when you rely so much on others for protection? Are you willing to learn to defend yourself?"

"I can't." Thalia averted her eyes. "It's not my place. I'm a woman…"

"You're also strong." Sinbad's hand landed on her shoulder. "Whether you realized it or not, you fought Patra today to protect that prince. You can fight. This is a matter of deciding whether or not you're willing to let go of some of your country's traditions to make it stronger."

Thalia shook her head, gripping her skirt tightly. "My people will never accept a queen who fights."

Sinbad nodded sagely. "A girl like you shouldn't need to worry about things like that anyway. You should just stay at the company and let me take care of you."

Thalia smacked his hand off her shoulder. " Excuse me?"

His lips twitched before he burst out into hearty laughter. "You're already a fighter, Thalia. You're never going to be a decent housewife. It's not in your nature. Why not embrace that?" 

"Even if I did learn to fight…" She glanced in Serendine's direction, a flare of anger welling up within her. "That would take years. My people are suffering now.”

"Then I suggest you continue looking at other options." Sinbad shrugged, craning his neck toward the approaching group of Heliohaptians. Staring at her hands, Thalia blinked back tears. She had thought she'd found a shortcut that would have taken care of the most crucial piece of her puzzle. Instead, all she found was another dead end.

"We've decided," King Armakan began, interrupting Thalia's self-pity. "Heliohapt will join the Seven Seas Alliance and sign your trade agreement."

"Now that you have evidence of treason for the opposing faction, doesn't that make you the legitimate king?" Ja'far asked, joining them at Sinbad's side.

"It's true." Armakan nodded. "However, the former king's will must be taken into consideration. In that case, Sharrkan and I will have to decide together." Turning to the small prince, he asked, "So, Sharrkan, what will you do?"

Thalia wondered what kind of person the former king must have been to leave such an important decision to two children. 

Sharrkan's hands tightened around his staff. "I think… the one who should be king is my brother. I've always just done what my mother and Gafra told me to, so I'm not fit for such an important role."

Thalia drew in a sharp breath. This little prince was so small, but his decision was better reasoned than the adults around him.

Thalia knelt down to Sharrkan's eye level. "That decision must have been hard for you, wasn't it? It sounds like you've really thought it through, though."

For the first time, the child's face lit up. "I did think it through!"

Thalia stroked his hair fondly. Maybe it was because he reminded her of herself, but something about him stirred a fierce protectiveness in her. It felt like he was her second chance at a childhood. If she could see him grow up happily, then maybe she could be content as well.

"Still, with things turning out this way, if he stays here, he's going to be in danger," Ja'far said, a troubled look clouding his face.

Thalia frowned, realizing he was right. Even if Armakan was merciful, the people around him had committed murder in his name. The common people will be looking to take out their anger at the loss of their own, and, with no one to protect him, this child would become a perfect target.

"If that's the case, I have a suggestion." Sinbad's hand landed on Sharrkan's shoulder. Thalia looked up to her friend. His eyes gleamed, a mischievous grin sneaking across his lips. If she didn't know better, she would have thought he was about to sign her extra work. His arm snaked across the startled boy's shoulder. It seemed less intimate than possessive. "Why don't you place his highness Sharrkan in the care of the Sindria Trading Company?"

"What—?" Narmes balked, taking a cautious step forward.

Sinbad nodded. "If he remains here, he will continue to be in danger, but at the company, he'll be able to live without fear. Thalia is in charge of the children, and, as you can see, she's quite good with them."

Heat bloomed in Thalia's face at his praise.

"Other countries have already entrusted royal children and important people with us as well. I think you could say it's the safest place in the world?"

"I have no problem with your condition, then." Armakan agreed. "However, it feels like you're taking a hostage."

Thalia shot up to defend her friend. "Sinbad would never! He saved me and hundreds of other children from slavery, reunited those with families, and provided opportunities to earn a living to the rest. You couldn't put Sharrkan in better hands."

"He did all that himself?" Narmes asked wide-eyed. 

"He did."

Sinbad shrugged. "Thalia's being modest. She actually played a huge role."

Armakan's lips pulled into a tight line. "Fine. Sinbad, I'll entrust my little brother to you. You can take him with you as a symbol of our alliance."

"Brother!" Sharrkan broke free of Sinbad, running toward Armakan.

"Listen well." Armakan raised his head, stopping Sharrkan in his tracks. "There is no place for you in this country. As things are, your presence here will only cause more chaos… but when you have grown and found your strength, and I have suppressed this country's conflicts, come home. Return to this country someday."

Sharrkan burst into tears, and Thalia rushed to his side, sitting with him and rubbing his back soothingly.

"I'll take care of him." Sinbad lowered himself to where Thalia and Sharrkan were on the ground. "You'll want to say goodbye to Narmes, won't you?"

She nodded, standing up to approach the man who'd taken her on such a wonderful date last night.

"It was nice to meet you, Narmes," she told him, leaning toward him with just a hint of flirtation.

"You're leaving already?" he asked, scratching the back of his head.

She nodded. "My friends are ready to go."

He sighed. "I'm sorry about earlier. I just— your friend is so impressive, and I'm… not."

Clasping her hands behind her back, she took a step toward him. "I thought it was pretty impressive when you tried to protect me from Lady Patra."

He cast his eyes to the ground. "I was too afraid of hurting her to actually help."

Thalia made a dismissive noise. "You weren't in a place where you could stick up to her without it reflecting poorly on King Armakan. I actually really admire your loyalty."

He glanced up at her, blinking rapidly. "You do?"

"Mhmm."

A familiar, easy grin slid across his face. "Then, can I kiss you goodbye?"

"On the cheek," she reminded him.

He bent down and gave her a swift peck, and she did the same for him, ignoring Mystras' jeers in the background. She'd almost forgotten they weren't alone. After exchanging goodbyes, Thalia returned to her place at Sinbad's side.


 

Sinbad watched Thalia and Narmes exchange kisses on the cheek, shoving down his irritation. Last time, he'd been drunk and let his overprotective side get the best of him. This time, he swallowed his pride. Thalia deserved the little shards of happiness she managed to dig up.

As she walked back over, his eyes followed her. Mystras greeted her with crossed arms, and she looked at him quizzically.

"What's gotten into you lately, Mystras?"

What had gotten into Mystras lately? Only a few days ago, the knight had dragged Sinbad to the brothel, but when Thalia held someone's hand, suddenly she was a "traitor to love."

Hinahoho bent down and whispered something in Thalia's ear. Whatever he said, it shocked her. She stiffened, her eyes widening.

"Mystras… do you… like me?"

Impossible , Sinbad thought. While all his friends seemed to be supportive of his feelings for Thalia on some level, Mystras had been the most proactive about it, even going so far as to help him lie to Thalia when she started asking questions about why he had brought her.

Hinahoho burst out in hearty laughter as the color drained from Mystras' face.

Ah . This was a prank. Sinbad sat back and watched.

"No!" Mystras shouted at Thalia. "No way! It's not like that! Hina and I have this bet—"

She eyed him skeptically, increasing his desperation.

"Tell her, Hina! Tell her!"

"I don't know what you're talking about." Hinahoho's voice came out strained as he tried to hold back laughter. "Don't worry, Thalia. I'm sure he'll move on by next year. Until then, you better not date anyone, or it will crush him."

"Crush me my ass!" Mystras looked at Thalia, who was clearly skeptical of Mystras' claim. "Thalia! You've got to believe me!"

"That's so cute, Mystras," Thalia responded cheerfully. "This whole time, I thought you were just a pervert."

Owch.

"I'm sorry, but I only see you as a friend. Don't worry, though, I'm sure you'll find someone someday."

Ja'far twitched. "I don't think she realizes how that sounded."

"That was painful to watch," Drakon agreed.

Sinbad imagined those words could just as easily have been directed at him. He gave one last glance to his friend, standing there with a guilty grin on her face. She must have known she'd just broken a heart, but Sinbad doubted she actually knew whose.

"Ja'far, tell them to hurry up," Sinbad instructed his friend. "We're leaving."

He turned around and began the long journey back to the direction of Cathargo.

Chapter Text

 

The first night traveling back, Thalia and Sharrkan sat unobtrusively by the fire as the rest of Thalia's friends laughed gaily, recounting the events from earlier in the day. Thalia gagged when they got to Serendine's part.

"I didn't know you were such a talented orator," Ja'far praised her from his seat on the ground. "Where did you learn to argue like that?"

Serendine laughed. "Growing up with Drakon wasn't always easy."

"I wasn't that bad." A red flush tinted Drakon's green cheeks.

Serendine leaned forward. "That's right. I suppose you weren't. Truthfully, I learned much of it from tutors, but there was someone who used to give me a lot of pointers." Her eyes darted subtly to Thalia. It was brief, but not enough for Thalia to miss.

Hunching over, Thalia cursed her younger self for being so eager to assist Serendine. Now, it was almost like it was her fault Sinbad had lost.

"Whoever it was did a good job," Mytras gushed. "Taking on Sinbad like that isn't easy."

Scoffing, Thalia rose to her feet. "Your argument was disjointed and fell apart under the slightest scrutiny. Truly, the person you're referring to must have been a master of their craft to teach you how to pass off that sort of drivel as convincing."

The laughter around the fire died.

Sitting up straight, Serendine locked eyes with Thalia. "Yes, I believe she could still beat me in a battle of wits to this day."

"Is that so?"

"It is. I still have profound respect for her abilities." Serendine held her gaze. 

As Thalia stared into her rose petal eyes, everyone around them melted away, and a beast she had locked away years ago clawed at her chest. At one time, Thalia would have done anything for the princess before her. That had been before she'd gotten tangled and tattered in Serendine's thorns.

Thalia clenched her jaw, balling her hands into fists. Serendine was still so, so dangerous. The image of the broken bottle from this morning flashed into Thalia's mind— the inescapable scent of roses, that sickeningly pink glass scattered across the floor. She'd had a moment of weakness, trying to salvage the bottle, but it couldn't be put back together again. All that was left was sharp glass.

"I don't believe you," Thalia snapped, "not after what you did."

The rose petals in Serendine's eyes withered. "Thalia…"

Thalia's nails dug into her palms. "How can you pretend nothing happened! How can you even look me in the eye?"

Mystras shifted uncomfortably. "Did something just happen? Why is Thalia mad?"

Ja'far glanced in Thalia's direction. "You don't really hold Serendine responsible for what happened between your countries, do you? You know she was practically a kid, right? She didn't have any say—"

"Do you want to tell them, or should I?" Thalia's voice quivered, but she stood tall. She was so tired of keeping this secret, of watching her friends joke around with a person who'd destroyed her life. Serendine had a lot of nerve to smile when her victims would never be able to again.

Serendine rose, her chin held high. She looked down on Thalia imperiously. "I'm not sure what you're talking about."

Taking a shuddering breath, Thalia pressed on. "Oh, you don't, do you? You don't remember how you got your nickname? "

Serendine's eyes widened before she regained her composure. "I don't know what you heard, Thalia, but I can explain. Let's just step aside and talk—" 

As Serendine spoke, her maids exchanged anxious glances. Their reactions only further cemented the truth of what Thalia had heard, and in a burst of rage, she let loose her accusation. "You want to talk? " She let out a huff that resembled a laugh. "Three and a half years ago, your country invaded Attica. Your soldiers slaughtered my people. You massacred my family with your own hands , Serendine, and you want to talk? "

"You don't know what you're talking about," Serendine said quietly.

"Is that true?" Hinahoho asked, leaning forward. "Serendine couldn't have done something like that, right?"

Standing up, Sinbad approached the fire, inserting himself between the two girls. He turned his eyes to Drakon. "Do you know anything about this?" his voice was low and severe. 

Thalia straightened her spine vindictively. Her fears about Serendine misleading Sinbad had been misguided. He'd always had Thalia's back. He was her best friend, after all.

As Drakon hung his head, Serendine's maid spoke up. "Her Highness was only following orders. She was greatly distressed by everything that happened."

"Bullshit!" Thalia spat.

"You mustn't blame her!"

"Quiet, Tamira," Serendine ordered, holding up a silencing hand. "Sinbad, before you pass judgment on my actions, please give me a chance to explain privately. There are things about what happened that even Tamira and Sahel don't know."

Livid, Thalia stomped her foot into the sand. "You still think you can weasel your way out of this? How many people did you kill in the name of expanding your pathetic country? How many lives like mine did you personally destroy?"

"That's enough," Sinbad commanded. "Everyone here has had to kill at one point or another except for you, Thalia. I don't believe any of us would take the life of someone close to a dear friend without a good reason."

So now Sinbad was siding with Serendine? Thalia crossed her arms over her chest. "You're assuming she didn't befriend me just to betray me from the beginning."

Serendine remained quiet, her hands balled into fists.

"I'm not assuming anything," Sinbad corrected her. "That's why I'm going to listen to what Seren has to say, but not right now. We're in a desert teeming with bandits and I already almost lost you once." He approached Thalia, placing his hands on her shoulders. "Right now, my priority is getting both of you back alive, and that'll be easier if we stick together.

Thalia swallowed, her mouth going dry. "You don't believe me."

"I never said that," He whispered, tightening his grip on her. He looked over his shoulder to Mystras. "Mystras, you're in charge of keeping Thalia safe until I have the chance to investigate this further. She's not to be alone with Serendine, do you understand?"

Mystras nodded.

Sinbad glanced in Drakon's direction. "The same goes for you. Please look after Serendine, Tamira, and Sahel from here on out."

Drakon bowed. "I will do as you say."

Sinbad turned back to Thalia, his hands sliding down her arms. "The rest we can deal with back at the company. Is that a solution you can live with?"

Thalia's muscles locked in place, the heat from the fire stinging her face. She stared at the ground silently, her vision blurred by the tears that threatened to fall. She shouldn't have expected a different result. After all, this was Serendine. She'd kept Thalia wrapped around her finger for years, and earlier in the day, Sinbad had almost agreed to marry her. That had been a spontaneous proposition. If she had a chance to prepare an excuse, she would definitely win him over.

Thalia cursed her impulsivity. She'd known things would turn out like this if she spoke out against Serendine, but, at that moment, she'd been too wrapped up in her anger to hold back. What a fool she was.

"I can live with it," Thalia lied.

The rest of the trip back to Cathargo was painful. Masrur, Sharrkan, and even Ja'far treated Thalia normally. They spent time with her and made small talk, occasionally attempting to cheer her up. Aside from Ja'far, who was a little older and probably more mature than most adults, Thalia wasn't sure they fully understood the weight of what she had disclosed. Though, she supposed that was a good thing. She had been careless in bringing up the topic around them. 

Her older friends were more fickle. Serendine had her maids, who continued to keep her company throughout the trip. Though Drakon often shot Thalia apologetic glances, he remained by Serendine's side as instructed. Mystras, too, kept close to Thalia, though he was unusually sober and didn't talk much. Hinahoho alternated between trying to pretend nothing happened and avoiding both girls entirely. She often caught him and Mystras exchanging low whispers, presumably discussing who they believed more.

It was Sinbad's lack of reaction that stung the most. He treated Thalia and Serendine as he always had. Thalia had always feared he would turn on her if she disclosed the truth about Serendine because he didn't believe her, but, somehow, this was worse. He did believe her, and he still hadn't taken her side. It was as though their bond meant nothing to him.

 Upon reaching the border of Cathargo, Sinbad, Ja'far, Masrur, and Sharrkan split from her group to look for Fanalis territory. This time, Thalia hadn't been invited. Sinbad had insisted she would be safer with Mystras and Hinahoho.

As Thalia watched Sinbad and the children leave, she caught Drakon glancing at her again, accompanying Serendine a safe distance away.

Thalia nodded in response. She wasn't angry with him. He had gotten dragged into the middle of Thalia's feud with Serendine against his will. It would have been unfair to ask him to pick sides. Besides, she already knew who he would choose. He'd made it clear from the day she'd first met him which of the two princesses he preferred. It was Serendine. It had always been Serendine. 

"What do you want to do now, Thalia?" Mystras asked, scratching his turban. "We can get something to eat or walk around the market…"

Thalia turned to him, her hands folded over her stomach. "Can I ask you a question?"

He nodded anxiously, his eyes darting around as though he were looking for an escape.

"What do you think of Serendine?"

He scratched his chin guiltily. "I don't think about her at all. Ever. Nope, I don't even know who she is."

Sighing, Thalia walked past him, leading him toward the city. "You're a terrible liar, Mystras. It's okay if you like her. Even I used to." Over her shoulder, she shot him a reassuring smile. As soon as she turned her gaze back forward, she let it drop. It really wasn't okay, but what else could she do?

"Sinbad trusts her, and I trust Sinbad. I think he might have even thought she was cute—" Mystras cut himself off, apparently realizing he wasn't helping.

"Is that so?" Stopping in her tracks, Thalia felt something wet trickle down her cheek. 

"Hey, watch where you're going, hag!" Someone small bumped into her from behind. 

"Hm?" Thalia turned around to get a better look. The boy had long, black hair pulled into a braid. Ruby red eyes glared up at her, and in his small, chubby hands was some kind of small stick with a gem on the end. Thalia knelt down to his eye level. "Pardon me, I wasn't aware there was anyone behind me."

"Thalia's not a hag," Mystras defended her, crossing his arms and glaring down at the child. "She's not that old yet."

Yet… Thalia's smile faltered, and she had to fight back the urge to glare at Mystras.

The little boy studied her face stained by a single tear. "You're really pathetic, huh? Crying is for babies. I haven't cried since I was three."

Thalia tilted her head, putting on a friendly expression for the child's sake. She wasn't exactly crying because she wanted to. "Sometimes, when people are sad, crying makes them feel better. What's your name, little guy?"

"Pff" The boy crossed his arms. "I'm not a little guy."

Thalia nodded agreeably. "You're right, you're right. You're big and strong! How silly of me."

"That's right, I am. The name's Judar."

 Scanning the empty street, she looked for his guardian. "Judar, are you alone? Where are your parents?"

"I don't have parents, idiot." Turning his head away, he made a sour face. 

Thalia frowned. He wasn't dressed like anyone else around here. The fabric and design of his clothing were totally unfamiliar. Was he from the east? "Judar, you didn't come to Cathargo alone, did you? Who brought you?"

"Nobody!" He threw his arms up in exasperation. "Don't you get it? I'm a magi. I teleported here with my incredible magic."

What a creative imagination this kid has… 

Folding her arms, Thalia stood up. "Mystras, we can't leave him here. He could get hurt."

"I don't need you to pretend to be my mommy, Lady." The boy held out his stick threateningly. "If anyone messes with me, I'll blow their brains out with my ice magic!"

"He seems a little unhinged," Mystras whispered in her ear. "Are you sure it's okay?"

"He's barely as tall as Sharrkan," she whispered back. "What, are you scared?"

Mystras pulled back and glowered at her. "Fine."

Thalia gave him a smug look before kneeling down to Judar's height again. "O great magi, we're sorry for not recognizing you sooner. Surely someone as important as you is here on a mission, right?"

"Right!" Judar beamed. "I'm looking for someone, the person who captured my dungeon! Have you seen anyone with a metal vessel?"

Thalia and Mystras exchanged glances. 

"That would be Serendine, right?" the knight wondered aloud.

Thalia pursed her lips. "It can't be her. How could news have already spread? We just got here."

Rolling his eyes, Judar groaned. "What are you, stupid? A magi can always tell when his dungeon's been captured. Don't you know anything?"

Biting the side of her cheek, Thalia raised her eyebrows. "Alright. We'll help you look for your dungeon capturer."

"Hold on," Judar narrowed his eyes at her. "I don't need help. Don't you get it? I'm more powerful than you'll ever be."

Nodding, Thalia held her hands out in a placative gesture. "But as someone so important, it's only natural you have servants to order around, right?"

He perked up. "I'm listening."

Thalia motioned to Mystras. "We want to serve you in any way we can, o great magi. Please allow us to remain by your side for a bit longer."

Grinning, Judar walked past them, waving his bejeweled stick around. "You're not totally stupid after all. Come on, you two. I'll put you to work."

"We should have left him on his own," Mystras muttered. 

Thalia let out a small giggle, rising to follow their new little master. "He's certainly interesting."

First, they accompanied Judar through the administrative district, where he argued with a guard for denying him access to an area. In retaliation, he threatened to blow up the nearest building. Thalia had to convince the guard that, of course, it was a joke, and the child didn't know any better. They then traipsed through the residential districts where Judar angered a dog by trespassing. When he pointed his stick at the creature instead of running, Mystras valiantly threw himself in harm's way, fending the dog off with his lance. It took Thalia and Mystras's combined efforts to steer Judar clear of the red light district, and by the time they wound up in the market, his two exhausted chaperones were lagging behind.

"The metal vessel is getting closer," Judar muttered. "I can sense it."

"Oh, thank goodness," Mystras whimpered. 

Thalia put her hand on his arm empathetically. "Hang in there. He's gotta find the person he's looking for sooner or later."

"There!" Judar zoomed off toward a head of pink hair and a hulking man bundled in robes, feet not touching the ground.

Thalia and Mystras froze. 

"Did he just…?"

"He flew."

"Do you think he was telling the truth about being a magi?"

"He flew, Thalia!"

"...."

"Like woosh! "

Thalia and Mystras approached Serendine's group, listening in on their conversation. Judar explained that Serendine was his "king" because she'd conquered the dungeon he'd brought forth. He wanted to help her take back Parthevia, but she refused to give an answer without Sinbad's permission.

"I don't know why you're waiting," Thalia mumbled under her breath. "How could he say no to the girl he almost agreed to marry?"

"Thalia…" Mystras put a hand on her shoulder, but Thalia shrugged it off. Serendine could have her metal vessel and her magi and her perfect husband who thought she was cute, and things would fall into place for her the way they always had. Thalia would continue to fight and scramble for every little victory. 

"I'm going to the inn," she told him. "I should be safe in my room. Go enjoy yourself with Hinahoho, okay?"

"But Sinbad said—"

Thalia whipped around, fighting to keep her voice steady. "I want to be alone. Please…"

"At least let me help you get checked in," Mystras offered.

Pulling her lips into a thin line, Thalia nodded. She could let him do that much, at least.

Once settled in her room, Thalia threw herself on the bed, curling into a ball and letting tears soak the blanket beneath her. Judar had been a decent diversion, but now there was no one left. No one was willing to choose her over Serendine, not even the bratty kid she'd picked up off the street. Serendine was just too bright, and Thalia was a black hole. 

For hours, Thalia lay motionless until she heard a knock on the window. At first, she ignored it. She was on the third floor, so the idea of someone being able to reach was preposterous. Then it came again.

Sitting up abruptly, she stared out the glass pain into the darkness. A small, ruby-eyed boy waved at her impatiently.

"Judar?" She pried open the window, letting the small Magi in. "I thought you were with Serendine!"

"Eh, I'll be spending plenty of time with her from now on." His eyes took on a gleam that sent shivers down Thalia's spine. "I thought I'd get to know you better. After all, you've got potential."

Perking up, Thalia brushed her hair behind her ear. Maybe Judar had chosen Thalia after all. He might have thought she had more potential to rule than Serendine. "What do you mean?"

He shrugged. "Well, you don't have a lot of magoi, and physically you're lacking, but you know what you're not short on? Anger and despair. I can practically smell it on you."

"Oh." Thalia deflated. He was such a strange kid, acting like that was something to be excited about. "Magi can smell emotions?"

Flopping onto her bed in front of her, he made a displeased grunt. "Not literally ."

Bringing a hand to her cheek, Thalia apologized. "I'm sorry. You'll have to forgive me. I don't know how this whole magi thing works."

"All you need to know is that I'm powerful." Judar stared up at the ceiling. "So, naturally, you should try to get on my good side."

Thalia nodded. "I see. and getting on your good side would require…?"

His red eyes slid toward Thalia, and he broke out into a sly grin. "Peaches."

Sighing, Thalia crawled out of her bed and grabbed her coin purse. She didn't know if she'd find any in Carthago, but if she could get a magi on her side, it was worth a try.

Putting her hand on the door, she paused, remembering Sinbad's orders. "First, we have to go get Mystras. He should be staying in the room next to me."

"We don't need him," Judar said, zooming to her side. "He's useless."

Thalia's grip tightened around the doorknob. Judar could get away with a lot of things. He could call her a hag and insult her all he wanted, but Mystras was another matter. "He's my friend. "

"Is he really, though?" Judar gave her that piercing stare again, and Thalia swallowed thickly. It was as though he could see right through her, into the darkness inside her. "I think he just tolerates you. They all do."

Thalia took a step back. The truth was, she'd been wondering the same thing all day. If they had to choose between her and Serendine, wouldn't they all throw Thalia away without a second thought? All she was, all she would ever be, was a slave with scars. No one wanted her.

"Why would you say something like that?" she choked out.

Judar shrugged dismissively, and Thalia bent down to his level, firmly gripping his shoulder. 

"You shouldn't talk to people like that. How would you feel if I said something like that to you?"

Judar met her eyes. "It wouldn't bother me."

"And why is that?" she demanded, her voice quaking. She wasn't about to let a child toy with her emotions like this.

"I don't know," he rubbed his hair gingerly. "If I think about stuff like that too much, my head hurts."

Taking a deep breath, Thalia calmed herself. Whatever his reasoning for poking at her insecurities, they didn't seem malicious. If Judar was acting out, perhaps all he needed was kindness. She stood back up, holding her hand out to him.

"Forget about it. Let's go find us some peaches, okay? Just you and me."


 

Thalia didn't know what was wrong with her. There was this pervasive emptiness that permeated everything she tried to do. If she went out to lunch with Mystras, it was there. If he and Hinahoho took her to watch street performers, it was there. It was always just there— inescapable and unyielding. She couldn't even fake enthusiasm anymore. She was just so, so tired.

After a couple of days, Thalia gave up, holing herself away in her room. Hinahoho, and Mystras both took turns visiting or sometimes bringing food. At first, she had invited them in, but the number of things hanging unsaid in the air grew to be unbearable. She began to turn them away, preferring solitude. Judar was the only visitor she would accept, and that was partly because he would yell obnoxiously from outside her window until she let him in.

When Judar wasn't busy trying to get into Thalia's head, he wrangled sweets out of her. He seemed to have a particular fondness for peaches, but just about anything sweet would do. For him, at least, she made an effort. Her friends were mature enough to understand she wasn't feeling well. Judar was just a kid. She remembered when her mother had spells like this, how she would cry in her room and refuse to see Thalia. She remembered believing it was her fault. She refused to put another child through that.

This went on for two weeks until the young magi peeked his head in her window." Shitty Hag, your boyfriend is back!" 

She'd been sitting alone in her bed, something she did a lot ever since they'd returned to Carthago. She would have been startled, but by now she'd grown used to him appearing this way. He seemed to prefer levitating to using stairs like a normal person. Thalia opened the window to let him in and sat back down on the bed.

"Boyfriend?" Thalia asked, puzzled. The closest thing she'd ever had to a boyfriend was Narmes, but they'd only been on one date. That didn't make him her boyfriend.

Judar furrowed his eyebrows. "That Sinbad guy. He's not your boyfriend? From the face you make every time he comes up in conversation, I could have sworn—" Realization dawned on his face, and his lips pulled into a cruel grin. "Don't tell me— it's one-sided."

Thalia ignored his teasing. "You said Sin is back?"

Judar's grin merely widened. "It is one-sided, isn't it?" He cackled mean spiritedly. "Oh, man! Your life is so miserable!"

"I need a bath. I can't let him see me like this," she groaned. She hadn't had the energy to keep up with her hygiene lately, but suddenly she regretted not trying harder. "Judar, I'll be right back. While I'm gone, can you, like, I don't know, magic some clothing clean?"

Judar glared at her. "You think I'm your maid? I am a great magi! My powers cannot be abused for such trivial matters!"

Thalia eyed him skeptically, remembering all the times he'd used magic in front of her for less important reasons. "Yes, I know. Remember those peaches I bought you the other night? I have a few coins left over. I can probably afford some more for little boys who help me out."

"Fine, fine! Go take your bath. You reek." He made a show of plugging his nose and fanning the air in front of his face.


 

 Sinbad took the stairs up to the third floor, where Mystras had told him Thalia's room was. From what he and Hinahoho had reported, she'd become increasingly withdrawn ever since her outburst.

 Sinbad still wasn't sure if he could have handled the situation better. From Thalia's perspective, there must not be a reason in the world she would accept for why Serendine would have killed her parents. Yet, Serendine was hardly the only one with blood on her hands. If he held her accountable for her past, might he have to send Ja'far, Vittel, and Mahad away someday? Even the bandits they had defended Thalia from likely had families now suffering the pain of losing a loved one. 

Even if he wanted to send Serendine away, where else was she going to go? She didn't have anyone to take her in. Not to mention, if his trusted advisors started choosing sides between the two princesses, it could cause a rift that would destroy the company.

With all these facts in mind, he knocked on Thalia's door.

"What do you want?" The door cracked open, and an unexpected voice answered, sounding annoyed.

"Judar?" Sinbad furrowed his eyebrows. "I thought you were with Serendine."

The child opened the door the rest of the way and waved a hand dismissively. "The shitty hag is more fun to mess with." 

"Shitty Hag?" Sinbad peeked around the room. Thalia was nowhere to be found.

"If you're looking for Thalia, she went to go take a bath," Judar said, crossing his arms and leaning against the door frame.

"Then I'll wait in here," Sinbad forced his way past the younger boy.

"No way," Judar protested. "She's taking me to get peaches when she gets done. You'll just be a distraction."

"She can buy you peaches after I say hello." Sinbad wasn't about to let a brat of a magi keep him from Thalia, especially not now. She clearly wasn't well.

Judar tried to shove Sinbad back out the door, but Sinbad stood firm. 

 "Sin?" Thalia's warm, familiar voice greeted his ears, but something about it was off. It was lackluster, devoid of its usual spark.

 Sinbad twisted around to see his friend clad in nothing but an oversized robe, water still dripping from her hair.

 "What are you two doing?" she asked, tilting her head curiously. "Judar?"

 Judar rushed to Thalia's side, tugging on her hand. "Let's go get peaches now!"

 Thalia didn't take her eyes off Sinbad. She tore away from the child, taking a tentative step forward. "Judar, I haven't seen Sinbad in two weeks. Why don't you let us catch up for a bit? You did what I asked, didn't you?"

 The boy nodded eagerly. After rummaging around in her bag for a moment, Thalia pulled some coins out and pressed them into his grubby little hands.

 "Will you be okay getting the peaches by yourself?" 

 Judar nodded vigorously and left via the window. She sighed, running her fingers through her hair before turning to face Sinbad.

He didn't know what to say. How could he tell his best friend that he understood how much this situation was hurting her, but that he couldn't do the one thing that would put her at ease? How could he explain that, as much as he wanted her to feel at home in the company, he couldn't put her first? He had to be selfish.

 Finally, Thalia surprised him by speaking. "Can we talk about it now?"

Sinbad nodded, sitting down on her bed and motioning for her to follow suit. He wasn't sure what he was going to say, but she deserved an effort.

She sat down next to him, looking down at her hands in her lap.

"Where do you want to start?" He asked.

"I'm a little mad at you," she confessed, gripping her robes tightly. "I thought if anyone was going to back me up, it would be you."

"I have to consider the company," Sinbad told her, moving to take her hand. She'd let him hold it on the way back from the dungeon, and the action had been a great comfort for him. Maybe he could do the same for her. 

As soon as he touched her hand, she withdrew it. Sinbad sighed. He wasn't sure what else he could do to cheer her up. 

"I have to ask… you were away from Attica for so long. How did you find out about this, Thalia?"

"You don't believe me," she snapped, finally meeting his eyes.

Scratching his hair awkwardly, he tried to calm her back down. "I told you; I believe you. It's just, I want to know how long you've been keeping this to yourself."

She crossed her arms over her chest, casting him a sideways glance. "I overheard two women talking about it on Ria Venus Island."

Letting out a deep breath, he allowed his tense shoulders to relax. She'd overheard gossip. Maybe there was still a chance this was a misunderstanding. If there was any chance at all to resolve this peacefully, he was going to try.

"I don't even see why this is a discussion, Sin!" Thalia shot up impatiently. "Ask Drakon if it's true! He'll say yes!"

"I will ask him," Sinbad assured her, "and I'm going to ask Serendine too."

He watched his friend pace furiously back and forth until he became dizzy. Standing up, he caught her by the arm, spinning her to face him. "This isn't something new for you. You've been living with the person who killed your parents for months and never said a thing to me. Why?"

 Her muscles relaxed under his grip, and her hard expression softened. Suddenly, she seemed like her old self. 

Her eyes cast downward, she answered. "I was afraid. I didn't want to stir up trouble. I didn't want to be rejected. I had a lot of reasons."

 After all this time, she didn't think she could trust him with something so important? Sinbad trusted her with his life. Finding out she couldn't even tell him with a secret this important stung.

"Damn it, Thalia. What do I have to do to earn your trust?"

 She was silent for a long time before she finally answered. "I do trust you." 

 The words sent a wave of relief crashing over him. He'd been afraid that his handling of the Serendine situation had opened a rift between them that couldn't be repaired.

 "No more secrets, then." He moved his hands to her shoulders, gripping them firmly. "From now on, we're a team. We're going to work together to take back your country and found mine. Alright?"

 "A team…?" She tasted the words on her lips, a smile tugging at their ends. "So you won't act like a tyrant anymore?"

"I'm still your boss," he assured her, "but the main thing is, we're going to work together. No hiding, no secrecy."

 She nodded thoughtfully. "Yeah. I like that."

 "Of course you do," he teased. "It was my idea."

 He expected her to protest, but instead pink crept into her cheeks. She opened her mouth as if to speak, but no words came out, just a quiet squeak. 

Tilting his head, he watched her curiously. This was new. Usually, she had some sort of comeback, or she at least called him a— 

 "Tyrant," she finally muttered.

 Ah, here it was. He'd been worried for a moment that she was broken.

 He gave her a pat on the head and her shoulders hunched in response.

 He sighed, relieved he had managed to diffuse the situation without casualties. Thalia didn't seem particularly angry. In fact, she was unusually docile. He wasn't sure what had brought about this change in attitude, but he wasn't complaining. She always seemed to have some kind of comeback to whatever he said. He found it charming, but this side of her was cute too. He wouldn't mind seeing it more

Chapter Text

 The next day, Thalia packed her clothes into her bag, pausing when she got to the teal shawl Narmes had given her. She had left everything else to be shipped, but for some reason, she hadn’t been able to leave this behind. Running her fingers over the fabric, she remembered Sinbad’s drunken compliment. Even now, it brought a smile to her face. He always called her pretty, but this one had felt more substantial, somehow, like he’d meant it. She wanted to hear him compliment it a thousand times because it made her feel warm.

As last night pushed its way to the front of her mind, Thalia hurriedly stuffed the shawl into the bag. She still wasn’t sure what had happened. It had been strange. Sinbad had made a joke inflating his own importance, which wasn’t unusual. What was weird was that she’d found herself unable to disagree. Instead, she’d become tongue-tied liked some idiot. After watching her stammer like that, who knew what he might be thinking?

Hurriedly packing the rest of her things, she rushed down to meet her friends at the front of the inn. 

When Mystras spotted her, he called out excitedly, “Thalia! You’re okay!”

Hinahoho and Drakon rushed toward her enthusiastically.

“Mind if I take your bag? I know you’re probably feeling a bit weak since you haven’t eaten much.” Hinahoho grabbed the sack from Thalia’s stunned hands.

“I—”

“Princess Thalia, you’ve had everyone worried sick,” Drakon scolded her. “You’re lucky I couldn’t leave Serendine’s side, or I would have come to bust down the door myself.”

“Huh?”

Had they really been that worried about her? She’d been under the assumption that they were relieved to have her out of the way. Things had been so awkward lately, and she had been sucking the joy out of every moment they spent together. She’d thought that, because they had someone like Serendine around, they hadn’t even thought about her.

She supposed the signs were there. They’d visited every day, even when she’d kept turning them away. They’d also left her a few friendly notes, which she had crumpled up and tossed to the side, telling herself that the words of encouragement contained in them were lies.

Suddenly, they felt like the truth. Her friends still cared, and they’d been trying so hard to show it. Thalia had been so wrapped up in her own darkness and envy that she hadn’t been able to see.

Sniffling, Thalia beamed eagerly at them. She had such wonderful, caring friends. Even Serendine couldn’t take them from her.

“Thank you.”

Wrapping her tiny arms around the two giants’ thick elbows, she walked with them toward where Sinbad, Ja’far, Masrur, Mystras, and Sharrkan were waiting patiently. There was no Serendine. She’d apparently already left with her maids, and Thalia was beyond okay with that. It was nice to be reunited with Drakon.

Sinbad watched her approach with her two escorts, attempting to keep a straight face. “I see you’re feeling better. Are you ready to leave out?”

Thalia’s heart skipped a beat as he held out his hand. It was just like last night when her heart had pounded against her chest like it was trying to escape. She opened her dry mouth, and nothing came out. Untangling herself from her other friends, she slid her hand into Sinbad’s, turning her head away to hide the heat rising to her face. 

 She was ready, and she was glad, too. They were leaving the dark continent and heading back to Balbadd. None of these strange feelings had started until they’d landed in this strange place. The wildness of the continent must have messed with her head, appealing to some primal part of her. It had driven out logic and reason. She would go home, back to the routine and mundane, and everything would be back to normal between her and Sinbad— no more pounding hearts and racing thoughts, no more jealousy. Once she boarded the ship, she would be fine again.

When they boarded the ship, she raced ahead of the others, grateful for the vessel that would carry her back to sanity.

Captain Reis nodded to her as she passed him. “Aye, lassie. ‘Tis a pleasure to see you again.” 

His wariness seemed to have mostly dissipated now that he’d shuttled her around for four weeks without incident. Perhaps he finally understood his superstitions were illogical.

As her friends filed on behind her, they tossed their bags aside. Sinbad, Mystras, Hinahoho, Drakon, and Ja’far set to work preparing the ship to disembark. Thalia, clueless about ships, sat down with Masrur and Sharrkan to stay out of the way. She felt like an overgrown child next to the two boys, just watching the others work. 

Thalia felt like she should be helping. After all, she’d traveled through a desert and survived a dungeon. It was time to become capable of pulling her own weight. Unfortunately, she had no idea how.

That’s it, she decided, pounding her fist into her palm, I’m going to learn as much about this ship as I can. From now on, I’m going to be useful!

So, she made that her mission. Over the next few days, Nasha became the victim of her curiosity, hounded continuously by her questions. 

“What’s that?” 

“What does this do?”

“How do I do this?”

Her questions were endless, but he answered them all with the patience of a saint. It was suspicious. Since when had “Nasha” and “saint” become a possible combination of words? Still, he seemed to have improved his attitude somewhat. Over the coming days, her opinion of him began to soften. She no longer found him repulsive. She’d even started to enjoy his company. 

On the seventh day of their voyage, as the winds blew stronger than usual and the boat swayed beneath her feet, she sought him out, as had become common. He stood with his long hair pulled back, surveying his underlings.

“Nasha,” Tapping the redhead on the shoulder, she got his attention. “What are those little platforms way up there called?” She pointed toward the top of one of the masts.

He craned his head around, his lips twisting into an easy grin upon seeing her. “Those are called crow’s nests. We use them to scout out further ahead than we could from down here.”

“Oh,” she breathed, swinging from side to side with her hands clasped behind her back. “And that little door?” She pointed to the hatch leading to below the deck.

He turned all the way to face her this time. “That’s called a scuttle.”

Thalia groaned. “Why not just call it a hatch? Why does everything have to have a weird name?” 

Nasha laughed heartily. “They’re not so weird once you get used to them, but you can call it a hatch if you want. We’ll know what you mean. Has anyone told you about the poop deck, yet?”

“That’s the tallest deck, right above the captain’s quarters,” she announced proudly. That had been one of the first words she learned on her voyages.

“Not bad,” he smiled, tangling his arm in one of the dangling ropes. “Maybe you should join us in the seafaring life. We could use someone to work the galley.”

Thalia furrowed her eyebrows. “Galley?” She didn’t know that word yet.

“The kitchen.”

Frowning, Thalia crossed her arms. “I’m no kitchen maid. I’d rather be the captain.” Sinbad had been right. Domesticity didn’t come naturally to her.

“You’re quite ambitious,” Nasha observed, brushing a stray hair behind his ear. “Then, when you get your own ship, why don’t you let me be your first mate?”

“First mate?” She placed her hands on her hips, tapping her foot impatiently. “No, I’ve already got someone in line for that position. I do have an open spot in the galley, though.”

“You wound me,” he lamented, faking a pain in his heart. His dramatic antics made Thalia giggle, and she left him to revel in the heartbreak of rejection for the seventh time in seven days. He would survive. In that way, he was like a roach.

Leaning over the boat railings— no, Nasha had told her they were called the gunwale— she reviewed all the information she’d learned that day.

The galley was the kitchen, the hatch was the scuttle, and— 

A motion in the corner of her eye caught her attention. Turning her head, she smiled, finding her dearest friend— her teammate— had joined her. As she had suspected, once they were away from the dark continent, things had become less confusing between them. She and Sinbad had resumed their comfortable friendship, and she hadn’t stammered in front of him since Cathargo.

“Sin, what’s that thing called again?” She pointed to a large beam pointing out diagonally from the ship’s forecastle.

“That’s the bowsprit,” he replied, leaning on his elbow.

“And it’s used to connect those little sails up there, right?”

Scratching the back of his head, Sinbad raised his eyebrows. “That’s not the most elegant definition, but yes. Who taught you that?”

She gave a sweet smile. “Nasha’s a good teacher, don’t you think?”

His lips pulled into a thin line. “You’ve been spending a lot of time with him.”

“Is he complaining about me?” Thalia worried she’d been annoying him with her ceaseless questioning, but he hadn’t appeared to mind it so far. 

“Complaining? No, he’s been bragging,” Sinbad huffed. “You should stay away from him. I don’t like the way he talks about you behind your back.”

Nasha had been talking about her behind her back? Thalia’s stomach twisted into a knot. 

“What does he say?” She gripped the gunwale as the boat began to rock more noticeably than before.

Sinbad ran his fingers through his hair. “Don’t worry about it. We all know none of it is true.”

Letting go of the gunwale, she turned to Sinbad. He wouldn’t lie to her. If he said Nasha was gossiping about her behind her back, it had to be the truth.

“What’s not true? What has he been saying about me?”

Sinbad shook his head. “You won’t find out from me, so don’t waste your time.”

Thalia kicked the boards underneath her feet. What had he said less than a day ago about not keeping secrets from each other? 

A strong gust of wind caressed her bare arms, causing her to shiver.

“Are you cold?” her companion asked. Without waiting for an answer, he wrapped his coat around her shoulders. His gesture had been unnecessary. She easily could have gone to fetch her shawl. Still, she pulled it tightly around her, flattered by his concern. Breathing in deeply, she inhaled its calming ocean scent.

“Did you just sniff my jacket?” His eyes glimmered, all the possibilities of how he would tease her for this swimming just beneath their surface.

“No!” Forgetting about Nasha, she hurried to defend herself from any misunderstandings. Things had just gotten back to normal between herself and Sinbad. She couldn’t risk complicating them again. “I was breathing. Humans do that, you know.”

“Ohhh,” he said, drawing the sound out as though he’d just come to an understanding. “So you weren’t sniffing. You were just breathing in deeply with your nose pointed toward my jacket.”

“Exactly.” Thalia lifted her chin into the air proudly.

He leaned in toward her and whispered, “I’m pretty sure that’s the dictionary definition of sniffing.”

Thalia’s cheeks grew warm, and she pulled the jacket around herself protectively. She’d been utterly defeated. All she could think to say was, “Your soap. I like it.”

“Hey,” he responded in a low voice. “Can I tell you a secret?”

She nodded stiffly as his hand brushed a hair out of her face. 

“I like your soap too.”

 Already unsteady from his proximity, she flew sideways as the ship rocked violently, nearly throwing her over the edge. Sinbad caught her by the arm, and, pulling her against his chest, muttered a profanity.

 “Let’s head indoors. If the water’s churning like this, there’s probably a storm coming— a bad one at that.”

 Thalia found it hard to pry herself away from him. He was so much warmer and smelled a million times better than his jacket. She was melting, her limbs turning into jelly. His arm wrapped protectively around her waist filled her with a sense of security. She was untouchable. No one could ever hurt her again, not when Sinbad was holding her like this.

 Maybe the dark continent hadn’t been the reason she’d been acting strangely in front of him. Maybe the problem was inside her.

Her hands moved to cling to his back, to pull him closer. Nothing had ever felt so right in her life. They belonged like this.

She paused when he removed his arm from her waist.

 “Thalia, did you hear me?”

 Blinking rapidly, Thalia dispelled the cloud that had been fogging her mind. Of course, she couldn’t— they weren’t— he didn’t— 

Thalia pulled away, her fists clenching resolutely. She couldn’t get her hopes up about him. He was too good for her. She was lucky he even talked to her. They were just friends, and that was how she liked things.

Misinterpreting her silence, Sinbad gripped her shoulders reassuringly. “That must have scared you quite a bit.” Softly, his hand trailed down her arm before gripping her wrist. “Come on.” He guided her below deck, where her friends and several of the crew were playing a card game. 

Sinbad stood over the idle men with a frown. “What are you doing? There’s a storm coming. We’re going to need all of you to navigate through it.”

Setting down their cards, all but the youngest of her friends rushed above deck. In contrast, the sailors scowled, remaining sitting. 

 “You’re not the captain. You have no right to order us around.”

 The boat lurched, and Captain Reis’ irritated shouts for the rest of the crew to get to work bled through the wood. Sinbad watched them scramble out the door with a satisfied grin, and Thalia couldn’t help but smile too. Seeing him vindicated so quickly made her proud. 

 He turned back to Thalia, Masrur, and Sharrkan. “I’m going out there too. You three stay here.”

 Thalia nodded, understanding that now was not the time to test her recently gained knowledge of the ship. She removed his jacket from her shoulders.

 “Stay warm,” she said, handing it to him.

 He raised an eyebrow. 

 “That sounded like an order, Princess.”

 Thalia hadn’t thought about her comment that way, but now that he mentioned it...

 “It was,” she decided. “You’re to guide this ship safely through the storm without catching a cold.”

 He grinned, leaning forward and steadying her as the boat heaved once again.

 “I suppose I’m not a king yet, but don’t think you can order me around. I’m still your boss.”

Thalia rolled her eyes playfully and complained. “Who do you think is going to have to care for you if you get sick? I’m a stakeholder in your health. I get some say. That’s how businesses work, right?”

He laughed. “I’m not exactly a business, but I can’t argue with that logic.” Turning to leave, he paused and looked back at her. “One more thing. Before the storm gets too bad, be sure to put out that lamp. Fire and wood don’t mix.” He pointed to the flickering lantern swaying from the ceiling.

“I understand,” Thalia told him, her hands folded dutifully in front of her stomach.

 He headed back above the deck, leaving Thalia alone with two children, the swinging lamp, and the sound of boots clamoring above her head for company.

She smiled at the boys, sitting down across the table from them and searching for a topic that might be of interest.

“Masrur, did you find Fanalis territory like you had hoped?”

“No.” His usually flat affect held a hint of disappointment. “There’s nothing left. Slave traders took them all.”

Thalia nodded sympathetically. Masrur wasn’t good at expressing his emotions, but the fact that he had asked to come on this journey spoke volumes about how excited he had been at the prospect of meeting others like him.

“I’m sorry. I can’t imagine—”

“Still, I’m glad I came.”

“Oh?” She leaned forward. She hadn’t expected him to elaborate, and the fact that he had meant that he felt the subject was important.

“Even if nothing is left, it’s the land of the Fanalis.” He stared at Thalia, red eyes burning with intensity. “If you ever get a chance to go back home, you should take it. Your homeland is a part of you.”

Thalia nodded resolutely. Masrur was right. Her homeland was and always would be a part of her. It was amazing how mature he was for his age. “Thank you for your advice, Masrur. I’ll be sure to take it,” she assured him. This thoughtfulness was a seed she wanted to nurture. Next, she turned to Sharrkan. “Was this your first adventure away from the palace?”

He nodded. “It was really cool. Masrur and I captured a band of slave traders and saved a whole village.”

Thalia coughed. “I think I misheard. Did you say you watched while Sinbad and Ja’far did this?”

Sharrkan puffed up proudly. “Nope. Masrur and I did it by ourselves.”

Thalia took a deep breath. It was fine. They weren’t dead, so clearly it wasn’t a big deal.

Then, Masrur’s cloak shifted, and she noticed large scabs on his arms. Gripping the sides of her seat tightly, she scowled. How had Sinbad and Ja’far allowed this to happen? She wanted to ignore the storm and go chew them out for being so irresponsible. Masrur was only seven, and Sharrkan was nine. They were much too young to be fighting by themselves.

“We’re both stronger than you,” Masrur reminded her, as though he had read her mind.

The patter of rain began to beat against the wood above her head, and the crash of thunder rumbled. She pursed her lips in response to Masrur’s words. She wasn’t going to be fighting any slave traders either, so that point didn’t make her feel better.

 “I’m going to turn off the lamp,” she told the children as the storm continued to pick up.

“Won’t it be dark?” Sharrkan pouted. “I don’t like the dark.”

“You’re brave,” Thalia encouraged him. “I know you are. You just told me you and Masrur took on slave traders by yourselves.”

She started to stand up, but Sharrkan interrupted her. “I just don’t like the dark. It reminds me of the family tomb. Can we keep it on a little longer?”

Thalia sat back down. She didn’t blame him for being nervous in that tomb. It had even spooked her a little. “I guess it can wait, but just for a little while, okay?”

Sharrkan nodded, satisfied with the compromise.

 Minutes later, Thalia was tapping the underside of her seat impatiently when a wave crashed into them. Falling out of the bolted-down chair, the impact threw against the hull of the ship. 

 “Are you okay?” Sharrkan asked, clinging more tightly to his own chair.

 “You two stay there. Don’t move from your seats unless I tell you to, okay?”

 The two boys agreed. Thalia moved her attention from them to the lamp swinging dangerously close to the wooden ceiling.

 “I’m going to turn off the lamp for real this time,” she told Masrur and Sharrkan. The two boys nodded again, Sharrkan huddling nervously toward Masrur.

 As the ship began to rock in the opposite direction, she took the opportunity to grab on to the chair she had been sitting in earlier, using it to pull herself up onto the table. Holding onto the sides, she tried to steady herself. At the right moment, she would rise up, take the lamp down, and extinguish it. 

She waited, paying attention to the rhythm of the boat’s swaying until she was confident in her measurements. Her arms brought the lamp down swiftly, nimble fingers turning off the kerosine valve that powered it. 

Now, the room was disorientingly dark, like a tomb. Thalia lost her balance, and another toss of the boat threw her off the table, knocking her head against something hard. Upon impact, bright lightning flashed before her eyes, leaving green afterimages sparking in her vision. Thalia blinked them away, struggling to crawl toward the stairs that would lead her out of the darkness. She didn’t even know which direction she had fallen in. She called out to the boys.

 “Masrur? Sharrkan?” she slurred, “Are you... okay?”

 Sharrkan’s sniffle came from behind her. “Are you...” She couldn’t understand the rest of what he was saying, but his voice provided a way to orient herself. She scrambled in his direction.

As dull light flooded in, a sense of relief washed over Thalia. The sound of boots clapped down the stairs. Had Sinbad come to check on her? His gait sounded different. Why was he limping? Was he hurt too?

“Thought ye could hide here in the dark, did ye?”

No, it wasn’t Sinbad. It was...

“Captain Reis?” She crawled clumsily toward him, unable to determine where the floor was located underneath her.

“Ye almost had me fooled with yer womanly guiles. Did ye think I wouldn’t hear about ye seducing me crew members? The gods sent this storm as punishment for lettin’ ye board to tempt me men.”

“Guiles? What? No, I—” She collapsed onto her elbow and pulled herself back up.

 Sharrkan started to stand up, but Masrur pulled him back down forcefully.

 “She said don’t move,” Masrur reminded him flatly. 

Thalia felt a swell of pride at Masrur’s obedience. She gave him a small thumbs-up, and he nodded in response. Sharrkan looked entirely uncomfortable with the situation, seemingly ready to spring up at any moment. She pursed her lips, shaking her head. They were safer in their seats. If they got up, they could knock their heads too.

Large hands wrapped around her waist and flung her over a shoulder. She felt like a ragdoll. She didn’t want him touching her like this. 

“Hey, I really don’t appreciate—” A racketous pain pounded in her head, and suddenly she couldn’t remember what she had wanted to say. She lay still on the captain’s shoulder, listening to him rant.

“Denying it, are ye?” he mused.

What did Thalia deny again? She’d forgotten, so it must not have been significant.

“No matter.” Captain Reis continued. “Take it up with the gods when ye meet them.”

Thalia blinked. Why would the gods want to meet her? Did Captain Reis really think she was that important? It was flattering, but she was hardly a hero from one of her country’s epics.

Warm, wet rain pounded on her back as Captain Reis carried her up the stairs. Thalia thought to Sinbad, who was out in the rain wearing his wonderful-smelling jacket. Maybe that’s where the captain was taking her. He must have realized she was hurt and was taking her to her friends. He was trying to help her. 

 “Stop!” Sharrkan’s voice called after them. She heard him exchanging muffled whispers with Masrur. She was glad they’d become such good friends, exchanging secrets like this.

 The captain carried her past Nasha, who was tugging tightly on the boat’s rigging as he tried to steer the sails. He glanced back and spotted her and Captain Reis. Thalia waved to him enthusiastically.

 “Captain! What the hell are you doing?” he called, dropping his rope.

 “This ‘ere woman is the cause of this tempest. I’m...” His voice became garbled

 He was what? Thalia hadn’t understood that last part. Her head throbbed.

 “That’s insane!” Nasha shouted. “Think about what you’re doing! You’re murdering an innocent girl! Thalia, what are you doing? Fight back!”

 Fight? Was she in danger? Maybe the captain was trying to protect her, but Nasha didn’t seem to think she was safe with him. She pounded weakly on Captain Reis’ back.

 “Lemme down,” she slurred. “Nasha says I’m in trouble.”

“Shit! What the hell’s wrong with her?” Nasha lunged forward, restraining the captain. “Ravi!” he bellowed, “Where’s Sinbad?”

Ravi looked up, having not yet noticed the commotion. “He’s at the helm! Why, what… What’s Captain doing with Thalia?”

“Nevermind that!” Nasha cried, tugging Thalia’s leg. Offended that Nasha was touching her without permission again, she kicked at him, hitting somewhere close to the belt. He drew in a hiss of air, tugging harder. “Go get that bastard and bring him over here!”

Thalia relaxed, closing her eyes. “You can let me go now,” She told the captain, who was struggling against Nasha and shouting vulgarities. “Sin’s coming.”

“The hell are you saying, Thalia? I’m protecting you right now,” Nasha growled. 

When Thalia opened her eyes again, Sharrkan and Masrur were emerging from the hatch and dashing in her direction. Masrur ran behind her, blocking the captain’s path. 

“He said stop,” Masrur grunted. Thalia couldn’t see what was happening, but the captain had stopped struggling and began to fall limp. Sharrkan was prepared, catching her as Captain Reis tumbled backward and dragging her away from him.

“Seats,” she muttered. “I told you to stay.”

“I’m sorry. We couldn’t,” Sharrkan told her.

“Thalia?” Sinbad’s voice called her name over the whipping wind and torrential rain. Thalia looked around, trying to find him.

When he came into focus, he was rushing toward her, his balance not even remotely thrown off by the rocking of the ship. Thalia reached out for him like a child when she saw him. He was warmth; he was safety. She didn’t understand what was happening, but she knew with him, she would be safe.

He pulled her away from Sharrkan and into his arms.

“Ravi, Ja’far.” He looked to the two boys coming up behind him. “Take Captain Reis to the hold and return to your positions. Nasha, man the helm. The storm is already starting to ease up. You should be able to take it from here. Sharrkan, Masrur, great job. Go dry off.”

“Hold on,” Nasha scowled. “What gives you the right to order me around?”

“Now isn’t the time to prove yourself, Nasha. Thalia needs help.” Sinbad’s voice rumbled in his chest, deep and soothing. Thalia leaned her throbbing head against his shirt, savoring the vibrations.

The five subordinates nodded, following their respective orders.

She smiled, reaching up to touch his smooth face. He would look so dumb with a beard , she thought.

He seemed to have heard her mental insult. He returned her smile, but it didn’t reach his eyes.


 

Sinbad set his injured friend down gingerly on his bed, her wet dress clinging to him as he pulled away. When he withdrew his hand from the back of her head, it was covered in blood. He scowled, imagining the captain slamming her head into the ground or hitting her with something hard.

“Did Captain Reis do this to you?” he asked gravely, staring at his blood-soaked hand.

“No,” she frowned, her dark eyebrows knitting themselves together. “I think… I fell.”

Sinbad sighed. He had left her alone for a few hours, and she had nearly killed herself. When she hadn’t succeeded, the captain of the ship had tried to finish the job for her. If it weren’t for Nasha, Masrur, and Sharrkan, she would be dead right now. He’d been unable to protect her, and that fact irritated him. 

It had been his dumb idea to bring her. He’d believed he could protect her from anything that might come her way. He hadn’t realized the two greatest threats would be one of his contracted employees and Thalia herself.

Taking a deep breath, he focused his thoughts. He needed to concentrate on one thing at a time. First, he would get to the bottom of the head injury. She would have had to have fallen from relatively high up to sustain one so bad.

“You climbed up on the table to turn off the lantern?” he guessed.

“Yeah.” She winced.

He pursed his lips. “Thalia, there’s a tool you could have used to take it down.”

“Seriously?” She giggled. “I didn’t know.” 

Was she seriously laughing right now? Did she not understand the gravity of what had just happened?

Letting out a heavy breath, he sat down with her. He should have told her about the tool. He should have made sure she knew. This was his fault. 

Stroking her cheek with his thumb, he asked, “What happened next?” 

“I’m not sure,” she answered, tucking her legs in under her. “My thoughts are... fuzzy.”

Sinbad was no doctor, but he was familiar with some injuries. The giggling, the head injury, and the scattered thoughts all pointed to one thing.

“You probably have a concussion,” he observed. “I’m going to disinfect the wound, then we’ll get you into dry clothing, okay?”

She nodded obediently, her hands resting politely in her lap. It didn’t escape Sinbad that through her soaking, white dress, he could clearly see the outline of her body. In any other circumstance, it would have been erotic to see her in his bed like this. Right now, all he could think about was dressing her wound.

He reluctantly left her to search for the first aid kit, which was in the corner. He rummaged around in it, soaking a rag with gin and returning to her side. She swore as he placed the cloth against her wound.

“I hope it hurts,” he scolded her. “This is your punishment. Who do you think gets stuck taking care of you when you get hurt? I’m a stakeholder in your health. I get a say.”

Between winces, Thalia released a pained chuckle. 

 “Sorry for saving the ship,” she replied sarcastically, her words slurring a little.

 He frowned, pulling hair out of the way and dabbing gently. “You better be. You’re my valuable employee.” 

 She gave him a half-lidded, tender smile, bringing a hand to his cheek. “And you’re my tyrant boss.” 

Sinbad’s breath caught in his throat. Was she trying to seduce him? He knew she wasn’t thinking straight, but if she kept this up, they’d both be foggy-headed. Clearing his throat, he started wrapping white gauze around her forehead. He tried to focus on what was important. He needed to stop the bleeding.

When her eyes started to drift shut, Sinbad gently shook her. “I know you’re tired, but you’ve got to stay awake until we’re done.”

Making a plaintive noise, she stuck her bottom lip out pathetically. He was definitely teasing her for this later.

Sinbad scratched his hair, searching for a way to make the remainder of this process less painful. Then, as he wrapped the bandage around her one more time, he came to a realization. The white cloth around her head reminded him of a certain knight from Sasan. 

 He smirked, knowing she’d find humor in this too. “I’m going to make you look like Mystras, okay?”

 Swaying slightly, she cackled. “We need a feather.” 

 He secured the ends of her “turban” and whispered conspiratorially in her ear. “I think Ja’far brought a quill.”

 “Go get it!” She nudged him playfully out of the bed, bubbling with giggles. 

Sinbad rushed over to Ja’far’s bag and fished out the feather pen, wiping the ink off the tip and sticking it into her bandaging. “There we go!”

 She adjusted her hair and lifted her shoulders in a manner he would have suspected was flirtatious if he didn’t know better. Then, she shot him a playful glance and asked, “How do I look?”  

Watching her safe and laughing in his bed, something warm stirred in his chest. Could he tell her she was the most beautiful mess he’d ever seen? That if she ever got hurt again, he was going to take away her bonuses forever? With money on the line, she might start to take her safety seriously.

“Like a true knight of Sasan.” He brushed a hair out of her face, stroking her cheek with his thumb. 

The door to the cabin opened, and Sinbad quickly moved his hand inconspicuously to his lap. He didn’t want anyone to think he was taking advantage of Thalia in her muddled state.

 “Things finally calmed down up there,” Ja’far announced, coming in with Mystras in tow. He looked at Thalia’s bandaging. “Is that my quill?”

 Sinbad had to laugh as Ja’far tried to puzzle out why Thalia’s bandaging needed a feather. Beside him, Thalia threw back her head and cackled, leaning on his shoulder for support.

 “Is that supposed to look like my turban?” Mystras asked, touching the cloth around his head delicately. Sinbad wondered if the joke had been in poor taste, but then he continued, “Come on, guys. You still need a jewel to pin on there. Then no one will be able to tell us apart.”

 “I bet... Drakon has a brooch,” she snickered. “He would have a brooch.”

 “Is she okay?” Ja’far asked as Sinbad left her side to rummage around in Drakon’s bag. “She seems a little…”

 “She just hit her head,” Sinbad explained, pulling out a jeweled pin. Thalia had been right in her assessment of Drakon’s packing priorities. “I’m sure she’ll recover in a few days. At least she’s in a good mood.”

 “Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Thalia assured him between titters.

 Ja’far let out a beleaguered sigh. “You should change into dry clothes and get some rest, Thalia.”

 “Is Thalia in here?” Mystras asked playfully as Sinbad pinned a brooch from Drakon’s bag onto her turban. “I only see my long lost twin.”

 “I’ve always wanted a little brother!” Crawling out of bed, Thalia swayed, still giggling. Sinbad reached out to steady her, but she managed to right herself first.

 Mystras crossed his arms. “Who are you calling little? We’re twins. We’re the same age.”

 “I came out first, though.” As she began climbing up the ladder to her bed, Sinbad hovered under her, holding onto her in case she fell. The further she climbed, the lower his hands slid, down her petite waist, onto her surprisingly bony hips— he’d always assumed she would be lusher. If he said he wasn’t burning the sensation into his mind, he’d be lying. 

“Watch where you’re touching.” As his hands approached her butt, she reached down and swatted him, letting go of the ladder. She lost her balance, nearly toppling over, and his grip was the only thing that saved her from another head injury. 

 “Would you like me to let you fall instead?” he asked, helping her right herself.

 She huffed. “No.”

Begrudgingly, she allowed his hands to go where they pleased. He didn’t go out of his way to feel her up, but, to some extent, it was inevitable. All he could do was pretend he didn’t notice the firmness of her rear end or that it fit perfectly in his hands. 

Once safely in her bed, she dug through her bag. Then, she paused, gripping her forehead as she swayed dangerously. Turning her accusatory gaze to Sinbad, she scowled.

“You and Ja’far let Masrur and Sharrkan get hurt,” she grumbled. “They’re kids. Don’t...” She brought her hand to her head again, furrowing her eyebrows as though she were trying to focus. “Don’t let it happen again.”

 “Thalia, focus on your clothes,” Sinbad reminded her, holding back a chuckle.

 “I have clothes.” She looked at him as though she had no idea why he would ask her to do something so idiotic.

 “Get dry ones,” Ja’far prodded, exasperation evident in his voice. 

 “Right.” She rustled around in her bag again, pulling out a clean linen frock. She also pulled out the blue shawl that had magically appeared the same night Thalia went on a date with the Heliohaptian Consul. She tossed them over the edge and climbed back down, slipping half-way. Luckily, Sinbad had been holding her firmly by the waist and caught her.

She giggled, squirming in his hold. When she reached the bottom, she threw her arms around his neck, sighing dreamily. Sinbad coughed uncomfortably as her chest pressed into him.

“You’re such a good friend,” she told him, her words slurring together.

He looked anywhere but at Thalia, praying she would recover quickly.

Mystras coughed. “Would you two like some privacy?”

“I think we’re fine,” Sinbad huffed, prying her off him. “Do you need help getting dressed, Thalia?”

She shook her head vigorously, much to his relief.

“Mystras, Ja’far, and I are going outside. I’m going to count to 100. If you’re not dressed by then, I’m going to come in and to help you.”

 “Don’t you dare. I can—” She swayed. “I can dress myself.” 

Sinbad frowned. He hoped for the sake of his sanity that she was right, but he wasn’t confident. “Fine. I’ll be right outside.”


Thalia muttered under her breath as the boys left, shutting the cabin door behind them. She was determined to dress herself. If Sinbad saw her naked, she would die of embarrassment. Letting him see her in a skimpy dress was one thing, but she wasn’t ready to have him see her in her most vulnerable state. 

The loud recitation of numbers began to drift through the door, spurring her to hurry. She pulled up her old dress, stumbling clumsily with the rocking of the boat and ramming her shoulder into something solid and wooden, as if she weren’t already in enough pain. When she finished swapping out her clothing, she eyed Sinbad’s inviting bed. She would never be able to get back up to her own bed by herself. 

Curling up wrapped in her shawl, she decided closing her eyes wouldn’t hurt. She Nuzzled her head into the pillow. It smelled like Sinbad, the most relaxing scent in the world. All tension fled from her body, and she sank into the bed. Accompanied by the rhythmic sound of Sinbad’s voice, she drifted to sleep.

Chapter Text

When Thalia awoke, she lay in bed for a long time, willing herself to fall back asleep, but unconsciousness refused to return. She finally opened her eyes, irritated. Her dreams had been filled with pleasant, vivid imagery of gardens and green fields. Reality was disappointing in comparison. Sitting up, she stretched out her stiff body, looking around. The room was dark, the only light provided by moonlight penetrating through a small window. 

She felt something wrapped around her head and reached up to touch it. It was a bandage, she remembered as she ran her fingers along the soft gauze. Her fingers tenderly tested the back of her head. When they elicited a sharp pain, she hissed. She had definitely hit her head on something. Her hand cradled her forehead as she willed herself to remember what had happened. The fragments of a memory drifted to the surface. She had been talking to Masrur and Sharrkan. Then there was a lamp, and she was on a table. She'd fallen, and Captain Reis had taken her to Sinbad. Then, she'd fallen asleep in her friend's bunk.

She groaned quietly, careful not to wake her fellow snoring passengers. She still didn't feel like her thoughts were entirely unscrambled. 

Lighting a lamp, she climbed up the ladder to peek in her bunk. In it was Sinbad, hugging her pillow. She briefly felt guilty for kicking him out of his bed, but he looked comfortable enough to ease her conscience. She checked Mystras's bed next. He was one of the snorers, splayed across his bed and out cold. Ja'far was sleeping on his stomach, one arm hanging off the bed. His eyebrow twitched in irritation as he muttered something about the ledgers. Thalia sighed, shaking her head. He even worked in his sleep. 

Next, she peeked in Masrur and Sharrkan's bunks. Masrur had kicked off his covers at some point during the night. She gently tucked him back in. His eyes locked on her immediately.

Thalia pursed her lips. She hadn't meant to wake him up. It made sense that he would be a light sleeper, though. His hearing seemed to be better than most. She guessed he was wondering if she was okay after her head injury.

"I'm fine," she whispered. "Go back to sleep."

He closed his eyes, apparently satisfied with her answer.

Thalia already knew that she wouldn't find Drakon and Hinahoho in here. They usually slept on the deck or down in the hull where there was more room because the beds were so cramped. In the next row of bunks, occupied mainly by sailors. Ravi was asleep hugging a book next to his chest, but the bunk above him, Nasha's, was empty.

 She wandered outside, where the night crew had busied themselves working the ship, to look for him. Her eyes scanned the deck, resting on a lone sailor hunched the table with a mug of beer. His long red hair gave away his identity even from behind. Sliding into the seat next to him, she noted his red-rimmed eyes.

 "Hey, Nasha. Are you okay?"

 Nasha whipped his head in her direction. His eyes lingered on her bandages as a dumbfounded expression fell over his face.

 "What's on your head?" he asked, his voice hoarse.

 "Don't I look like Mystras?" Thalia giggled, flipping her hair over her shoulders.

 "Are those bandages? Did you get hurt?" He reached toward her, then stopped, perhaps remembering the scolding she'd given him last time he'd touched her unexpectedly.

 "I just bumped my head a little." She motioned as though she were hitting herself on the head to emphasize her words.

 Nasha crumpled in relief.

 "God. You're such a clutz." 

 "I am," she agreed. "I'm a walking safety hazard."

 "Fuck, Thalia." He returned his gaze to his glass of beer. "I thought you were going to die, and it was my fault."

  "Why would it be your fault? I just fell off a table." 

 Nasha drew back incredulously, his grip tightening around the stem of his glass.

 "You don't remember?"

 "Remember what?" she frowned. Why was he being so cryptic? She furrowed her eyebrows, trying to think of what she could be forgetting. She had fallen off the table, then Captain Reis had picked her up to bring her to her friends. No, that wasn't right. It had made sense to her at the time, but looking back on it now, he had been behaving strangely.

 "Why was Captain Reis carrying me? Where was he going?" Thalia asked.

 Nasha's forehead now had a sheen of sweat. He wiped it off with his sleeve.

 "He wanted to throw you overboard, Thalia."

 She blinked, shifting uncomfortably in her seat. She had been in danger and hadn't even realized it. The thought left her uneasy.

 She turned to Nasha. The poor boy was now drenched in sweat. Forgetting her own discomfort, she reached out to him, touching his wrist to comfort him.

 "Captain Reis was incurably superstitious," she told him softly. "How could that be your fault?"

 Nasha took a large swig out of his mug before answering.

 "I kind of spread the rumor we were sleeping together. I think the old coot caught whiff of it, and that combined with the storm set off his paranoia."

 Thalia immediately withdrew her hand from his wrist, her sympathy dissipating.

 "You what?" She inhaled sharply, the throbbing pain in the back of her head returning.

She was furious. It was one thing for other people to start baseless rumors about her because she shared a room with one of her guy friends, but for one of her guy friends to be the source of the lie? Not to mention, if word of this got out, it could severely damage her reputation. She'd worked so hard to keep what had happened with Marcus a secret, and now none of that mattered because Nasha was a self-serving liar.

Nasha turned to face her, his eyes bright with unshed tears. They only infuriated her more. He wasn't the one who'd nearly been killed over a rumor that he had spread.

 "You really are a princess, aren't you?" He worded it like a question, but it wasn't. He knew the answer. He must have known it for a while. Was that why he'd been so nice to her recently?

He continued, "So, I lied. Sleeping with a princess? How badass would that be? But I never meant to nearly get you killed."

Thalia grabbed his mug, taking a swig before choking on the taste. She had hoped to drown out the disappointment and anger she was feeling over Nasha's betrayal, the same way her mother used to do. It seemed she was going to have to torture herself to do so.

. "Why?" Thalia asked after she stopped coughing.

 He shrugged. "I just wanted to boost my report with the rest of the crew."

 "So you used me," she confirmed.

 "Yep."

 She took another gulp of the horrible liquid. How long would she have to keep this up to feel numb? 

"Go tell the truth, Nasha. Tell them you lied."

 He shook his head. "No way. I can't."

 She straightened her back, trying to look threatening. "If you value our friendship, you can."

 "I saved your life!" he shouted, throwing his hand on his chest. "Shouldn't that count for something?"

 Thalia downed several more large gulps of beer before Nasha swiped it from her.

 "Go easy on that stuff, will you?" he growled. "You're not used to it."

 "You don't get to tell me what to do, traitor," she spat in response. "I thought you were better than this."

"I told you not to trust me," he said quietly, looking in his lap.

She stiffened as the reality of their crumbling friendship struck her. Nasha wasn't going to take responsibility for what he had done at all. Salvaging their relationship was a lost cause. Standing up, she turned her back on him, heading back into the crew's quarters.

"Thalia, wait!" He called out after her. She ignored him, refusing to look back. She was afraid if she did, she would lose her resolve never to forgive him. 


 

Sinbad's heart raced. He was on Ria Venus Island in the punishment room, chained to a wall as his flesh burned and shredded with every jab of an iron prod or lash of a cane. The figure administering the punishment towered above him, his skin a sickly green hue. Lady Maader stood ashen in the background, black acid dripping from her mouth as she howled with laughter at every cry of pain.

He looked around. The only person who could save him was nowhere to be seen. He called out for her, but she didn't come. Another blow from the cane sent him limp. Maybe she wasn't coming this time. After all, there were so many times she had never shown up, leaving him to the mercy of that vile woman. Maybe she'd finally given up on him. Maybe she was never coming again. 

The tall, sickly figure dropped the cane and pulled out a pair of pliers. Sinbad's body went rigid, recognizing what they were for. The man was going to pry off Sinbad's fingernails one by one. He worked up the will to struggle once again as the pliers lodged themselves into the bed of his pinky nail. He readied to scream.

Then her voice came.

"Sinbad," she whispered. He looked up and there she was, reaching out to him in invitation. The phantoms fled at the sight of her, their faces contorting into rage before they vanished from the room. Now, it was just the two of them. As she walked toward him, the world rippled, the punishment room transforming into their secret corner. The flowers in the garden released their scent into the gentle wind that tousled her hair, laced with white heather. Her lips parted into a serene smile to assure him he was safe now. He reached out with his freshly scarred arms and pulled her to him, clinging to her like a vine to a cedar tree.

"You finally came," he whispered into her hair. "I thought you'd never come."

"Sin, you're having a bad dream." She pawed at his shoulder, shaking him.

He shook his head. "Not anymore."

He couldn't have a bad dream with Thalia in it. She was the guardian of pleasant dreams, chasing away his nightmares and replacing them with this surreally beautiful landscape of her creation. The first time she had appeared like this had been in Heliohapt when they had shared a bed together. Since then, she had begun to occasionally disrupt his nightmares, always bringing him back to their secret corner. Here, his senses were capable of perceiving things in more detail than in the waking world. Here, he could talk to her about anything.

 "Wake up," she pleaded. "I need to talk to you."

Something wasn't right. He was right here. There was no reason dream Thalia couldn't talk to him, unless… 

His eyes snapped open, the object of his dreams startlingly close to his face. The Thalia in his dream had been mouthing the words of the real Thalia, who was currently struggling against his vice-like embrace.

"Thalia? What are you…?" he trailed off, too stunned to finish his sentence.

 He sheepishly let her go, hoping he hadn't frightened her. 

Sitting up, he studied her. She was a far cry from the angel that had been comforting him in his dream. Her hair was matted, she hadn't bathed in days, and a bandage wound around her head. It was a reminder of his inability to protect her.

But she was the real thing, and she was finally awake. That made her a thousand times more beautiful to him than the image he'd conjured in his dream. He didn't complain that she had woken him up. He was glad she had. The last two days, he'd been worried incessantly, even as he assured the others she would be fine. Now, he could let go of his concerns. 

"What did you need to talk about?" he asked quietly, careful not to wake anyone else up.

In response, she pursed her lips and clambered down the ladder. He took that as a sign she wanted to speak outside. 

He followed her, paying close attention to each step as he climbed down from his bunk. He was still half-asleep, and his sense of balance had yet to return to him. She guided him outside, tugging on his hand silently and leading him to a quiet corner. The splashing of the waves against the side of the boat and the salty air enveloped him, making him feel at ease. His eyes began to drift shut again before he remembered why he was out here. He looked to Thalia, her arms crossed in front of her defensively.

He sighed. She'd just woken up. How could she already be angry?

Her dark eyes flashed furiously in the moonlight. "You knew, didn't you?"

He yawned, his long hair falling over his shoulder. He had no idea what she was talking about.

"Knew what?" he asked. "What time is it?"

He was happy to see her, but couldn't she wait until after he woke up to talk about unpleasant things?

"I don't care what time it is," she hissed. "You knew Nasha was telling people I was sleeping with him. You didn't tell me."

So that's why she was mad. He had been sure to order everyone to stay quiet about those rumors, so who could have possibly…?

He grimaced. "You found out about that. Who told you?"

She practically growled. "Nasha. But you know what sucks? That I had to find out from him because my best friend thinks I can't handle a little gossip."

"I was trying to protect you," he responded defensively.

"If I'm going to become queen of Attica, I'm going to have to deal with a lot more than some idiot claiming he's been sleeping with me. Besides, you said we were a team. 'No more secrets.'" 

He sighed, rubbing his forehead. When he said no more secrets, he had meant on her end. She abused her silence, keeping things hidden away until she exploded. He was different. He had kept the secret to protect her. Though, in all fairness, she did have a point about what she would have to deal with as queen. Maybe he had been overprotective. He decided to concede.

 "I did say that. I'm sorry. What do you want me to do about him?"

She blanched at his question, as though she hadn't expected him to give her that sort of power over Nasha's fate.

"I don't know."

"You don't know?" As angry as she seemed to be, Sinbad would have thought she already had several punishments lined up.

"Can you make him walk the plank? Maroon him on a desert island?" 

"Those are good ideas." Her suggestions brought a grin to his face. She must have read about those kinds of punishments in one of her books. They were sailor punishments, reserved only for severe crimes. He listed a couple of more reasonable sanctions to consider. "I can also have him swab the decks or demote him to cabin boy."

"Can't you just fire him?" 

A bit of a pout crept into her features. If she weren't practically an adult, it might have worked, but as things stood, he wasn't about to give in to her wide-eyed plea.

"I can't fire him, Thalia. It's not my ship. Though, we certainly won't be contracting with Captain Reis again."

"Okay, but hear me out." Thalia proposed. "What if we put him on a lifeboat with enough food and water to last him to Balbadd,"  

"I'm sorry," he sighed. "You're just going to have to put up with him until we dock. Besides, if he got lost or something happened, you'd never forgive yourself. You're not a killer."

"What I don't know won't hurt me," she huffed, and Sinbad ruffled her hair affectionately. She knew he was right. She tapped her foot, thinking. "Make him act as the cabin boy. He'll hate that. All he cares about is his position and what others think of him, so if you demote him to the lowest position on the ship, that will get to him."

Sinbad nodded approvingly. "It seems two days rest was enough to unscramble your head."

Thalia blanched. "I was asleep for two days?"

Sinbad nodded slowly, recounting the ordeal they had gone through to care for her, "We tried to wake you up for meals, but you whined and told us to go away."

"That doesn't sound like me at all," she said wryly. He imagined she knew that sounded exactly like something she would do. 

"You had us worried sick. Be sure to get something on your stomach, okay? I'm glad you're feeling better."

When he finished lecturing her, he sighed. Now he was fully awake, and he couldn't see himself falling back asleep any time soon. He glanced at his best friend beside him and grinned. It had been a long two days without her. He had a lot of steam to blow off.

"Care to keep me company for a few drinks?"

Thalia crossed her arms again, her expression souring.

"I don't want to sit on the floor, and Nasha's hogging the table. There's no way I'm getting near him."

His lips twitched. Seeing her finally avoid that jerk was gratifying beyond his expectations.

"I'll take care of him," he assured her. "You just come with me."

She clung to his wrist, stumbling slightly as they approached the table with the lone sailor. Sinbad frowned. He was positive she'd been perfectly capable of walking when she led him outside a few minutes ago. 

He paused, turning around and putting his nose close to her mouth.

"Wha— what are you doing?" she stammered, stumbling backward.

Her breath reeked of alcohol.

"Have you been drinking?" he asked, incredulous. Since when did Thalia drink? He had only seen her touch alcohol once. That time, she had hated the taste so much, she refused to so much as look at it again.

"I'm not drunk," she asserted, poking his nose. "See? Bullseye."

"That was the least convincing argument you could have possibly given," Sinbad groaned, pulling her hand away from his face. "You do get points for coordination."

"That's because I'm not drunk."

He made a small tutting noise. "That's exactly what a drunk person would say."

Placing her hands on her cheeks, she sighed, "I feel really good."

"I bet you do," he agreed, leading her the rest of the way to the table. He slammed his hand on the wood, startling Nasha out of his stupor.

"Did she eat?" Sinbad demanded.

"I… I don't know. She just came up and started talking…"

Sinbad turned to Thalia.

"Tell me you didn't drink on an empty stomach."

"You want me to lie?" she giggled. Sinbad rolled his eyes. She should know better, having a great role model like him around.

"She didn't drink much," Nasha quickly assured him. "I didn't let her."

"You did one thing right," Sinbad conceded." Do you mind leaving us? Thalia's a little upset with you."

"It's not a little," she hissed loudly from behind him, tugging on his arm.

Nasha peered around him. "Thalia, come on. Be mature about this. Let's talk—"

"She's in no condition to talk," Sinbad interrupted him.

Nasha rose, banging his hand on the table. "You're going to try to tell her who she can talk to now? I've never seen anyone so desperate to get laid. You drag her around like some rag doll hoping she'll come around. The only difference between you and me is you still have the gall to pretend you're a decent guy. I embrace what I am—"

Thalia's grip tightened around his wrist.

"All you do is say you're an asshole to avoid responsibility," she hiccupped, more unsteady than before. Sinbad pulled her against his side for support, and she continued, "Sin's not like that. He would never use me like you did."

"Nasha, she just woke up from a head injury. She's angry at you. Standing will tire her out, and being around you will only upset her. Be reasonable. Let us have the table."

Nasha glared at him for a moment before begrudgingly vacating his seat.

"We're going to talk sooner or later, Thalia," he spat before wandering off.

"Like hell," she grumbled under her breath.

Sinbad felt a swell of pride. He imagined when they first met almost three years ago, she wouldn't have been nearly as ready to stand her ground. She'd flourished ever since coming to the company.

"I'm going to get some snacks," he told her, helping her sit. "Wait here, okay?"

She reluctantly released him, clearly biting back complaints at being abandoned. He chuckled. So she was a clingy drunk. 

As Sinbad left Thalia to fetch something for the two of them to eat, he couldn't shake the feeling that the drama between Thalia and Nasha wasn't over. Sinbad had a distinct feeling that Nasha's predatory behavior toward the only girl on the ship stemmed from an inferiority complex. Thalia's decision for his punishment certainly would get under his skin, but for that reason, Sinbad expected Nasha to retaliate somehow.

He would have to tell Ja'far to keep an eye on Nasha for the remainder of the voyage.

Chapter Text

Thalia watched the pink and golden hues of the rising sun. The crisp, humid morning air clung to her like the lightest of silks. She closed her eyes and tilted her head, resting it on that of the boy who had fallen asleep on her shoulder. 

After the beer she had stolen from Nasha, Thalia hadn't drunk anything. Sinbad, on the other hand, had indulged in ale for a while before falling asleep like this. She could still smell the alcohol on him, but the stench didn't bother her the way it used to. It was just another note in the complex medley of his scent.

Her peaceful moment shattered as she began replaying the events of a few hours ago in her head. She lifted her head and cringed, covering her eyes in mortification. When Sinbad had guessed she'd been drinking, it had been humiliating. She was a princess. She was supposed to be composed and refined. She was neither of those things to begin with, but the alcohol had only turned her into a stumbling fool. 

Her eyes narrowed at the empty bottles on the table. She had drunk too much in a moment of weakness. She swore she would never touch the stuff again.

Sinbad's head began to stir on her shoulder. He sat up, rubbing his eyes.

"'Morning, Thalia," he yawned.

"Good morning, Sin," she answered cheerfully, burying her negative feelings. Sinbad didn't need to know about how ashamed she felt. He wouldn't understand. Did someone like him even know what shame felt like? He was so carefree. None of the trappings of royalty seemed to confine him, yet he had so many followers and ran a small empire of a company. She wished she could be more like him, free of fears and inhibitions.

Sinbad's sleepy eyes fixed on her hair before he burst out laughing. "I know we don't have a mirror on this ship, but you should really see yourself." 

Thalia deflated even further. Did she really look so awful? Usually, he was a fountain of compliments even when she didn't really deserve them.

He pulled a comb out of his pocket and motioned for her to turn around. She obeyed, spinning away from him. His hands raked gently through her hair for a moment before he began working at the ends. He was obviously trying to be gentle, but it seemed like her hair must be one giant tangle, the result of her sleeping on it for two days straight.

"Ow!" she complained as he yanked through a snag.

"We can always cut it off," he reminded her. "You'd look cute with short hair."

Thalia was appalled at the suggestion. She'd had long hair as long as she could remember. It was part of her identity.

"Try to touch my hair with a razor and see what happens," she growled.

He laughed. "I already know what will happen. You'll whine until it grows back out. Very threatening."

She huffed. She might be powerless now, but when she was a queen, she would make him submit to her. Then he would be sorry for taking her lightly.

"One of these days, I'm going to have an army. You won't be able to bully me anymore."

He tugged at the comb, ripping out another tangle. "You really think it's a good idea to send an army after me when you've seen what I can do?"

His voice carried more than a hint of skepticism, but Thalia had a trump card.

She spun around in her seat, grinning triumphantly. "You won't touch my army."

He raised an eyebrow, clearly amused. He was underestimating her again.

"And why would that be?" he asked, nudging her head back to where he could finish brushing it.

"You like me too much. Look at you, the legendary dungeon capturer, brushing my hair like a maid— ow!"

He had intentionally tugged her hair a little too hard this time.

"Oops," he deadpanned. "Sorry, my hand slipped. I'm a dungeon capturer, not a maid. I'm not used to this whole hair brushing thing."

She hissed through her teeth. She had picked the wrong time for a battle of wills. She made a note not to initiate wars with someone whose kindness she was at the mercy of. 

He leaned forward, whispering threateningly in her ear. "If I like you so much, why do you think I bully you?"

She straightened, her back growing rigid. Of course, he didn't actually bully her. She gave him as hard a time as he gave her, if not harder. Teasing each other was their way of having fun. That hadn't been what bothered her. It was his proximity that had set her off. She willed the color to drain back down from her face before she had to turn around. The moments passed in silence as he worked his way through the last bits of her hair. She took steadying breaths until she was confident she was composed.

As he finished running the comb through her now tangle-free hair, she twisted toward him, letting him see the results of his work.

He grinned, studying her proudly. "Now I don't have to be embarrassed to be seen with you."

"You're lucky I grace you with my presence," she answered snarkily.

He began to style his own hair, pulling three strands back into small braids. Thalia watched curiously.

"Teach me how to do that," she requested. "I want to braid my hair too."

He smiled. "It's really easy. First, you section the hair into three pieces…"

Five minutes later, she was practicing on his hair. Ja'far and Drakon approached them, followed shortly by Mystras. Ja'far already looked exhausted by their antics. She imagined finding Sinbad getting his hair done was the last thing any of them expected to see first thing in the morning.

"Thalia, you're up!" Drakon greeted her brightly. "It looks like you two are having a slumber party."

Thalia nodded. "We were just talking about boys, then we were going to have a pillow fight."

"The pillow fight is mandatory," Sinbad added. "The party cannot conclude until the pillow fight has been held. That's because..." He stood up and whispered something in Mystras's ear, causing the knight to turn red.

"Sin, that's brilliant…"

Sinbad sat back down and kicked one leg over the other. "I know, right? I'm a genius."

"What is it?" Thalia pried, standing up and leaning toward Mystras. "I want to know."

"Sorry, Thalia," he responded sheepishly, scratching his forehead. "It's a secret between guys."

"Then tell me," Ja'far challenged them.

"I'd rather tell Thalia," Mystras squeaked.

"Thalia! You're awake!" Hinahoho's booming voice called out to her as his shadow fell over them. "Welcome back to the world of the living."

Thalia grinned up at the blue-haired giant as he patted her firmly on the back. "Glad to be back!"

Masrur and Sharrkan followed shortly after, Sharrkan lingering slightly behind his younger friend.

Thalia turned to them. It seemed they had helped save her life. She reached out to them, wanting to give them a hug. They both refused, leaving her leaning forward with her arms wide open, looking like an idiot.

"You boys did such a brave thing," she praised them, sitting back up as though they hadn't just humiliated her. "I wasn't thinking straight, but you could tell something was wrong. Thank you. I owe you two my life."

Sharrkan looked away, fiddling with his fingers. "If it hadn't been for my stupid request about the light, you never would have hurt your head. I owe you. I'll make it up to you somehow."

Thalia shook her head. "Don't worry about it. You couldn't have known what would happen."

"If it makes you feel better, you two can call it even," Hinahoho suggested. "You did help save her, after all."

"No, it has to be something I do by myself," Sharrkan explained. "I'm going to find a way. Just give me some time."

Thalia nodded. "If it's that important to you, I understand."

The boy's eyes lit up. "Thank you!"

She heard Sinbad stretch noisily behind her. "Well, I better get to work."

"Work?" She asked, turning back toward him. Even though he helped out with the ship sometimes, he usually treated their voyages as a vacation of sorts, taking the opportunity to slack off and drink. She was surprised to hear the word come from his mouth.

He grinned, shrugging. "The ship needed a captain. The crew was impressed with my leadership during the storm the other day, so they asked me to step up. My first order of business will be to demote Nasha, as you requested." Sinbad ruffled her hair gently. Thalia stiffened at his affectionate touch, hiding her hands between her thighs. Sinbad noticed her discomfort and pulled away.

 After Sinbad left, her friends got caught up in chatter amongst themselves. Ja'far seemed particularly engrossed in the conversation, as it had to do with strategies to grow the company. Thalia quietly slipped away to go borrow another book from Ravi's chest. She still didn't have the concentration to follow the disjointed strands of a group conversation, and there were a couple books left that she hadn't read. She let herself into the crew's quarters and closed the door behind her. 

Making her way to the trunk in front of Ravi's bed, she began to rummage around inside, trying to decide which book she wanted to read. There was one called One Thousand and One Days , a tome from Reim about a man named Ulysses, and a play manuscript from Balbadd called The Little Ceramic Cart . She handled the books carefully, trying to decide which one to read next.

As the door opened behind her, Thalia dropped the books, startled. Had one of her friends needed something from his bag? She craned her neck to see who had entered. Nasha stood in the doorway with his arms crossed as the door swung shut behind him. There was no way out. Tensing, she cursed under her breath. She didn't want to talk to him. She was still angry.

"Thalia." His voice was cold, bereft of its usual easygoing slickness. She hunched her shoulders, remembering how much stronger he was than she. No one knew where she was. Thalia did not like this. If he wanted to hurt her, he could. She didn't trust him anymore. She didn't know how far he was willing to go to force her to interact with him, and if he didn't respect her desire not to talk to him, what other boundaries might be willing to break? A nagging fear that a repeat of the incident on Ria Venus Island could happen at his hands caused her to break into a sweat.

"Don't look at me like that," Nasha growled. "I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to talk."

Thalia grabbed the heaviest looking book from the chest and rose slowly, positioning herself toward him. If he tried to touch her, he would get a text the weight of a brick to the head. She was never letting anyone hurt her again. She would go down fighting if she had to. She held the book demurely, as though she didn't intend to use it as a weapon. Straightening her back, she tried to look tougher than she felt. She could not show him fear or weakness. She could not let him see an opening to hurt her. She lobbed cutting words in his direction.

"Did Sinbad already demote you to cabin boy? You should be running errands about now, shouldn't you?"

"Shut up," Nasha scowled. "That guy thinks he can just take over as captain when he doesn't even know the crew. Arrogant bastard."

"He said they respect him enough to follow his orders since the storm. He earned their respect through his own merits. He doesn't have to lie about sleeping with—"

"Can you let it go already?" He gestured vehemently with his hands. "I just told a little white lie. Anyone intelligent would have done the same."

Thalia scowled. "I can count dozens of people on this very ship that haven't and wouldn't do the same."

"They're stupid, Thalia. We're not like them. We know how to lie our way out of shitty situations, climbing up the ranks on the backs of those who waste their lives pretending to be upright. We're not bound by the chains of right and wrong, and that makes us capable of anything."

Thalia nearly dropped the book with revulsion at the insinuation she and Nasha were the same. She wasn't like him. She lied to survive, not to improve her station. Still, she shared enough in common with him that his words were beginning to have an effect on her, but not the kind he intended. She shifted her weight uncomfortably. She'd lied to her friends, people who trusted her, for so long. She'd tried to prop up a false image of herself in their minds. She was manipulative, a trait she had mastered under the tutelage of Lady Maader.

She hated herself for it.

She lashed out at Nasha, attempting to hide how his words had shaken her.

"You're lying even to yourself, Nasha. You're the lowest rank on the ship because of your posturing. You haven't climbed over anyone. Meanwhile, one of the most upright people I know is your captain."

Nasha scoffed. "That guy? You're completely blind. At first, I thought like you did, that he's upright, a real stand up guy. Then, I saw it when we were playing poker, just what that guy is capable of. I always win at poker, Thalia. If you hadn't intervened that day, I would have lost. He's a better liar than both of us."

Thalia frowned, irritated. Nasha was trying to mess with her head again. She'd been able to call Sinbad's bluff easily. Nasha just didn't know his tells.

"I always know when he's lying."

Thalia's grip tightened around the book as he took a step toward her.

He continued to creep forward, one step at a time. "That's when he has his guard down. If he really didn't want you to know something, you wouldn't. But it's not just that. He's a manipulator as well."

She narrowed her eyes, raising the book above her head. "You're a liar. Why would I trust a word you say?"

He brought his hands up cautiously, as though he were approaching a frightened horse. 

"I like you, Thalia. I'm looking out for you. You don't think it's weird that he collects influential young children from various countries? He's indoctrinating them, grooming them to be loyal to him. When he returns them to their homelands, they'll obey him like good little puppets—"

Thalia had never heard anything so preposterous. Nothing in her experience pointed to his accusations being even remotely true.

"They're not puppets, and not all of them are young. Hinahoho and Rurumu are adults. Mystras, Drakon, and I are the same age as him. Ja'far and Masrur aren't influential in the least, and Sharrkan was in a precarious situation because of the state of his home country."

"Well, I did some digging beyond that. You read his books, didn't you? In Valefor's dungeon, when he lied to everyone to get them to work together for his benefit—"

"That's enough, Nasha. You're beginning to sound obsessed. Let me pass."

"No, I need you to listen to me." 

Thalia prepared to swing the book downward as he came within striking distance, but Nasha was too fast. She winced as he grabbed her wrist painfully until her hand released the bound pages involuntarily. The sharp thud of the tome crashing to the ground accented the realization that she was defenseless. Dread curled in her stomach as she looked up at Nasha, who was still ranting.

"Artemyra, Sasan, Imuchakk. Again and again, he manipulates things for his own interests. He's a selfish asshole. He's already betrayed every one of his so-called friends. I won't stop until you see him for what he really is. He's done way worse than I have. He messes with entire countries. One of these days you're going to end up dragged in the middle of one of his conflicts and—"

"Let me go, or I'll scream," she threatened. She wasn't listening to his tirade at this point. He was obviously just trying to drive a wedge between her and her friends again in hopes that she would turn to him and forgive him. He hadn't even attempted to apologize for what he had done yet.

Nasha dropped her arm just before Ja'far opened the door. He stared at the two, a dangerous expression falling over his face.

"Is he bothering you, Thalia?" 

Thalia relaxed. "He was. Thank you, Ja'far." She hurried over to his side, grateful for his intervention.

Nasha spat on the floor next to him, lowering Thalia's opinion of him even further. "You're trying to keep her from anyone who might speak ill of your little leader, huh? Did he put you up to this?"

Ja'far narrowed his eyes. "If I hear from Thalia that you've been bothering her one more time, you're going in the hold with Captain Reis. The harassment of a Sindria Trading Company employee with not be tolerated." He turned to leave. "Come on, Thalia. You better stay near one of us, just to be safe." 

Thalia followed Ja'far out onto the main deck. They began to walk past Drakon, who was sitting on a crate, brooding. Thalia stopped in her tracks.

"I think I'm going to spend some time with Drakon. He looks a little down, don't you think?"

Ja'far nodded. "Go ahead. I have some things to take care of. Let me know if anyone else bothers you, okay?"

Thalia hummed in agreement, turning her attention to Drakon. She nestled next to him quietly, joining him in staring off into the distance until he noticed her presence.

"Princess? did you need something?"

"Not particularly," she sighed. "I just wanted to spend some time around my oldest friend."

His face fell. "I'm sorry you got dragged in the middle of the conflict between our two countries."

Thalia normally would have smiled and insisted she was fine, too proud and afraid to admit her true feelings on the matter. Instead, she decided to give this whole honesty thing a try.

"I don't want you to be sorry. It makes me feel pathetic."

Drakon's eyes widened. "Forgive me, Princess. I didn't know."

She nudged him with her shoulder. "There's nothing to forgive. Not between us. Besides, it seems you've gone through your own share of hardships over the years. You're… well. You know. How did that happen?"

Thalia had always avoided bringing up his appearance for fear of upsetting him, but she felt like if there were a time to bring it up, it would be now, while they were being vulnerable.

"In order to protect Lady Serendine from my brother, I fuzed with my household vessel."

"Your brother?" Thalia blanched. "I don't remember much about him, honestly, but why would he want to hurt Serendine?"

Drakon looked at her incredulously. "Thalia, do you remember my brother's name?"

Thalia shook her head. "You both had such long and complicated names. You were always 'Junior,' and he was always 'Junior's brother' to me."

"It's Barbarossa, Thalia. He's the one who—"

Thalia was so startled she fell off the box. "He led the assault against my country. It was your brother."

"He arranged a marriage to Serendine and killed her father to gain the rights to the throne."

Thalia leaned against the crate for support, feeling ill. A weak laugh escaped her lips. Serendine wasn't supposed to be a victim. She was supposed to be a horrible, awful person who plotted with Barbarossa to destroy Thalia's life. Having a marriage forced on her, having her family members killed and her country taken away by someone who abuses it… that all sounded incredibly familiar.

"It serves her right," she forced herself to mutter hoping if she said it out loud, she would start to actually believe it.

"You don't sound convinced."

Thalia pursed her lips.

"I don't like having things in common with my family's killer."

"About your family…" Drakon hedged. "What do you know about that?"

"Only what I overheard. That Serendine was responsible, and that they're dead. What happened, Drakon?" she asked, her voice cracking. "Did they at least go with dignity?"

Drakon shifted nervously. "The story I heard is that Serendine… she and Barbarossa had them cornered, and, well… they would have gone to the rukh swiftly. But… about your sister..."

"Oh, god." Thalia buried her hands in her face, thinking her sister must have met some gruesome fate. "Please don't tell me. I want to remember her as the big sister I always looked up to."

"Princess..." He stiffened as though he were about to burst with whatever he'd been about to say. 

Thalia begged him, "Please, whatever it is, I don't want to know."

 His posture slouched a little. He was clearly unhappy that he was being forced to keep silent. "Very well."

Thalia should have asked him what was bothering him, but instead, she sulked in silence for a few minutes, this new information filling in some of the gaps for the scenario that replayed in her head. Her mother and sister must have cowered in the corner of the throne room, her father brandishing his sword heroically to protect them. The guards would have been overpowered by the Parthevian army while Barbarossa and Serendine surrounded her family menacingly. Her father would have fought valiantly until he was defeated by the two, dropping his sword. Barbarossa would have turned to his young fiancee, instructing her to finish them. Serendine would have grinned, eager to please her future husband. 

No, it was an arranged marriage. Would she be so invested in his opinion of her? During the last visit Thalia had paid to Parthevia, Serendine had seemed to be developing budding feelings for Drakon. Thalia still remembered how ill she had felt the first time her fellow princess had blushed at their mutual friend, even after Serendine had assured Thalia there was nothing between the two. Would Serendine have transferred her affections to Barbarossa so easily?

Thalia shook her head, willing her doubts away. It didn't matter whether or not Serendine had been trying to impress anyone. She would have taken Thalia's father's life first, then her mother's. Then, Serendine and Barbarossa would have done something unimaginably horrendous to her sister. Had they tortured her? Taken her prisoner before killing her?

Thalia burst into tears, heavy sobs wracking her body. Drakon didn't say anything, but his heavy hand rested on her back. That made her feel better than anything he could have said out loud. She threw her arms around his leg, crying into his knee until she managed to regain control of her breathing, counting the duration of her breaths. 

When she had calmed down some, he chuckled. "When we were little and I cried, you used to cheer me up by trying to make me take deep breaths like that."

Thalia laughed, wiping a tear from her eye. "My sister taught me that. I tried to show you how it's done to get you to do it, but you just laughed at me like I was stupid. You were so mean to me."

"I wasn't mean, you were just too sensitive." His yellow eyes glimmered with amusement.

"Name one time—"

"I pointed a wooden sword at you, and you cried because you thought it was the real thing."

"Shit. You're right." She climbed back up on the crate, thinking nostalgically about old times. "I missed spending time with you like this."

Drakon huffed, crossing his arms indignantly. "As soon as I introduced you to Serendine, you barely paid attention to me."

"That's not true," she assured him. "You just weren't used to sharing me. Besides, you know how shy I was around boys back then. I did my best to be a good friend, but I didn't know how."

"Princess…"

Thalia pursed her lips. "Just call me Thalia, the way you used to."

He shifted uncomfortably. "Thalia…" He seemed to struggle to get her name to leave his mouth. "Serendine has been my closest friend for as long as I can remember. You have to remember, we were both warriors of Parthevia. Our country had to come first, before our personal feelings, before you."

Thalia didn't like what he was saying. She bit back a fresh wave of tears.

"You have every right to be angry," he continued, "but don't think this was easy on her. It was her first mission, and she was under a lot of pressure from her family. If she hadn't succeeded, she would have been disgraced."

"So?" Thalia asked sharply. "I would never have killed either of your parents, no matter what my family threatened to do to me."

He sighed, rubbing his forehead. "We were raised to be warriors for our country. You were raised to become a wife and role model for yours. You, Serendine, and I started out not so different. We were kids who just wanted to have fun. Parthevia's army drilled the softness out of Serendine and me. Your father and your maids chiseled the warrior out of you. Perhaps, even if you hadn't run away, it would have become impossible for us to see eye to eye at some point."

"Don't say that," Thalia rasped, heartbroken by his words. She took one of his giant hands in both of hers, pleading with him. "Don't say that as though you would have done the same thing she did. Don't say that as though you never cared about me enough to think twice about murdering my family. "

Drakon refused to meet her eyes until she dropped his hand, understanding washing over her. 

Finally, he said, "I am no longer loyal to the Parthevian Empire. I only have one master now who would not ask me to make such difficult decisions."

"But you would have back then." Her voice was flat and cracked, like a sheet of ice under too much pressure.

He looked down at the ground, his sharp features appearing sunken and tired. "I'm sorry." 



Chapter Text

“I’m sorry,” Drakon had said. 

As if that changed anything. As if that could fix the fact that Thalia's only two friends had been equally willing to destroy her life. The only two people she’d been able to confide in as a child had both turned out to be traitors. Every happy memory with the two of them had been a lie. Running, laughing, playing together, all of it had been some kind of game to Serendine and Drakon. She was their toy, and they had been willing to throw her away for the sake of their country. 

What was so great about Parthevia? It’s royal family abused its own citizens, sending them without training to be slaughtered on the battlefield, all for some misguided sense of entitlement to land that was not their own. Drakon and Serendine had chosen that over her. She was worthless. What was she supposed to do with this information? She wanted to scream. It didn’t matter at who. In fact, she did just that.

“You’re as bad as her! You never cared about me!” Thalia let out a disbelieving laugh, remembering how naive she used to be— to have thought Parthevian nobility would care about her, the princess of a small, rival country. “Neither of you did!”

“Of course we cared about you—” He tried to reach out to her, but she backed away. She didn’t want him to touch her. She was a wounded animal, ready to lash out at anything that got near her.

“Serendine deserved every bad thing that happened to her, and so do you!” She continued backing away, clutching at her aching chest. Serendine and Drakon were both heartless. She wanted to hurt them. She wanted to hurt them like they had hurt her. She threw out the cruelest thing she could think to say. “Monster! You’re a monster. I’m not talking about what you look like on the outside. You’ve always been a monster.”

Her words seemed to hit their target, piercing him where he was most vulnerable. He gaped at her, speechless, as his body began to droop until he collapsed onto the box. His eyes remained fixed on her as though he were begging her to take back what she had just said. She almost caved in, opening her mouth to apologize, but then his words echoed in her head again.

No. She was the one that should be angry. She buried her guilt, marching off to the crew’s quarters and slamming the door behind her. Climbing into Sinbad’s bed, she hugged his pillow to her chest, hoping his scent would help her calm down. Tears streamed from her stinging eyes. Even when the rest of her world had crumbled around her, she’d deluded herself into believing Drakon held some tenderness for her, that the kind, prideful boy she remembered had never wavered in his loyalty.

She hugged the pillow tighter, burying her face in it. She still remembered when they had first met.

 


 

Six-year-old Thalia squirmed impatiently on the velvet-lined seat of an elaborately decorated carriage as Kayra leaned over and adjusted one of the ornaments in her hair for the tenth time.

“Hold still, will you? You’re a princess, not some common urchin.”

“I don’t like this dress. It’s itchy,” young Thalia complained, scratching at the places where the starched garment irritated her tender, youthful skin. “Why do I have to wear this?”

“This is how we dress in the civilized world, love.” Kayra’s cherub lips pursed into a dissatisfied frown as she held up a mirror, inspecting her reflection. She reached into her bag and applied a bit more of her carnelian rouge to her cheeks, giving her skin a rosy glow. Now satisfied with her appearance, she gave a content smile, placing the mirror and the powder back in her bag. “I’m meeting an old friend of mine today, and he has a brother your age. I want you two to play nicely and leave Barbarossa and me alone, okay?”

“You want me to talk to a boy?” Thalia climbed up on her seat and peered out the window, curious to see this strange new country. It was her first visit to Parthevia, though her mother and Kayra had visited many times without her. As far as she could see, the land sprawled flat, uninterrupted by rocky drop-offs or sparkling oceans. Even though the two capitals were only a few hours apart, Parthevia was so foreign to Thalia, especially their customs. She sat back down in her seat to look at her sister. “You know I’m not allowed to talk to boys. If Father finds out—”

Kayra’s smile fell at the mention of Thalia’s father. Her knuckles clenched her bag’s straps until they were white. 

“That man— your father doesn’t need to know. This is Parthevia. He has no power here. You’re safe now.”

Kayra’s words struck Thalia as strange. “Safe from what?”

“Him.” Kayra’s voice held an uncharacteristically hard edge to it. Perhaps Thalia should have asked her sister to elaborate, but she was six, and she didn’t quite understand the implications her sister’s words held. As far as she was concerned, her family situation was normal. Her mother’s drunkenness, her father’s control, and her sister’s frequent absences were all the girl knew. She never questioned any of it. 

The carriage came to a stop, and Thalia peeked out the window again. This time, instead of a sprawling landscape, there was a huge building the size of Attica’s royal palace. Grand columns like those popular in Attica held up exotic archways. The walls were the familiar brightly colored plaster, but here they were decorated with elaborate geometric designs instead of the frescoes that were painted on the walls of her own home. Someone opened the door to the carriage, a young man about the same age as her sister.

“Welcome back to civilization,” he told Kayra, offering his hand to her. Thalia watched in horror as her sister casually placed her hand in his, allowing him to assist her in exiting the carriage. He turned his gaze to Thalia, and she shrank away. “Is this the little princess you brought with you?”

“She is,” her sister confirmed. “Come, Thalia. It’s time to meet your new friend.”

Thalia didn’t move at first, not because disobeying her father felt wrong— she’d always had a rebellious streak, and the thought of disobeying was titillating— but because she was frightened of her punishment if he or one of her maids found out what she had done. She might have to stay in Asena’s temple and pray, unallowed to eat or sleep until her father decided she had learned her lesson. Thalia could barely sit through a meal. Being forced to kneel and pray for hours on end was torture for her restless, young body.

“You’ll have to forgive my sister,” Kayra apologized as Thalia’s hesitation stretched out. “Her father and that backward country he runs have put all kinds of strange ideas in her head.” Kayra smiled at her six-year-old sister patiently, reaching out a hand. “Come now, dear sister. Don’t be so shy.”

Thalia took her sister’s outstretched hand and jumped to the ground, sending up a puff of dirt with her landing.

“I don’t want to get locked in the temple” Thalia whispered, clutching Kayra’s lilac and gold skirts tightly as she attempted to hide behind them.

Kayra’s small lips pulled into a thin line before she burst into elegant laugher. “Sweet Thalia, I told you already. No one will find out about this.” 

Thalia glanced over to the green-haired boy her age standing in the background and retreated further behind the fabric of her sister’s dress. 

“I don’t know how to talk to a boy,” she whispered furtively.

“It’s easy.” Kayra smiled gently, turning to Barbarossa, her childhood friend, to illustrate how it was done. “How do you do?”

“Quite well, thank you,” he answered, fighting back a laugh.

Thalia gaped at her sister. She had spoken to a boy with such ease. Kayra wasn’t a barbarian— she had become a legal citizen of Attica through their mother’s marriage to Thalia’s father. Still, her sister had kept many of the strange barbarian ideas and mannerisms. Sometimes, her sister’s way of life felt so alien, but Thalia looked up to Kayra. She sought to mimic her in every way, foreign or not, so she timidly approached the green-haired boy with the sharp eyes and held out her hand.

“Um!” she shouted to get his attention. “My name is Thalia Alexandris. What’s your name?”

He stared at her like she was some inferior species. Thalia felt small under his imperial gaze. He held himself with the pride of a noble, something the sheltered and inexperienced princess had yet to master. When he finally spoke, she wasn’t even sure he’d given her his name, so much as a long string of made-up syllables.

“Dragul Nol Henrius Govius Menudias Partenuvonomias Dumid Os Kartanon.”

“C— can I call you something else?” she squeaked.

He crossed his arms, raising his chin as he inspected her. “Junior is fine. My brother said you’re a princess, but you don’t look like one.”

Thalia ran her fingers through her hair anxiously. She’d never spoken to a boy outside her family. What if by saying something wrong, she made him hate her? Or worse, what if she accidentally started to like him? Wasn’t that why the rules to prevent the mingling of boys and girls existed in Attica, to protect them from developing inappropriate feelings? She thought of the passionate love stories her maids told her, stories about men who defied death for the woman they loved. She’d often wondered if she would ever experience anything like that.

The stories never ended well for the girl. They were meant as a warning against pursuing what Thalia would later learn were called “fleshly desires” over one’s duty, but they only served to intrigue her as a young girl, in the same way many other forbidden things intrigued her. The young romantic wanted someone willing to follow her into death and try to save her from hell, even if he failed. She wanted someone who would steal her away and start a war over her. Even more rebelliously, she imagined herself willing to do the same for him. Even at that age, Thalia knew that love was not something she could hope to aspire to, but as she lay in bed at night, all her taboo fantasies played out in her head. She imagined herself wielding a sword side by side with someone who loved her, and whom she loved in return.

This boy was her first chance at experiencing these forbidden things.

Her heart raced as she searched for the right words to say. He’d just said she didn’t look like a princess. That puzzled her. Her maids had dressed her in an exquisite blue Parthevian-style gown made with the most opulent silks available, and her hair had been meticulously combed and pinned with glittering jeweled ornaments. She was in every way appropriately dressed for a princess. Her mother’s family had made sure of that. Her mother’s union with a king was a point of pride for them, and they hadn’t spared any effort in the presentation of the result of that union, Thalia.

“What do you mean?” she asked shyly, hoping his observation had in some way been a veiled compliment.

He sniffed. “Well, first, your posture is all wrong. Princesses are supposed to stand up straight, right?”

Thalia’s hands shot up to her mouth to hide her dismay. She hadn’t realized it before, but in her embarrassment, she’d allowed her shoulders to hunch. Her retainers were forever correcting her posture because poise and elegance did not come naturally to her. Sometimes, when the maids thought no one was listening, she heard them joke that the true heir to the throne had been switched out with a commoner’s child at birth, and that was why their princess struggled so hard to fulfill her role.

Drakon continued. “Princesses are supposed to be pretty, aren’t they? How come you’re so chubby? Our princess is the prettiest girl in Parthevia.”

“My maids say I’m pretty,” Thalia mumbled, digging the ball of her foot into the manicured lawn of the Kartanon estate. It seemed this boy was not about to develop a crush on her. So much for her first love.

He laughed. “They have to say you’re pretty or your father will cut their heads off!”

Thalia gasped. She had never heard anyone talk like that before. In her maids’ stories, only bad kings ordered heads chopped off over something so trivial. 

“My father would never…”

“All kings do it,” Drakon asserted with the certainty of a six-year-old who’d never had his world view challenged. “He probably just doesn’t tell you about it because you’re a girl and have a delicate con-sti-tu-tion.” He struggled to pronounce the last word. “That’s what makes girls like you so boring.”

“I’m boring?” she blanched. How could he have already decided she was boring? He’d barely talked to her. He tapped his foot impatiently, as though she were missing something incredibly obvious.

“Can you fight with a weapon?”

“No.”

“Do you know how to play tag?”

“No.”

“Have you ever wrestled in the mud?”

“No.”

He snorted. “Boring.”

 Her worst fears were confirmed. He hated her. She floundered desperately for something to say to convince him she was interesting, but nothing came to mind. Finally, she clutched at her starched skirts and puffed out her cheeks. 

“Teach me how to have fun!”

He rolled his eyes and started to walk away.

This was it. Thalia had just lost her first chance at making a friend her age.

 


 

Ja’far was the first to come in after her, poking his head in the door and calling out, “Thalia, Drakon asked me to come check on you. Are you okay?”

No. She wasn’t okay. She felt like she would never be okay again. Everything she had cherished growing up had been systematically taken away from her by Parthevia. Her home, her family, her friends… there was nothing left to ground her to the person she once was.

“I’m not,” she told him, a fresh wave of tears breaking through at her confession.

He sat on the bed next to her.

“Tell me what happened.”

Thalia explained to him how her conversation with Drakon had gone south, how he’d admitted he would have killed her parents had he been asked.

When she finished, Ja’far stared at her, confused. “I don’t understand why you’re mad. He didn’t kill your parents, and he’s not the same person he was back then. Why be angry over something he didn’t do?”

Maybe Ja’far’s words would have sounded reasonable to Thalia if she weren’t already an emotional wreck, but right now they just made her angry. They weren’t the words she’d wanted to hear. She wanted to hear that she was right to be angry and that Drakon was in the wrong. Her quiet tears were on the verge of becoming bitter sobs. She didn’t want him to see her like this. She wanted to be alone. She did the only thing she could think of to get rid of him.

“Get out.”

He gave her a placating smile, perhaps thinking he could still smooth things over.

“You don’t really mean—”

“Leave!” she screamed. She hadn’t meant to yell at him. She just didn’t want him to see her lose control, but it was too late now. She had just shouted at him.

His lips pulled into a thin line, and his posture grew rigid. “I know you’re angry, but that’s no excuse to yell. You want me to leave? Fine.” 

Thalia buried her head in her knees as he left the room, giving her exactly what she had wished for. She hated herself for chasing off someone who had only been trying to help her. She was always chasing people away with her crappy personality. She remembered how something similar had happened when she had introduced herself to Drakon. She had chased him off with her dullness. Today, she let Ja’far leave. She was too broken to do anything else. The day she met Drakon, she had still been young, naive, and full of hope. She had chased after him.


 

"Don’t leave!” she begged Drakon, tugging on the back of his tunic. “I don’t have any other friends, so please…” 

He paused, then, slowly, turned around. “You don’t have any friends?”

She shook her head, not meeting his eyes. This was her first chance to make a friend her age, and she needed him to like her. Fear of rejection hung over her head, threatening to wet her face with tears. She did what her sister had taught her to keep herself calm. She took in a deep breath and let it back out.

“I guess…” He reached out his hand to her. “...it would be rude for a Dragul to turn down a lady in need, Princess.”

Thalia’s heart soared, and she burst into a grin. He was giving her a second chance. He had agreed to be her friend. She swallowed, hesitantly taking his hand before quickly withdrawing it and wiping his cooties off on her dress. His hands had felt rough, sweaty, and dirty. She’d never touched a boy before. Were all boys’ hands like this? Still, she was elated to make a friend, dirty hands or not.

“Please, call me Thalia!” she shouted at an inappropriate volume. She was so excited to make her first friend, she lost all sense of propriety. He winced as her sharp voice assaulted his ears.

“Okay, okay, Thalia, then. Would you like me to teach you a game?”


 

Thalia’s reminiscing was once again interrupted, this time by Masrur and Sharrkan’s quiet entrance. The two boys crossed the room and stopped a safe distance from her. They stared as though they didn’t recognize the woman in front of them. Perhaps news of how she’d treated Ja’far and Drakon had somehow reached them, or maybe they were just surprised to see her tear-stained face.

“Miss Thalia, are you okay?” Sharrkan asked quietly as Masrur hovered beside him.

“I’m… also worried,” Masrur mumbled.

She tried to muster a fake smile so as not to worry them, but her lips wouldn’t move. The irritation that she couldn’t even protect the children from worrying about her rubbed salt into her wound. Those two didn’t deserve this. They didn’t deserve to have to worry about her. The one thing she prided herself on was her ability to defend younger children from bitter reality, and she was utterly failing. She couldn’t even protect herself.

“Masrur and I heard you were feeling bad again. We wanted to come cheer you up,” Sharrkan explained, nerve-wracked at her lack of response. He twiddled his fingers anxiously.

Thalia didn’t think they would be able to cheer her up. “Masrur, Sharrkan, thank you, but I don’t really feel like talking right now.”

“But we can play a game—”

“No!” Her voice came out sharp and hard. Sharrkan flinched, but Masrur’s change in demeanor was more subtle. He appeared to tense. She hung her head as Sharrkan’s eyes began to water.

“It’s okay,” he assured her, keeping a brave face. “We’ll talk when you’re feeling better.”

Masrur followed him out, his steps nearly fracturing the boards underneath his feet.

Those two boys had been so thoughtful, trying to cheer her up with a game. They couldn’t know that the first time she’d learned how to play a game was with Drakon. They couldn’t know that they had dredged up a painful memory. She closed her eyes again.


 

“This game is called tag,” Drakon announced as though he were speaking to an entire audience and not a single girl. “There are two roles. The kid who is ‘it’ has to chase the kids who are ‘not it.’ If he touches someone who’s ‘not it,’ that kid becomes ‘it.’ Do you understand?”

Thalia didn’t, but she was too embarrassed to admit it. She nodded, hoping she would figure it out as they played.

“Fine.” He huffed haughtily. “I’ll be it first. Get running.”

Thalia scurried off the ground and walked at a fast pace, keeping her skirt lifted off the ground. She glanced back at the dumbfounded boy behind her and laughed, feeling the thrill of attempting to escape someone for the first time. Drakon caught up to her within seconds and tapped her on the back. Thalia spun around with her hands in the air.

“Am I it now?”

He ignored her. “What was that? You’re supposed to run.”

She looked at the ground, embarrassed. Apparently, she wasn’t supposed to play this game. If she got caught running, even Kayra would scold her. 

 “I’m not allowed to run… I’ll get in trouble.”

He made a dissatisfied noise. “Boring. You let your retainers boss you around? You’re a princess. You should act like one.”


 

The door opened once again, interrupting Thalia’s reminiscing.

 Hinahoho squeezed in, inching his way through the narrow pathway to find her. 

“Hey,” he sighed, peeking in the narrow space between the bunks. “I heard you’re upset.” He beamed. “Let me know what I can do to cheer you up, and I’ll be right on it.”

Thalia laughed bitterly. He was such a nice guy. She didn’t deserve a friend like him after how she’d treated Ja’far, Masrur, and Sharrkan. She was terrible. She didn’t deserve friends at all. In her self-loathing, she sought to drive him away too. She would be alone forever because she was dumb, awful, stupid, and terrible. She was nothing like a princess.

She tried to think of the most cutting, hurtful thing she could tell him because she didn’t want to suffer alone. She wanted to drag him down with her.

“What could you do for me?” she asked flatly. “You rely on Sinbad and your wife for everything. You never killed that rampaging unicorn, did you? Sinbad did.” Her voice cracked as she began to regret what she was saying, but it was too late to turn back. Her final words hammered the nail in her own coffin. “You’re a man. Try acting like one, then talk to me about what you can do.”

As soon as she finished speaking, she covered her own mouth, horrified by what she’d just said. She knew that it had to be a sore point for him. More importantly, she didn’t believe it even a little bit. Was she so set on ruining her relationships with everyone?

The smile left his face, replaced with a stern expression. “Watch it, Thalia. I just came to help out.”

“Hina, I’m sorry…”

He sighed. “I’m going to go cool off a little. That really wasn’t okay.”

She watched helplessly as he squeezed his way back out. Why was she like this? She flopped onto the bed, closing her eyes once again. She had no place to try to tell others how to act. She was a wreck herself.


 

Acting like a princess? Whenever anyone else told her to “act like a princess,” they meant to keep quiet and obey. Now, here was this boy telling her she should use her authority to do as she pleased. The concept was so foreign to her, like this foreign land full of foreign ideas.

Thalia glanced over at her sister. Kayra seemed absolutely engrossed in her conversation with Barbarossa. Her heart rate spiked. She was going to be disobedient. She was going to run. Her stomach twisted in a knot, but she smiled. She liked this feeling. Kicking off her stiff shoes, she wiggled her toes in the cool grass.

“I’ll run.”

“That’s the spirit! This time, it’s your turn to catch me!” He dashed off at lighting speed. 

Thalia raced after him on clumsy feet. Every so often, he stopped to laugh or taunt her as she barreled toward him at her full speed, which wasn’t very fast at all. Thalia was glad he was having fun. She just felt helpless and inferior. She almost caught up with him as he stopped once more to laugh, but just before she caught him, he took off again. 

She bit down on her lip, ignoring her burning legs and her sore lungs. She was going to catch him. She was going to— 

Eventually, she realized she was never going to touch him. She plopped down on the grass and buried her head between her legs to catch her breath.

She heard a frustrated groan coming from right in front of her. She looked up to find Drakon with his hands on his hips, glaring down at her.

“Boring.”

“I’m sorry,” she gasped between pants. “You’re so fast.”

“I’m not fast. You’re slow.” His hard expression softened at the way she wilted under his words. “Hey, what do you like to do for fun?


 

Mystras barged in, a massive smile on his face.

“Thalia~” he sang. “I brought some cards to cheer you up!”

Sitting up, she wiped a tear from her eye. “Hasn’t anyone told you? I’m not in the mood to—”

“Relax,” he told her, settling on the bed next to her and shuffling his deck of cards. “What you need is a little fun. You’ll feel better in no time.”

She stared at the cards in his hand. Did he really think a silly card game could make her feel better? Didn’t he have anything better to do than bother her?

“I told you, I’m not in the mood.”

He nudged her with his elbow. “Somebody’s grumpy.”

“Yes,” she snapped. “I’m grumpy, and you’re getting on my last nerve. When I say leave me alone, I want to be left alone!”

She dove back onto the bed, covering her ears with her pillow. After a long, agonizing moment, he let out a loud sigh. The bed creaked underneath her, and his muffled footsteps slowly made their way across the floor.

“You know, you can push people away all you want. We’re not giving up on you.”

With that, he closed the door behind him. Finally, she was alone once more.

Fun… what did Thalia know about fun? Drakon was the fun one. Thalia had only ever dreamed of having fun.


 

“What do I like to do for fun?” Thalia asked. “Sometimes, I practice the lyre or read.”

He stared at her blankly. “I asked what you did for fun, not what your maids make you do. Do you play pretend? Throw balls?”

Thalia thought hard. Ever since she turned six, her daily routine had become rigidly centered around her education. Mornings were for practicing the lyre. In the afternoons, she studied etiquette, numbers, embroidery, and dance. After dinner, she would pray at the temple of Asena, then she might read a passage from the great epics in which her country’s history was recorded before sleeping. She liked the stories of the ancient heroes. They were by far the highlight of her day. 

“I like books, even if I’m forced to read them.” She looked around furtively to be sure no one was listening. She would be scolded if someone overheard what she was about to say. “I want to be a hero. I want to be strong like the men in the stories. I want to fight with a sword and ride horses.”

“Why can’t you?” he challenged.

It was her turn to look at him like he was dumb. Shouldn’t it be obvious? “I’m a girl. Girls aren’t supposed to do those things.”

He snorted. “Says who?”

“The goddess Asena. She’s the one who protects my country.”

These barbarians didn’t even know about Asena. No wonder they were so backward and strange.

“Asena is a girl, right?” He narrowed his yellow eyes in thought. “How does she protect the country without a weapon?”

She blinked. She’d never questioned it before, but the statue of Asena in the temple showed her carrying a sword and a shield, things Thalia had been told were exclusively for men. She hesitated before offering a suggestion. “Maybe she’s allowed to use a weapon because she’s a goddess, but Father says when girls start to question their place, Asena punishes the whole country.”

“That’s dumb. Parthevia is the greatest country in the world, and our princess uses weapons all the time. She’s not like other girls. She hates wearing dresses and isn’t afraid to fight or get dirty.”

Thalia gasped. In Attica, a girl like that would be a threat to society. She’d be beaten or forced to pray until she learned her place. Something stirred in the little princess’s heart. She wanted to meet this girl who was everything Thalia had ever been told she couldn’t be. 

“Junior, can I meet the princess?”

Drakon scratched his head. “I don’t know. She’s older than us and really cool. She might not want to hang out with someone boring like you.”

“I’m not boring!” She stomped her foot emphatically.

His laughter was cut off by her sister’s voice.

“Thalia, dear! It’s time to go.” Kayra rushed in and swept her away, fretting over her hair. “How did it get so messy? And where are your shoes? Were you running? Why don’t you ever listen—”


 

“—Listen to me!”

Thalia blinked at the red-haired man leaning threateningly over her. When had Nasha barged in? Where fear had overwhelmed her before, this time, she only felt anger.

“Leave me alone!”

Shoving past him, she marched outside to seek shelter with the one person she had neither offended nor been offended by. She went to look for Sinbad.

 

Chapter Text

Tapping her fingers impatiently on the box she was leaning against, Thalia did everything within her power to not to lash out at innocent Sinbad, who was minding his own business steering the ship. He glanced over at his restless friend, clearly irritated by the noise of her drumming.

She opened her mouth to speak, but he cut her off.

“If it’s about Serendine and Drakon again, I don’t want to hear about it until after I’ve talked to them when we reach port,” he reminded her.

Thalia shut her lips, glaring at him. That had been exactly what it was about. It was the fourth time she’d tried to talk about it since she’d joined him out here. Sinbad had let her vent about the topic twice to him already, but the third time he had drawn a line. Sinbad’s eyes kept darting over to her as she slumped even lower against the crate, crossing her arms petulantly and tapping her foot instead. His frown deepened.

“Would you like to try steering for a while?” he asked, apparently trying to placate her.

“No.” She crossed her arms petulantly.

He released a frustrated groan. “You can be such a child sometimes… but I guess this is progress from how you used to be, huh?”

A child? Thalia would show him childish. She snapped her head back in his direction, causing her head injury to throb. 

“Not all of us can be perfect and composed all the time like you are, Sin,” she spat. Realing that she had once again pushed away one of her friends, she shrank lower. He was going to be angry with her like all the others.

He locked the wheel into place and approached her, squatting to make himself closer to her eye level. “Clearly I’m not perfect and composed, because you’re about to drive me crazy with that foot tapping. Please stop.”

Thalia slowed her pace to something slower and less noisy. She could do this much for him. He didn’t seem as angry with her as she had thought he would be.

“That’s a good start, but somehow I’m still not satisfied.” He smiled warmly, grabbing her by the wrist and dragging her to her feet.

“S— Sin!” she protested, tugging away from him. She expected him to let go quickly, as he always did, but this time he held firm. She balked. She was angry, and his proximity only served to disarm and confuse her. It was the last thing she needed right now. 

He tugged her over to the helm, positioning himself behind her and pinning her hands to the wheel. 

Nestling his chin in the crook of her neck, he chuckled, his deep voice vibrating in her ear. “It so happens, I have a soft spot for pretty girls. If you keep pouting like that, I won’t be able to concentrate. You don’t want us to get lost, do you?”

Thalia couldn’t help but smile. This was clearly an attempt to cheer her up, and, much to her chagrin, it was working. She hadn’t wanted to surrender to him so easily. She had wanted to sulk and stew. Now, with him so close, she didn’t know if that was possible. All she could think about was how if he turned his head even a few degrees, he could kiss the spot on her neck that tingled in anticipation of his lips.

She hated that he had this kind of power over her. She knew she could never allow these fantasies to come to fruition, She had a country to think of, and so did he.

“Sin, this is…” 

“Hm?”

Distracting. Confusing. Infuriating. 

“You’re too close,” she choked out. “I don’t like it.”

“Sorry,” he apologized, pulling his head back. Thalia instantly regretted complaining. This new position was worse. The warm breeze of his steady breaths licked against her ears like the tide on a beach, washing away her willpower and depositing desire in its wake. 

 “Still too close,” she squeaked. 

“Still?” She could hear the frown in his voice. “Thalia, my arms are only so long. If I pull back any further, I won’t be able to help you steer.”

Thalia hung her head, burning with embarrassment. She couldn’t admit to him that the reason she kept asking him to get further away from her was that she really wanted the exact opposite. She came up with an excuse that was at least partially true.

“I’m trying to be angry. I don’t want you to cheer me up.” 

He hummed impatiently, his hands dropping to his sides. “Turn around and look at me.”

Thalia swallowed nervously. He’d never used such a serious tone with her before. She slowly turned around, meeting her friend’s eyes.

“You realize you’ve been treating all of your friends like shit since this morning, right? You snapped at Ja’far, made Sharrkan cry, yelled at Masrur, chewed Mystras out, insulted Hinahoho, and don’t even get me started on how you’ve treated Drakon.”

“I know.” She squirmed under his cold gaze. “I’m sorry. It’s just that Drakon—”

“He said something that hurt you. You have a head injury, you almost died twice on this trip, and one of the crew members tried to harass you.” As he listed her ordeals, he counted them off on his fingers. “We all understand how stressed you are. None of us are going to hold grudges, but that doesn’t mean you should take us for granted. We’re your comrades.”

“You’re right,” she agreed somberly.

He brought his hand to her cheek and stroked it gently. “I already let you talk my ear off about Drakon twice today. I’m glad you’re opening up, but at this point, you’re dwelling on things that nothing can be done about. So, stop trying to be angry and let me cheer you up, okay? If not for your sake, for everyone else’s.“ He smiled charmingly, tilting his head to the side.

“I don’t want to be like this,” she confessed, tearing up. “I know it’s wrong to treat you guys this way, but it’s been getting harder and harder to hold things in. I’m so tired of pretending to be okay when I’m not.”

He crossed his arms. “Do you want to know what I think? I think you’ve been stuck.”

“Stuck?” She wiped a tear from her eye. What did he mean stuck? Stuck where?

Nodding, he continued, “I think on Ria Venus Island, in order to survive, you locked yourself away. You couldn’t touch anyone, and you couldn’t be touched. But our connections are what help us grow as people. Because you refused to let anyone in, in some ways, you’re still that twelve-year-old girl. You don’t know how to handle your feelings with the finesse you would have if you’d had a normal childhood.” He pulled her into a warm, tight embrace. “As awful as it is to see you like this, I’m glad. You’re finally trying to deal with your emotions instead of hiding them away behind a smile.”

His words put her at ease. He hadn’t shamed her but instead had made her feel like her feelings mattered. He’d given her hope that this loss of control was only temporary and that eventually, her growth would no longer be stunted. She would be able to stand confidently among her friends as their equal, feeling secure and confident. She wasn’t a kitten. She was a cub, and she had the potential to grow into a powerful lion.

Feeling heartened, she decided to take him up on his offer to cheer her up. 

“You know what would make me happy?” she mumbled into his chest.

“Hm?” He pulled her away to get a better look at her.

“I want to be captain.” Her voice came out stuffy, but she grinned up at him.

He tutted. “Feeling ambitious today, are we? There’s just one problem. In lieu of Captain Reis’s absence, I’m the captain, remember?”

“Hogging all the good positions for yourself?” She shook her head disapprovingly. “That’s something a tyrant would do.”

He grinned, pushing her aside to return to his spot at the helm. “Am I a tyrant or do you just insist on rebelling against your benevolent and wise king?”

My king?” She scoffed. “I’ll have you recall that I’m the rightful heir to my own throne and will remain sovereign until I find a husband worthy of relinquishing power to.” 

His grin fell. “Husband?”

“Of course. Attica is a patriarchy. A woman like me holding power for any length of time is unheard of. I’ll be expected to marry immediately to legitimize the new king and provide royal heirs.”

She shuddered at the thought of performing the task necessary to create the heirs.

“So when you get your country back, you’ll be looking for a husband?” His knuckles tightened around the wheel.

“I guess I should already be looking.” Now that Serendine had a metal vessel, she couldn’t afford to take her time anymore. If Serendine took back Parthevia before Thalia rescued her people, she would have to go up against Zepar. The only way to avoid that was to take her country back first. Thalia pursed her lips together. “I suppose Mystras would be an ideal candidate. We get along, he has a powerful family, and he’s not in line for his own country’s throne anymore.” Plus, she knew he wouldn’t touch her until she was ready. “Do you think he would be interested in becoming a king?”

Sinbad was quiet for a long time. He didn’t look at her. Instead, his eyes remained fixed on the horizon. Just when Thalia was about to repeat her question, he answered, his voice hard. “I don’t think Mystras has any ambitions of the sort.” 

Thalia couldn’t make sense of his reaction. Perhaps the idea of her stealing away one of his valued associates was what had upset him. She knew it wasn’t because he had wanted her to offer the position to him. She would have if she thought he wanted it. He was intelligent, rational, motivational, and compassionate. He was the kind of leader her people deserved. Her country would thrive under him, and she would be his queen. She would guide him in the ways of his people, help him to understand them better. For her country, there was no better future she could imagine, but what could she possibly say to convince him? He’d already rejected a similar proposal from Serendine. What hope did someone like Thalia have? 

She shook her head. She was selling herself short. She may have only been a cub, but she was still a lion in the making. She would prove herself to him. She would make him see she, and by extension, her country, were worthy of his consideration. 

First, she would have to test the waters. She would have to find out if he was willing to acknowledge her as his equal, but how? A thought occurred to her. During this trip, she had been learning as much about the ship as she possibly could. She couldn’t imagine there was a question she’d left unasked. Surely she knew everything about the boat by now. 

She made her suggestion: “We should be co-captains.”

“Huh?” He furrowed his eyebrows as though he were trying to figure out how her proposal fit into the conversation. Eventually, he seemed to give up and laughed. “There’s no such thing as a co-captain. Ships need to have a single strong leader who can make quick decisions. Adding a second person would unnecessarily complicate things. It would result in mixed loyalties and chaos in an emergency.”

Thalia wasn’t so easily dissuaded. She had anticipated his reluctance and had already prepared a response.

“I could pick up the duties you’re not as good at or have little interest in. We could clearly designate who is in charge of what responsibilities. The arrangement could result in increased efficiency and boost morale. You don’t have to do everything on your own. You can rely on me.” She crossed her arms and cocked her hip to the side expectantly. 

His golden eyes locked on to her skeptically. “Thalia, how do sails work?”

She beamed confidently, thinking she would impress him with her answer. “It’s common sense. The wind fills the sails and pushes the boat straight forward.”

“That’s actually not correct,” he informed her. 

The grin fell off her face, replaced by embarrassment and confusion. She scratched her head sheepishly. How else could sails possibly work?

 “It’s the other way around,” he continued. The wind pulls the sails from the front. We can move at a ninety-degree angle to the wind by angling the sails the right way. Although we can adjust our trajectory a little, we can’t go directly into the wind.” He pointed to the map. “We’re headed east. If the wind were coming from the east, we would have to sail in a zigzag pattern to move forward. That’s called tacking.”

“Tacking,” she repeated, trying to store the information for later. 

“I can’t let you be in charge of anything on this ship,” he said, checking the compass. “I know you’ve been trying hard to learn, but you’re still a novice.”

His words stung. She was never going to catch up to him.

He looked back over to her. “Keep learning everything you can about ships. When you’ve learned everything there is to know, I’ll acknowledge you as my co-captain.” He grinned. “I look forward to that day.”

Thalia’s heart pounded in her chest. He believed in her potential. He was out of her grasp, but if she worked hard enough, she could reach him.


 

Sinbad scanned the ship to ensure the crew were doing their jobs properly. No one seemed to be slacking off except Nasha, but that was to be expected. So long as he left Thalia alone, Sinbad was about ready to let him do whatever he wanted. There had been enough strife on this trip. Sinbad was exhausted. Being the one in charge was often rewarding, but it could also be draining. He found himself wishing for a moment that he did have a co-captain, someone he could share his burdens with. Then the moment passed, and he remembered that no matter how competent his friends were, he alone could always choose the right path. He was the one that would forever be ahead of them, leading the way.

His lips twitched into a smile as he remembered how earnestly Thalia had believed that she could help. It had been so thoughtful and cute, he’d played along. It would take her years to master everything she needed to know, but now she had a goal to focus on besides being angry. He had even assigned her first mission. He had sent her to Mystras to learn how to tie sailing knots, but… 

He dared to glance in their direction. Thalia and Mystras were huddled together against the mainmast. Thalia appeared to be pestering the red-haired knight to teach her yet another knot. Sinbad shook his head, pitying his Sasanian friend. When Thalia had approached him, it had been mid-afternoon. Now the sun was setting, lighting the sky afire. 

Hang in there, Mystras. Soon there won’t be enough light, and she’ll have to find something else to do.  

Mystras leaned over and corrected her as she made some kind of mistake. Sinbad’s stomach clenched, not for the first time this evening. Every time their shoulders or their fingertips brushed, this same sensation grabbed hold of him.

Sinbad had never thought this day would come. He was jealous of Mystras, of all people, because some girl had expressed an interest in marrying him. 

He pursed his lips. Not just some girl— his best friend, the girl he’d sworn off of twice now. He had been jealous before, but the threat of losing her forever had never felt so eminent. Watching her go on a date with someone she liked was one thing, but as soon as she reclaimed her country, she would be taking a husband. Sinbad didn’t know how to handle that revelation. 

The sound of footsteps approaching broke though his ruminating. Sinbad turned around to see Ja’far standing with his hands folded in front of him.

“Why don’t you take a break,” the boy suggested gently. “You’ve been steering all day. I’ll take over for a while.”

Sinbad nodded. A break would be for the best. He stepped aside for Ja’far to take the wheel, letting his feet carry him forward. He didn’t know where he was going. He just wanted to move after standing still for so long. He delved back into the abyss of his thoughts, mechanically thumping down the stairs.

He wasn’t even sure why he was jealous. Thalia was revealing herself to be more turbulent than he’d previously believed of her. He’d seen the cracks in her careful facade, but he hadn’t realized how deep within her they ran. She’d severely mistreated several of his closest friends today. He’d always thought she was incapable of the things she’d reportedly said and done. Her behavior had certainly damaged his image of her as a benevolent protector. 

He reached the bottom of the stairs and turned, bringing his hand up to his chin in thought.

The real Thalia was so different from dream Thalia. Dream Thalia was flawless— patient, understanding, beautiful… Of course, the real Thalia was all of those things as well, but she was much more complicated. His best friend could also be petulant, spoiled, and, as she had proven today in her treatment of his friends, mean. It began to occur to him that even before she’d started appearing in his dreams, he’d seen dream Thalia. On Meditrinalia, he’d nearly kissed her. How many times had he confused the real Thalia with the image of her that he’d conjured up? Had he ever really seen Thalia before now? 

He had called her his best friend, and he hadn’t even known who she really was.

His feet stopped walking. He looked around, trying to figure out where they had taken him.

“Sin?” Thalia blinked up at him, holding a sloppily tied rope in her hands.

“Wanna sit?” Mystras offered, patting the ground next to him.

Sinbad didn’t immediately answer. He was too busy noticing how flat and dull Thalia’s mop of hair sat upon her head. Her forehead was pocked by a few small acne scars, and her eyes were bruised from many sleepless nights. Even her nose was just a little bit too big for her face. Dry lips parted into a curious smile.

“Is there something on my face?” she asked nervously as he studied her.

 He had never noticed any of these things about her before, or if he had, he’d completely dismissed them, but they were a part of her, weren’t they? They were a part of her, and still, she was beautiful. Still, he wasn’t willing to let Mystras or anyone else have her.

He gave her his most charming grin. She was nothing more than a diversion from his goal of founding a country, but maybe he could afford a distraction every once in a while. It never had to become anything serious. He just needed to win her over so she would forget about marriage for as long as possible. They would only have a little fun together. No one would get hurt. 

Squatting down to her eye level, he took her unmanicured hand inside his own. “You know, I’ve been thinking… It’s really quite cruel to the rest of the world when a beauty like you is cooped up on a ship like this. Are you ready to go home tomorrow?”

She stammered, turning pink. He raised his eyebrows. He was starting to think he understood why she had been acting strangely around him lately. He stroked her wrist with his thumb. He was going to take this slowly for her sake, because he liked her. He liked the broken girl who kept struggling to put herself back together even when it clearly hurt like hell. He liked the girl with the pretty face and the big nose. He wanted her, even with her flaws. He liked Thalia, and he was finally willing to admit it.

Chapter Text

Thalia stood in the dim, flickering light of a lamp, facing an audience of her friends. They waited there in the dark, mostly looking perturbed. Hinahoho crossed his arms expectantly, staring her down, while Ja'far looked away petulantly. Drakon's stiff posture told her he really didn't want to be there, while Sharrkan kept his tearful gaze on the ground, and Masrur watched her impassively. Sinbad and Mystras stood behind the others, giving her an encouraging thumbs-up. She smiled weakly at them. Aside from Sinbad, she had offended each of her friends in some way today. Mystras had already received his apology before he started teaching her to tie knots, but five still remained. She wiped her sweaty palms on her dress and began to recite the speech Sinbad and Mystras had helped her prepare.

"Today, I let my emotions get the best of me. I said horrible things to each of you, even though you were only trying to help me." A slight shift in her audience told her they were listening, so she continued, approaching Ja'far.

"I shouldn't have yelled at you. I'm sorry."

The freckled boy didn't turn his head, but he could see his eyes move cautiously in her direction. She relaxed a little. It seemed like she had begun to mend the bridges with him. Four more to go.

Next, she held out her hand to Hinahoho. "Hina, I'm sorry I said you weren't a real man. You're the manliest guy I know." He didn't take her hand, but his crossed arms, which had previously been tense, relaxed a little. 

She breathed a sigh of relief. Three more apologies left. Turning to Sharrkan, she addressed him:

 "Sharrkan, I'm so, so sorry I snapped at you earlier and hurt your feelings. Can you forgive me?"

He lifted his head and wiped a tear from his eye. "Yeah."

Smiling, she pulled him into a warm hug. He'd been the quickest to forgive her, and it meant the world to her. He was such a sweet kid. She hoped he never changed. Next, she turned her attention to the little boy next to him. Two to go.

Masrur's placid demeanor might have fooled someone else, but Thalia, who had spent much of her life hiding her feelings, noticed the tiny little tells in his clenched jaw, and the slight downturn of his lips. She knelt down next to him. 

"Masrur, I hurt your feelings too, didn't I?"

He looked up at her with eyes devoid of emotion. "Not really."

She didn't believe that.

 "Well, I want to apologize anyway. You didn't deserve to be yelled at."

She thought she saw his hardened jaw soften just a little.

She walked back to her starting point and addressed Drakon, her last and most important admission of wrongdoing. She wasn't ready to give him an intimate apology like the others, but she did want to set things right with him.

 "Drakon, I said something horrible to you. I was angry. I still am, but I recognize that it doesn't excuse what I said. I'm sorry."

Drakon's posture straightened a little. In return, she gave him a small, tentative smile. Maybe things between them weren't irreparable.

Thalia picked up a bundle of ropes on the ground. "I've tied these using a double fisherman's knot." Mystras winked at her encouragingly. He had been the one that taught her how to tie it. "This kind of knot is impossible to untie. I want it to represent the bond we all share together. My wish is that, should you choose to accept it, no matter how bad a fight we get into, we'll always forgive each other— that we'll be inseparable… because you guys are my precious friends, and I'm lucky to have every one of you."

She walked over to Ja'far first, offering him a knotted pair of ropes. He finally turned his head toward her. 

"We all have our moments," the boy said with a small smile, accepting her gift. Thalia breathed a sigh of relief.

She turned to Hinahoho.

"Am I really the manliest guy you know?" He asked, raising an eyebrow.

She nodded. She couldn't think of anyone who fit her description of a man better: strong, courageous, tender, and selfless. That was Hinahoho.

He grinned. "Well, it was never really a question whether or not I was going to accept one, but thank you for the compliment."

"Any time," she told him as he took her offering. Another weight lifted off her shoulder. Hinahoho had forgiven her.

Next, she approached Sharrkan again and smiled, holding out the knot she had tied for him. "Friends forever?"

He nodded enthusiastically, taking the rope from her hands and cradling it as though it were precious. 

"This is the first gift I've received from a friend," he told her, his large eyes glistening with joy.

"And I promise it won't be the last." She remembered how much small gestures from her friends had meant to her in those early years. She empathized with the little boy's enthusiasm.

Her attention returned once again to Masrur. "Apology accepted?"

He grunted, taking the knot from her as a rare smile touched his lips. Thalia felt like she'd just witnessed something monumental.

Thalia took a deep breath and turned to Drakon. She would make this oath with him, but only on one condition:

"I'll forget everything you told me today. I'll forgive you if you promise me that the Drakon sitting before me today is a different person from the one that was willing to kill my parents for his country."

He took the rope with his large scaly hand. "I promise. I would never hurt you."

Thalia released a sigh of relief and embraced him. She had been afraid he would reject her, that their rift was irreparable. "Thank you."

His large hands wrapped around her back in response, gentle and warm. She felt small and safe in the brief moment before she pulled away. When she looked back up at him, he was grinning from ear to ear. His smile was contagious, and her lips pulled into an involuntary grin, lifting her mood along with it.

In her hands remained two small knots. She turned to Mystras and Sinbad.

"I can't forget you two. You both helped me so much today." 

She held her gifts out to the two boys, and they accepted them graciously.

Mystras immediately stashed it in his turban, but Sinbad held his knot up, inspecting it curiously. "Inseparable, huh?"

Thalia nodded. If her plans came to fruition, she would never leave his side. The key to her perfect life was standing before her, looking at her gift as though she had just given him a precious gem. He tossed it in the air and caught it with his hand, tucking it into the breast pocket of his coat. 

"Alright," he finally said, as if coming to some kind of conclusion. "We're inseparable."

After fourteen days of confinement on that ship, several of which she had been forced to spend continually hovering around her friends thanks to Nasha's insistence that she see the "truth" about Sinbad, the ship docked in Balbadd. Thalia waited impatiently for the dock workers to raise the ramp that would enable her to once again walk upon the vast expanse of land that was Balbadd.

Masrur and Sharrkan waited beside her, Sharrkan anxiously clinging to his Heliohaptian tunic. Thalia supposed he was nervous about his new home. She gave him a reassuring smile, despite the turmoil she was feeling herself. Today, as soon as they set foot back on land, Sinbad had promised her he would pull Drakon into his office so that the two boys could discuss the things Thalia had been told on the ship.

Thalia glanced around the dock, attempting to find Serendine's ship among the ones at the port. It was useless. They all looked the same. Assuming Serendine had arrived first, today would also be the day Sinbad heard whatever pathetic excuses she might come up with to paint herself as a victim in all this. Drakon had already done a decent job of that for her, but the fact remained Serendine had killed her family. Thalia could not forgive that, even with the nagging doubts that had begun to plague her. She clenched her fists, reinforcing her hatred for Serendine. She couldn't back down now. Compassion for her enemy couldn't blind her to what was important.

"You're making that face again," Ja'far noted, approaching her. "I think you scared Sharrkan."

Shit. He was right. Thalia consciously forced her demeanor to relax before glancing once again at the young prince, who was quaking with terror as he gazed up at her. She plastered on a serene smile and bent down to his eye level.

"Sorry about that, Sharr. I was just thinking about something unpleasant. I didn't realize I looked so scary."

Sharrkan relaxed at her reassurance, and the sound of wood clacking against wood drew their attention to the side of the ship. 

Finally . She was being set free from the boat. She was going to receive justice. Everything was falling into place.

She watched Sinbad as he spoke with Drakon in hushed voices. They stopped and glanced in her direction. Both of them looked tired and strained. Sinbad slung his bag over his shoulder, and Drakon daintily lifted his by the strap using two taloned fingers. Thalia's eyes followed them as they disembarked from the ship and headed in the direction of Sinbad's office. Her heartbeat quickened. It was time.

Without a word of explanation, she abandoned Ja'far, Masrur, and Sharrkan. She wouldn't be able to sit in on Sinbad and Drakon's meeting, but she could do the next best thing: eavesdrop.

At least, that had been her plan. She arrived outside Sinbad's office and was preparing to place her ear on the door when someone cleared his throat.

"That's a private meeting, Thalia." Ja'far stood with his legs spread shoulder-width apart and his arms crossed. He had apparently followed her from the ship. She grimaced, backing away from the door.

"You followed me?" she asked.

He shrugged. "You haven't seemed like yourself since yesterday. I was worried about you."

Thalia was too upset that he had interrupted her intelligence gathering to be touched by his words. In fact, she wasn't sure she believed him. Part of her thought his real reason for following her had been to prevent her from listening at the door. Had Sinbad put him up to this?

  She gritted her teeth. That bastard tyrant.

 Now severely restricted in her ability to listen in on the discussion, she paced outside the office furiously, trying to catch the snippets of conversation that drifted through the wooden door. Ja'far's eyes followed her back and forth, concern etching itself across his face. 

Finally, he asked, "Do you really think she would kill your family for no reason? I just… can't see it."

Thalia whipped around to face him, his words stinging. He was her friend. He was supposed to believe her.

"Of course she did it. She's a warrior with the nickname 'Venomous Spider Princess.' She didn't earn it by being compassionate."

Ja'far sighed. "Oh, no. I believe she's killed people, but you two were friends, weren't you? How could she—"

"She's heartless!" Thalia shouted too loudly. Why didn't anyone else understand? Serendine was a monster. She didn't have feelings. At least, that's what Thalia wanted to believe.

 The muffled voices behind the closed door paused for a moment before resuming.

"What are you going to do if Sin doesn't send her away?" Ja'far whispered as if trying to make up for her outburst just now.

"Of course he's sending her away," Thalia laughed, throwing her head back. She'd been so stupid to be insecure before. He'd promised they were partners now. Sinbad had her back. 

"Why don't you sit down," Ja'far suggested gently. "You're kind of worrying me."

She shot him a glare. Of course she wasn't herself. She couldn't afford to let her sympathetic, weak self out. If she started to allow herself to see things in shades of gray, the way Drakon had tempted her to do yesterday, her family would never be avenged. Her grudge with Serendine needed to be vindicated. It was too late to turn back. She was too proud to admit she was wrong.

The door opened, and Drakon stepped out.

"Will you please tell Serendine to come?" Sinbad requested from out of sight. "I want to get her side of the story."

Thalia rushed into Sinbad's office as Drakon lumbered away. Her friend stood by his desk with his hands in his pockets. He looked exhausted. Thalia knew she wasn't helping. A pang of guilt rippled through her chest, but it died out quickly. She needed to be right about Serendine. If she wasn't… no, she definitely wasn't wrong.

"He told you, didn't he? That she killed my parents?" Her words were hurried, almost manic. 

"Just wait a little bit longer. Please." His gaze moved to behind her. "Ja'far, please escort Thalia back outside. Help her calm down."

"Wait—"

Ja'far interrupted her, grabbing her by the shoulders and steering her back outside. She glanced over her shoulder as Sinbad brought a hand to his forehead, shaking his head in exasperation.

"Sit," Ja'far ordered her, positioning her in front of the chair outside Sinbad's office. She obeyed, intimidated by the command in his tone.

Thalia and Ja'far's heads both swiveled as footsteps approached Sinbad's office. Thalia watched vindictively, raising her chin as Sinbad called Serendine inside. He was going to send her away, and Thalia could finally have a bit of justice in her life. She would never have to see that wretched woman again.

Ja'far shook his head at her expression.

"This isn't you. You're angry. It's understandable, considering the circumstances, but there's no way the gentle, rational Thalia I know was all an act."

Thalia wiped her sweaty hands on her dress.

"You think I'm being irrational?"

"I think you're cracking under the stress of this whole thing." Ja'far knelt down to her eye level. "What are you going to do if she stays? You can't go on like this. You're going to fall into depravity at this rate."

"Fall into… what?"

"Depravity," Ja'far repeated. "When a person rejects their fate, their rukh turn black. It feeds on hatred and resentment. You're letting your hatred control you. You've got to let some of this go."

Tears sprung to Thalia's eyes. It was easy for Ja'far to talk about letting things go. What did he know about grudges?

He brought his hand to his shoulder, and the scars caught Thalia's eye. Maybe he did know something after all.

"Were you able to let go of your anger toward whoever did that to you?" she asked, studying the pale white lines.

"I'm still angry," Ja'far confessed, "but I don't let it control me." He withdrew his hand, fixing his eyes on the floor. "I've… nearly fallen into depravity before. It's not a good place to be, Thalia."

Thalia gasped, tightening her hold on the arms of the chair. Ja'far was so bright and energetic. Yes, he could be irritable and sarcastic, but she couldn't imagine him being so consumed by hate that he'd nearly fallen into depravity.

He stood back up. 

"Channel your anger into something productive. Use it constructively. You're in control."

"I understand." Thalia needed to get herself together. No matter how understanding her friends were, they only had so much patience. She couldn't take them for granted. She needed to focus on becoming unstuck.

Thalia turned her head as the door opened.

 A twinge of guilt hit her as she watched Serendine come out. The Parthevian princess held herself in as dignified a manner as ever, but tears streamed down her face. She threw a glance in Thalia's direction, her face crumpling before she turned away and marched in the opposite direction. Did she feel remorse for what she'd done? No, that couldn't be it. She was upset because Sinbad was kicking her out.

 Sinbad poked his head out and motioned for Thalia to enter his office. He settled himself in his oversized chair and motioned for her to take a seat across from him. Sitting down, Thalia held her breath, waiting for the good news.

 "I talked to Serendine," Sinbad began. She leaned forward in her chair, gripping its arms until her fingers ached. 

He continued, "I believe what she told me. I'm not sending her away. I think you should talk to her too when you're ready. You should hear what she has to say, especially concerning your sister."

 "What can she possibly have to say?" Thalia snapped bitterly. No amount of pretty words and lies could justify what her former friend had done. 

 "You should hear it from her, not from me." His eyes dropped to his lap. "I don't think you'll like it."

 Thalia scoffed. Serendine had seduced him. That was why he was refusing to take Thalia's side. Serendine was the vilest kind of woman— No. Thalia couldn't think like that anymore. It was like Ja'far said; she was letting her hatred control her. Taking in a deep breath, she then let it out, centering herself.

 Sinbad stretched a hand toward her, resting it on the table when it didn't reach. She responded by closing the distance and resting her own hand on his.

 "I hate seeing you so unhappy." Sinbad told her, "Aside from sending Serendine away, what can I do to make this whole thing easier on you?"

 "I don't think there's anything you can do," she confessed, "but Ja'far and I had a talk. He helped me realize some things. I'll accept your decision, but I'm not going to start playing nice with her."

 He sighed in relief, sitting back up and smiling pensively. His warm hand slipped out from under Thalia's, dropping hers onto the cold wooden desk.

 "This conversation went a lot better than I expected it to," he said. "I'll have to give Ja'far a raise."

 "If the company has money for raises, can I have one too?" Thalia asked, in part to lighten the mood, in part because she really did want one. She not only needed the money, but earning it felt good.

He barked a laugh.

 "You never pass up an opportunity, do you?" Resting his elbows on the table, he leaned forward. "The answer is no this time. I just gave you a raise."

 Thalia huffed in mock indignation.

 "I'm going on strike."

 "While you're outside picketing, do you mind handing out a few recruitment flyers?" Sinbad teased. "We're going to need to find someone to replace you."

 She struggled to contain her laughter.

 "You're firing me? What a tyrant."

 He raised his eyebrows as though she'd just challenged him to prove that he was indeed a tyrant. Picking up a blank sheet of paper off his desk, he tore it in half.

 "That was your employment contract."

 "Good." she giggled. "Maybe I can finally offer my talents somewhere they'll be appreciated."

 "Don't even think about it," he threatened. "You're very important. I couldn't fire you if I wanted to."

 "Is that so?" She arched an eyebrow, leaning back in the chair. "If I'm that important, you should really reconsider that raise."

 "I'm glad you're feeling better," he observed, shaking his head with disbelief as he returned to his work. 

 Thalia left his office in a much better mood than before. She pondered Ja'far's advice about channeling her anger into something constructive. She supposed she could pick up a new hobby. She'd always avoided weaving and embroidery because they held no interest for her, but nothing else she could think of seemed appealing either. 

The next day, Thalia was still so plagued by her conundrum that she woke up several hours early. She quietly dressed in her company uniform and pulled her hair into a messy braid, careful not to wake any of the other girls in the room. Slipping outside, she stretched, enjoying the beautiful spring morning. Their air was warm and pleasant, already filled with floral notes from the blooming buds in the gardens. 

It would be a shame to spend a day like this indoors , she thought to herself, heading for the courtyard, where she would be able to admire the beauty of the flowers. When she arrived, however, she realized it was already occupied.

"Hyah!" A warrior maiden swung her sword through the air, creating an elegant arch. Beautiful pink hair fanned out in every direction from the sheer force of the delivery. One by one, the woman gracefully took down imaginary opponents.

Thalia watched her every movement with awe. She was strong. She was powerful. She commanded respect. Thalia wanted to be like her. Thalia wanted to be like… Serendine.

She almost laughed bitterly at the realization. The very idea that she would want to emulate anything about Serendine was ludicrous, but…

She did. She held up her hand, remembering the first time she had gripped Serendine's sword with it. She remembered the feel of the leather grip around the handle. She remembered— 

She looked back up that the graceful girl in front of her, her mouth going dry.

She remembered everything , even the things she'd tried so hard to forget.

 

Chapter Text

Thalia was eight years old, and she had never had a crush. The only boy outside her family she’d ever held a conversation with was Junior. Though she wanted to like him, to fall in love, she couldn’t. At the tender age of eight, the young romantic was growing impatient. Her head was filled with tales of romance, and she wanted to act them out, to mimic them with someone. She had hoped that person would be Junior, but she could only see him as a friend. Maybe she was never going to like him. Maybe she was never going to like anyone.

She sat next to him on the wall of his garden, kicking her legs out, sending the skirts of her dress flaring wildly. Junior was hunched over, his hands gripping his knees. He seemed nervous today, but he hadn’t said why. Thalia didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just come out with whatever was bothering him. After all, it’s not like there was anything he could say that would make her angry. She couldn’t afford to get mad at her only friend.

Thalia rolled her head lazily toward him to ask, “What’s up with you today?”

He gritted his teeth, as though he were biting something back. Finally, he admitted, “Princess Serendine is visiting today!”

Ah. The perfect princess that lived the life Thalia longed for. Junior always talked about her. She had become some sort of mythical figure to Thalia, someone who couldn’t possibly exist— the most beautiful girl in Parthevia, the best sword fighter in their age group, the kindest person on the planet.

Thalia was jealous. Her only friend never talked about her that way. She didn’t like him romantically, but that didn’t mean she didn’t want to feel wanted. Her irritation was quickly replaced by curiosity. Why would Junior be so tight-lipped about the other princess’s visit? So she asked him:

“Why not just come out and say it?”

He shrugged. “We’re probably going to sword fight the whole time. You’re going to be bored, and I feel like a bad host.”

Her head lulled back once again, gazing up at the blue summer sky. So that was it, huh? He was so chivalrous, he felt bad that Thalia wouldn’t be able to be included in the kinds of games they would play, especially since…

She glanced in the direction of the retainer that had been sent by her mother’s family to accompany her on today’s visit. Kayra had initially planned on coming, but according to the maids’ whispers, she had confessed to Barbarossa and been rejected. Now, she was too humiliated to visit him. The retainer, a stern woman who had seemed impossibly old to Thalia, but in reality was probably only in her mid-thirties, watched her with hawkish eyes.

That’s why she and Junior weren’t getting into some kind of mischief at the moment. Her mother’s family was slightly less strict than life with her father, but running and sword fighting were still forbidden. Thalia often wondered if her life was normal. She used to take it for granted that it was, but she wasn’t so sure anymore. Her mother’s family insisted that as a princess, she needed to behave in a certain way, but how come the princess of Parthevia could do all the things Thalia couldn’t? She longed to meet people her age and fit in with them. Today, she was going to meet someone new, but she wouldn’t be able to play. That sucked a lot of the excitement out of the momentous occasion.

“I’ll have fun watching,” she lied. She would be daydreaming about holding the sword herself the whole time, pretending she were in their shoes. It wouldn’t be as fun as actually holding a sword, which she had yet to do, but it would be a poignant experience for her nonetheless.

Junior was about to say something when a servant interrupted. “Young Master, Princess Serendine has arrived.”

So this was it. Thalia was finally meeting her. She wasn’t sure if she was excited, but she definitely wasn’t nervous. She didn’t think of this moment as meeting someone new. This was a more like reunion with an old friend whose face she’d never seen. Thalia wondered if she would immediately get along with the princess, or if she would struggle to earn her friendship like she had with Junior.

The two children hopped down from the wall, following the servant down a long hallway and to the entryway, where a girl with long, pink hair stood facing away from them, her legs spread apart, one hand on her hip.

Thalia took a silent, deep breath, trying to hide her surprise. The girl was not wearing a dress, but instead was dressed like a boy, in pants and a tunic. A sword dangled from her side, furthering the air of boyishness the princess exuded. Junior had told Thalia Serendine hated dresses, but Thalia hadn’t really been able to fathom what the reality of that statement meant. Thalia had never seen a girl dress this way. She hadn’t known it was possible. 

Junior bent down on one knee, holding up a fist to his chest. “Welcome, Princess Serendine.”

The girl turned around, her shiny, tulip petal hair flowing elegantly behind her. She froze when her soft eyes rested on Thalia.

“Why aren’t you bowing?” Serendine didn’t look angry, just confused.

Junior lowered his head. “This is Princess Thalia Alexandris of the neighboring country of Attica.”

A smoldering flame was already kindling itself inside of Thalia. Serendine was indeed the most beautiful girl in Parthevia, maybe in the entire world. Her gentle, pink eyes, framed by long, delicate eyelashes, exuded warmth and familiarity. Her sweet lips pulled up into a welcoming smile as a slender hand reached out to Thalia.

“Thalia, then. It’s nice to meet a fellow princess. I hope we get along.”

Thalia wanted to respond. She tried to say something that would impress her fellow princess, but her mouth was thick, as though it were glued shut with honey. Her own useless stammering was drowned out by the blood rushing in her ears.

Thalia didn’t know what she was feeling at the time. She told herself it was admiration. She was meeting the girl Junior had spent so long building up in her head, and here was the legend herself. Whose knees wouldn’t turn to jelly? Whose hands wouldn’t tremble? The way she was feeling was natural, inevitable. She would allow herself to be swept away by it, to revel in it, to drown even. 

Serendine cocked her head to the side curiously as Thalia choked on her own words.

“Are you okay?”

Junior rushed to Thalia’s rescue. “She’s shy. She’ll warm up to you eventually.”

Eventually? Thalia was already warm, so warm she was sweating. She watched helplessly as the two Parthevians walked down the brightly lit hallway and into the gardens, following them on the clumsy stilt legs of a newborn foal. 

As her friend and this new girl prepared to battle, Thalia found a cool place in the shade and collapsed, willing her racing heart to slow. This fluttering feeling was just excitement at making a new friend, she told herself. 

Serendine and Junior each drew their swords and began a delicate dance, circling each other, waiting for an opening. Thalia focused on this fascinating new girl, watching her every movement, every feint, every false start. Then Serendine lunged, her long, beautiful hair trailing behind her. Junior barely dodged her attack, falling onto his rear end.

Thalia marveled at her fellow princess, her pounding heart refusing to calm. Serendine was beauty, grace, strength, power. She was everything Thalia wanted to be and everything Thalia wanted to cherish.

Then, when the match was over, Serendine did the unthinkable: she approached Thalia.

“You seem pretty interested,” the pink-haired princess observed. “Do you like swords?”

This time, Thalia managed to choke out a reply. “I do.”

Thalia liked swords, and she liked the girl who wielded them.

“What kind of sword do you usually use?” Serendine asked, bending sideways in a stretch.

“Oh, I’m not allowed to use them,” Thalia hurriedly corrected her, “but I like to look at them, and I like to watch. You were amazing out there… like really cool.”

If she’d had the vocabulary at the time, Thalia would have gone so far as to say Serendine was breathtaking.

Serendine’s cheeks flushed at the compliment, and Thalia felt a surge of hope, though she did not realize at the time just what she was hoping for. She only knew these powerful, foreign emotions for this powerful, foreign girl felt simultaneously pleasant and frightening, strange and familiar. The one thing they did not feel was wrong. 

“I bet with some practice, you would be just as good as I am. Would you like to touch it?” Serendine shifted her sheathed sword on her hip, positioning it for Thalia to get a better view. Thalia’s eyes rested longingly on the weapon. She wanted to touch it, to feel the crisp leather grip or run her fingers along the smooth, metallic blade, even just once. 

She looked over at the hawkish retainer, who was frowning disapprovingly, and wilted. “I can’t. I’d be punished.”

Serendine followed her gaze to the woman in the background. She turned back and nodded to Thalia, as though she understood. “Come to the palace sometime. I can order everyone away. No one has to know.”

That night, in bed, as Thalia closed her eyes, she imagined herself fighting side by side with Serendine, wielding a sword to fight off enemies. Then, standing triumphant in the middle of the battlefield, the two girls would join hands. That was where her fantasies stopped that night. It wasn’t so strange for two friends to hold hands, so she didn’t question why Serendine had taken the place of a man in her romantic fantasies. 

The next day, Barbarossa showed up at the family’s front door asking to see Kayra. Thalia watched Kayra fret about her hair, shouting at the maids to hurry up and help make her presentable. Thalia had watched wide-eyed at her sister’s erratic behavior. Kayra usually seemed so calm and collected, but here she was losing her mind over a boy.

Thalia snuck downstairs and let herself into the greeting room, eyeing the boy her sister was going mad over curiously. He was dressed in his usual gentlemanly attire, but today he had brought flowers.

“Are those for Kayra?” Thalia asked timidly. “Do you like my sister?”

He didn’t respond. Instead, she thought he sneered at her. She shrank away but offered him a warning in an attempt to help her sister.

“Don’t let my father find out you were here. Kayra gets in trouble when she talks to boys.”

Thalia remembered gossip she had heard that Kayra had once been caught talking to a guard and apparently had been punished severely for it. They had said that was why she spent most of her time away from Attica. Thalia was afraid if Kayra got in trouble again, she would never come back and then she would be alone in the palace forever.

He scoffed. “You people really are backward.”

She puffed out her cheeks and stared at Barbarossa, wanting to defend her country from his slander, but then Kayra walked in, much more put together than she had been moments ago.

She glanced over at Thalia and smiled. “Were you two talking?”

“You two are always saying Attica is backward,” Thalia pouted. “It’s not. My people deserve respect too. Nobody is better than anyone else because of where they come from.”

Kayra’s lips pulled into a gentle smile. “It’s understandable you feel that way, dear, but Parthevia is objectively better than Attica. Surely you’ve seen how much better you’re treated here than you are there. Atticans are simply inferior.”

Thalia took in a sharp breath. Her sister had just called half of her inferior. Thalia clung to her Attican identity with fierce pride. She loved her country and its people. She loved their history, their accomplishments, and so did Parthevia and Reim. According to Thalia’s history lessons, both countries had borrowed heavily from Attican culture, particularly Reim. 

Attica’s main export was its arts— its pottery and sculptures were highly prized among the Reim elite, and in Parthevia to a lesser extent. Attica also exported many successful performers: actors, singers, and dancers. Even the slaves from areas most heavily influenced by the former Attican empire were prized because they tended to be well educated and still had familiarity with Attican art techniques. Like the pottery for which Attica was renown, her country had helped shape the world into what it was today. 

 She had every reason to be proud of the country she would one day inherit. Why couldn’t Kayra or Barbarossa see it? She was treated better here, but only a little. She was nearly as suffocated at her mother’s family house as she was back in the palace. 

A tear streamed down her cheek— disappointment, anger, and hurt all contained in the tiny droplet. No one understood her, not even Kayra, her idol. The people who were supposed to care about her were always putting down things she loved— first, her interests, and now, her heritage.

“There there, dear,” Kayra muttered, pulling out a handkerchief and wiping Thalia’s face. “Someone was going to have to tell you eventually. But look at you, you have so many fine Parthevian traits. There’s hope for you yet.”

“Doubtful,” Barbarossa mused from the sofa.

Kayra turned to him and gave him a dark look. “Did you come here to insult me further, or have you finally come to your senses?”

“I’ve already told you, you need to trust me. I have ambitions that—” He glanced at Thalia, remembering she was in the room. “That I can’t talk about in front of your sister. If you give me your support, I can give you everything you asked for and more, but you need to be patient.”

Kayra’s bright eyes glittered with some unspoken emotion. “I can be patient. I always have been, haven’t I? Since we were little, I was always waiting for you to look my way. Of course I’ll support your ambitions.” Her voice hardened, taking on a quality Thalia had never heard come from her sister’s mouth before. “But I can’t stop thinking about how easy it would be for you to forget about me along the way. That’s why I want some kind of guarantee that you won’t.”

Leaving the flowers on the couch, he stood up and took several steps toward Thalia’s sister. “As long as you’re useful to me, you’ll get your reward some day. Have I ever gone back on my word?”

“I’m holding you to it. There is nothing more powerful than a woman’s desire, and I have my heart set on only one thing.” Kayra closed the distance between them, placing her palm on his chest. ”I’ll go to any lengths to claim what’s mine.”

Barbarossa smiled, bringing his hand to her cheek. “That’s exactly what I need from you, now and in the future.”

Thalia slipped out into the grand entryway quietly. Though she was unsettled by what she’d just witnessed, she dismissed everything she had just heard as a tender moment between her sister and the guy she liked. Thalia had simply been an intruder, someone not meant to witness their private conversation.

As she began to walk away, a knock on the front door signaled the arrival of another visitor.

A slave opened the door to a man in full Parthevian armor, complete with a pointy hat with a fur tassel on top. Thalia looked at him inquisitively as her grandmother, Uparmiya, scrambled down the grand staircase to greet him.

“Oh my, to what do we owe the pleasure of this visit?” the woman asked brightly.

The guard cleared his throat. “The princess Serendine Dikumenowlz Du Parthevia has requested Princess Thalia Alexandris come to the palace for a playdate.”

Uparmiya’s calculating eyes landed on Thalia. “I wasn’t aware you knew our illustrious princess.”

“We met yesterday at Junior’s,” Thalia explained, wondering how her grandmother would try to capitalize on her new friendship.

The severe woman looked her granddaughter up and down, seeking out every imperfection, then turned to the guard. “Please, allow us a few moments to prepare her. I would not dare to insult the king by sending my granddaughter underdressed.”

Thalia resisted the urge to scrunch her face at the idea of being groomed for the second time today.

The guard nodded. “Understood, my lady.”

Thalia’s grandmother shut the door and grabbed her granddaughter painfully by the arm, issuing commands to the maids as she dragged the eight-year-old up the stairs.

“We need her to look impeccable at the royal palace. Who knows, maybe she’ll catch the eye of some wealthy young man—”

“She’s eight, Mother.” Thalia’s mother slumped against the rail at the top of the stairs, a bottle dangling precariously from her loose grip. “And I’m not about to let you do to her what you did to me. Besides, my husband dearest gets to decide her fate now, doesn’t he? Since women are property in that godforsaken country.”

“Ungrateful brat!” Uparmiya spat, “I made you a queen . You should be thankful that after that pathetic late husband of yours died, you were able to remarry at all.”

Thalia flinched. Her mother and grandmother were about to get into another verbal sparring match, and this time Thalia was unable to flee, still in her grandmother’s vice-like grip. She wished her family would get along for once. She’d never seen Junior’s family argue like this.

Her mother’s beautiful mouth twisted downward into a scowl.

“His name was Farhad.”

“He had nothing to give you. He did nothing but leech off the family fortune.”

“He was a soldier who fought honorably for his country!”

The bottle dropped and crashed on the ground floor, punctuating Simay’s words.

Thalia gazed curiously at her mother as Simay choked back a sob. She rarely mentioned the man who was Kayra’s father, and Thalia, whose understanding of affection and love was shaped by stories, couldn’t understand why her mother’s voice would crack with emotion as she spoke about someone who had been dead nearly ten years.

Uparmiya sniffed. “Disgusting. If you weren’t always drunk, your husband would treat you better.”

“He drives me to drink and so do you,” Simay shot back.

“I don’t have time for your petty tantrums right now,” Uparmiya huffed. “You’ve been nothing but a disappointment to this family… no, I can’t say that. At least you gave me granddaughters. Perhaps they’ll be able to succeed where you have failed. Kayra already has a good prospect, that Dragul boy Barbarossa. Thank heavens she didn’t inherit your madness.”

Simay let out a small huff of a laugh. “Madness, huh? If wanting to have some control over my own life is madness, I’ll gladly accept the label.” Her eyes darted to Thalia. “Leave that poor girl alone, though. You’re never going to mold her to your expectations. Kayra is like you: intelligent, calculating, ambitious… but Thalia inherited my restless spirit. If you keep trying to restrain her, she’ll only act out.”

Uparmiya’s grip tightened around her until she wanted to squirm.“What would you know about her, you pitiful excuse for a mother! You can barely stand to look at her, and you want to tell me how to raise her? What have you done for her? Nothing!”

Simay’s eyes locked with Thalia’s for a long, euphoric moment. Her daughter’s heart swelled with hope at being defended by her mother. Simay was the only one who understood how Thalia felt inside. That meant her mother had some affection for her, right? Thalia grabbed that morsel of hope and clung to it stubbornly. She was loved. She was.

“Mother?” Thalia tried tentatively, thinking that somehow, this time her mother’s response would be different from all the times she’d been rejected in the past.

Simay’s eyes narrowed. “You really look so much like your father.” 

With that, Thalia’s mother turned around and stumbled back to her room with halting, unsteady steps. 

Thalia stared at the spot where her mother had just been forlornly. She ached for her mother’s recognition, but Simay had rejected her for as long as she could remember. No one fully accepted her. Not her mother, not her sister, not her grandmother. Thalia just felt alone.

“Come now,” her grandmother said darkly, tugging on her arm. “It won’t reflect well on us if we keep the princess waiting.”

Uparmiya finished dragging her into her room, where maids already had her most expensive dress and jewels laid out. They stuffed her into them and combed her hair into a perfect bun at the base of her neck, decorating her dark, plain hair with bright, elegant jewels. Thalia looked like what she’d always been told a princess should look like, but she knew a princess who looked nothing like this.

“You,” Uparmiya addressed the same retainer that had escorted Thalia to Junior’s yesterday. “Keep her out of trouble. Simay was right about one thing. She has a streak of that madness in her, willful with a head full of fantasies. She’ll destroy the entire family’s reputation if she gets the chance.”

Thalia bit her tongue. Serendine was willful, and her family was respected. Why was Thalia any different? She wanted to experience Serendine’s life— to hurry up and leave this prison of her mother’s family home. Serendine had promised she could send all the adults away, and for the first time, Thalia could explore the part of herself that no one would accept.

Her face grew warm as she realized someone did accept her— someone with pink hair, who had offered her a safe place to be herself. She wasn’t alone. She had Serendine.

The maid bowed, agreeing to keep Thalia out of trouble, and before long, Thalia was in a carriage on her way to Serendine’s home— the Parthevian palace.

When the carriage stopped, Thalia looked out the window, gaping at the grandeur of Parthevia’s royal palace. Turrets upon turrets climbed into the sky, and balconies sprawled across each floor of the building. In the center, a fascinating dome shaped like an onion seemed to preside over the palace like a grand king, announcing to all citizens that this was the residence of the royal family. It was so much bigger than the royal palace of Attica. Attica, being a city-state on a small island, had to use its space carefully, and something so sprawling and spacious would be considered wasteful.

A guard opened the door to her and offered to help her step down. She began to shrink away, but then she thought: what would Serendine do? Serendine wouldn’t act strangely over touching a guy. She wouldn’t even think twice about it. Thalia placed her hand in his outstretched one and stepped down regally from the carriage, channeling Serendine’s confidence.

“Thank you.”

The retainer scrambled out after her. Thalia could feel the woman’s hawkish eyes boring into the back of her head, waiting for her to make a mistake and embarrass the family. She ignored the woman pointedly. Soon, Thalia would be free of her. Serendine would send her away.

A crowd of guards parted to make way for the Parthevian princess, and Thalia was just as struck at this second meeting as she was the first.

“It’s good to see you again, Thalia. I’m glad you could come on such short notice.”

“G— good to s— see you,” Thalia stuttered.

Serendine turned away, motioning for her to follow. “We will be spending some time to ourselves. No one is to follow, understood?”

The retainer spoke up, “Princess, I am under strict orders from my lady to keep an eye on Thalia so that she does not offend you.”

Serendine turned back around, narrowing her eyes. “Does your lady outrank a princess?”

“No, it’s just that our Thalia can be a bit—”

“Thalia is a princess as well. She is a guest to Parthevia and, as such, should be held to the highest esteem. Does your lady outrank a princess?” Serendine repeated. “Is that how things are run in your home?”

The maid cowered, bowing low. “Please, your highness. I did not mean to offend you. It is only, Thalia—”

“You should be referring to her by her title.”

“Yes, thank you.” she lowered her head further, wringing her hands. “Princess Thalia is young, and her temperament is such that she must be kept under strict supervision, or she will embarrass my mistress’s family. I implore you to allow me to perform my duty.”

Serendine turned to Thalia, looking her up and down. “You’re telling me that she has been so poorly raised, she cannot be left alone without bringing disaster to the whole family.”

“That’s not—”

“Quiet!”

The retainer dropped to her knees, kowtowing to the floor. “Please forgive my insolence!”

Thalia watched with awe as Serendine brought a fully grown woman to submission with a few choice words. She had done what Thalia could only dream of. Serendine was amazing, Thalia thought as the pink-haired princess took her hand, guiding her away from her suffocating maid, away from the crowd of soldiers, away from everything. She was alone with Serendine for the first time.

The room Serendine pulled her into was a room for weapons training. All kinds of sharp instruments hung from the wall, gleaming invitingly. Thalia was so amazed, she almost didn’t notice the pressure release from her hand or the way Serendine was fighting the urge to lash out at someone. She whipped around toward Thalia, her eyes fiery.

“You shouldn’t let them treat you that way. You’re a princess. Demand the respect they owe you, or they’ll turn against you.”

Thalia stared blankly at her new friend. She wished she could have the same success as Serendine if she tried to stick up for herself. The fact was, whether it was in her mother’s house or in her own palace, it was all the same. She was expected to be quiet and obey. Serendine could only say such things because of the freedom her father granted her. Without his support, Thalia couldn’t imagine Serendine would be able to give her this advice so casually.

“Well, you’re still young. You should figure it out soon enough.” Serendine crossed over to the wall and picked up a sheathed child-size sword. “You wanted to learn?”

Thalia nodded, her mouth going dry. She was finally going to touch a sword. She approached cautiously, her hands out in front of her. This was it. She was going to become a hero like in the stories, and the first step was touching this weapon. She laid her hands on it, closing her eyes and feeling the hard leather of the sheath, relishing the moment.

“This really means a lot to you, huh?” 

She opened her eyes at the sound of Serendine’s voice. She’d been so wrapped up in the sword, she hadn’t realized how close she was to her fellow princess. Thalia stumbled backward, disarmed to be greeted by such a warm and kind smile from this distance. 

Serendine let out a small laugh. “Junior was right. You really are shy. It’s okay, I don’t bite.”

Her words did nothing to dull the pounding of Thalia’s small heart, but that precious bundle in Serendine’s hands seemed to call out to her. She couldn’t resist the allure of the sword or the faint smell of roses she was beginning to pick up on.

As she timidly approached once more, Serendine smiled encouragingly at her. “That’s it. Go ahead and unsheathe it.”

Thalia wrapped her small fingers around the saber’s hilt tightly and slowly removed it from its sheath. She held up the sword to inspect it, catching a glimpse of her own reflection in its blade. The girl looking back at her was absolutely radiant with joy, her face flushed, her lips parted into a wide grin. She looked back to Serendine, who was leaning against a training post with her arms crossed, nodding approvingly.

“Am I holding it right?” Thalia asked. She hoped she was. She hoped she had a natural talent, and Serendine would be impressed.

Serendine moved to behind Thalia, putting a hand on her back as she fixed Thalia’s grip. “Think of it as an extension of your arm.”

Thalia listened, but that rose smell was so intoxicating, her limbs were beginning to feel weak. She wanted to learn about the sword, but the girl beside her was so distracting and pretty. She found herself imagining what it would be like to bury her lips in that perfect, pink hair, to hold hands and exchange pecks on the cheek. How was she supposed to learn to sword-fight like this?

But the longer it took for her to learn, the more excuses she would have to be close to Serendine. Thalia changed her mind about wanting to be a prodigy. This was fine too.

That night in bed, Thalia curled around her pillow, imagining it was Serendine and pressed her lips against it. She was beginning to understand what she was feeling. It had hit her hard and fast, taking her by surprise, but she could no longer call this admiration.

Thalia was in love.

Thalia had returned to Attica many times at this point, said many goodbyes to the people of Parthevia, but she had never cried like she did this time. When was the next time she would see Serendine? Weeks from now? Months? What if it was never? Junior didn’t understand. He complained about her being a crybaby. Serendine hugged her and promised they would see each other again. That, and only that, was able to console the young princess. Thalia boarded the ship to Attica feeling like she’d left her whole world behind.

“Father?” Thalia asked the next time she saw Hypatos. “Can girls marry each other?”

She’d tried to think of any couples she knew consisting of two women, but she couldn’t. It was strange to her. In the stories her maids told her, people fell in love and married, but it was always a man and a woman. Thalia loved Serendine, so she wanted to marry her, like in the stories.

King Hypatos leaned forward, gazing at her with a disapproving expression. “Why would you even ask about something so ridiculous?”

“I want to marry Princess Serendine. I love her,” Thalia had told him, not realizing there was anything wrong with what she said.

He rose slowly. Thalia began to cower, recognizing his anger.

“To think my own daughter would have such unnatural feelings,” he mumbled. “She’ll bring a curse upon this entire nation. Guards!”

Thalia panicked as two guards ran up and seized her from behind. Her father had never had her apprehended like this before. She struggled fruitlessly.

“Do you understand your place?” King Hypatos asked coldly, walking toward her. He put his face in hers threateningly, furious eyes boring into hers. “You are a girl, a princess. You’re going to marry a man of my choosing and bear his children. If you fail to uphold your duties, the whole country will suffer. You must always abide by the old ways, Thalia. Go to the temple and pray that Asena will cure you of your waywardness.”

Is something… wrong with me? Thalia had asked herself as she was dragged to Asena’s temple. Over the coming years she would learn that, yes, from the Attican point of view, something was very wrong with her. Flings between men were respected and even encouraged, but for women, who were naturally devious, carnal beings, to love another woman was to reject reason and righteousness, the things that separate human beings from animals. A woman needed a man to civilize her, keep her evil nature in check. A man needed a woman to carry on the family line and for no other reason. That was simply the way Thalia’s world worked. 

Thalia would never see this inherent evil her culture claimed possessed all women, but she lit incense and prayed to the goddess, begging for enlightenment and virtue. She prayed to become a daughter whom her parents could love, one who could accept her place in the world. She could give up her hopes to marry Serendine if only her father would never look at her with those angry eyes again.

For days, she knelt in front of that statue, pleading for forgiveness and asking for guidance. There had been moments she believed she heard a fragmented voice trying to speak to her, but that could have easily been hallucinations from hunger. She wasn’t allowed any food, only water. The longer she prayed, the more she resented the goddess. She’d been devoted to Asena her whole life, and this was how she was repaid, with silence in her time of need? Surely if Asena existed, she would provide some kind of divine intervention for Thalia. By the time she was released, Thalia was like her mother, skeptical of anything she could not see.

Thalia hadn’t been the same person since. She lost interest in swords and foreign things. That streak of madness in her, the one that had so worried her grandmother, had been effectively quashed. She became a model Attican citizen for four years, paying attention to her lessons and not questioning her place. The only boy she talked to was Junior; she could never bring herself to give him up. The new, demure Thalia began to earn the respect of the maids who used to gossip about her unfitness. 

She ignored her feelings on the next few visits to Parthevia, doing her best to bury them. The urges to kiss Serendine eventually away. The electricity dulled, and the trembling ceased. In time, she forgot she’d ever had feelings for her fellow princess. She still felt a strange possessiveness toward her, but she chalked it up to insecurity about their friendship. 

For four years, Thalia fooled everyone, even herself. 

But that streak of madness ran deep, and twelve-year-old Thalia had overheard a conversation that would lead her to descend back into yearning for self-determination. She had taken her fate into her own hands. She had run away. 

Since then, she had made supportive friends, and as they worked to piece her back together, they began to uncover the girl buried underneath the rubble, the one who had loved swords and another girl, and who hadn’t been ashamed of any of it.

Sixteen-year-old Thalia had experienced her first love, and the girl she’d held so much affection for had murdered her parents and sister. She watched Serendine swing her sword again. The Parthevian princess was a traitor, a murderer, and a liar. She had been the source of so much pain in Thalia’s life.

She had also given her a taste of freedom, and maybe Thalia owed her credit for that. Thalia no longer believed in gods. There were no maids or superstitious fathers to hold her back. For the first time in her life, Thalia could be herself, and no one could stop her.



Chapter Text

Thalia marched through the hallways of the Sindria Trading Company building, her quick, purposeful footsteps echoing off the stone walls. Her eyebrows had knitted themselves into a deep frown, weighed down by her oppressive mood. By now it was four in the evening, and since her revelation while watching Serendine this morning, Thalia had been roiling with unsettled, racing thoughts. 

This whole time, she had been stuck, unable to forgive Serendine, but incapable of bringing herself to demand repayment of the blood debt she and her people were owed— because she had once loved Serendine. She was imprisoned by her own weakness toward the girl who had betrayed her. Thalia had promised to let some of her anger go and move on. Even so, if she forgave the woman who had deprived her country of its king and queen, how could she face her people? With no method of recourse and no possibility of forgiveness, the jilted princess could only stew in her own suffocating resentment. She was powerless, wrapped around the finger of her parents’ killer. It was pathetic.

She let out a bitter huff of a laugh. Thalia still didn’t deserve Attica. She’d run away from her country because she hadn’t wanted to marry a perfectly suitable candidate, then spent years humiliated as a slave because she hadn’t been clever enough to escape on her own. She’d had her virtue stolen from her after fighting so hard to keep it intact. She couldn’t even demand justice for her parent’s wrongful death because she’d allowed a traitor to pierce her heart.

The fall of her country had been her fault, and she’d made mistake after mistake, endured humiliation after humiliation. To think someone as incompetent as Thalia could ever fix an entire country was laughable at best, but she had been born to carry this burden on her shoulders. It was her birthright, and the one responsibility she had to carry through to the end. This was her fate: to take back Attica or die trying. It was a daunting task, but as she paused outside of Sinbad’s office, her thoughts slowed, the tension fleeing from her body.

As long as Sinbad was on her side, she could do this. He was her partner, and he would be her redemption. Where she failed time and again, Sinbad had proven himself to be reliable. Her heart fluttered as she thought about all the times he’d taken control of a difficult situation and skillfully handled it: the dungeon, the tomb, the boat... He really was amazing. Thalia wanted to learn from him, to become as amazing as he was so that one day she wouldn’t have to rely on him for everything. She wanted to learn to stand on her own two feet.

Taking a deep breath, she gingerly pushed Sinbad’s office door open.

“Sin?”

 “Hm?” he grunted, chewing on the end of his pen.

 “Are you close to finishing your work for today?”

Judging by the precariously tall stack of papers next to him, the answer was no, but she tried asking anyway. After all, Sinbad was her best friend and most powerful ally. He was the hero she’d spent so much time daydreaming about becoming as a child. If there was anyone in the world she wanted to teach her how to fight, it was him.

He almost snorted. “I wish. What do you need?”

She approached his desk with several swift strides before making her request:

 “Teach me how to fight.”

He sighed, giving her a skeptical look. “I thought you didn’t have time to invest years into learning how to fight.”

He didn’t think she was serious, and she couldn’t blame him. She’d never displayed interest in self-defense or anything similar before. She’d been behaving like a proper princess, or at least, as much like one as she could manage, but now she realized she wasn’t one. She would never be one because she had that streak of madness in her. Even when her family had successfully suppressed it, her longing for the forbidden was always there, coursing through her veins, waiting for the day she was willing to acknowledge it.

 She returned Sinbad’s gaze with a firm resoluteness. She was acknowledging it now. She needed to learn to fight. She needed a way to take back Attica and focus her energy.

 “I decided I want to learn anyway.” 

 “What changed your mind?” He asked, leaning toward her with one eyebrow raised.

Thalia instinctively put some distance between herself and the boy whose proximity consistently left her feeling muddled lately, choosing instead to sit safely on the solid wooden desk. Idly fingering the cold, impersonal surface, she closed her eyes, allowing the sensation to sink into her, to create a numbing barrier between her and Sinbad. Now wasn’t the time to let herself get flustered. She was on a mission.

“Ja’far suggested I channel my anger into something constructive.”

Sinbad nodded, humming thoughtfully. “You do seem serious. I would help you, but the company has a big deal going through right now. I’m sorry. I just don’t have the time, but when things slow down, I’d be happy to—”

“It can’t wait.”

Thalia had waited her entire life. She was done being patient. Today had to be the day she started learning. The little girl who loved swords, the country she needed to reclaim, and her own vendettas had waited long enough. She was starving to take back her power

He chuckled, sitting back in his chair. “It’s good to see you so excited. Believe me, I’d take any excuse to ignore this paperwork if Ja’far wasn’t already hounding me to catch up. Actually, if you wanted to stay and keep me company for a while...”

His hand wandered toward her wrist on the desk, but she pulled it away before he could trap her.

“Sin, I can’t. I’m on a mission to find a teacher.”

“Is your mission more important than my sanity?”

She smiled wryly. “I’ll just be a distraction. The more you concentrate, the sooner you’ll be done.”

He narrowed his eyes. “Why do you sound like Ja’far?”

“Ja’far’s a smart kid. I’ll take that as a compliment.” She winked down at him playfully, taking a sort of victorious pleasure in his betrayed scowl.

 Deciding to leave him to his work, Thalia hopped back down to the floor, backing out of the room. Sinbad was busy, but she had other friends. Ja’far, Hinahoho, Rurumu, Mystras, Masrur, and Drakon all would make great teachers. Surely one of them would have the time and the will to train her. She just needed to keep asking until one of them said yes.

Her first target was Ja’far, the fatal assassin. He used wire and darts to subdue his opponents from a distance. He wouldn’t be able to teach her to use a sword, but the darts were lightweight, and with a bit of skill, even someone like her would be able to wield them effectively. As a bonus, she knew Ja’far was a strict yet patient teacher. He’d occasionally tutored her as she struggled with accounting early on.

As she entered his office, she hesitated. He looked almost as busy as Sinbad had, scribbling furiously with a feather quill in what appeared to be a leather-bound ledger.

She forced a smile and pulled herself together. It couldn’t hurt to ask, and if he refused to teach her, she would simply ask someone else. Even so, she began to grow anxious about being rejected. Of her friends, Ja’far was the closest to her in strength. Even Mystras towered several inches above her, and, despite his playful appearance, he was almost as muscular as Sinbad. Ja’far’s fighting style would likely be easier for someone like her to pick up than Mystras’s or the others’.

She decided to give this attempt her all.

 “Ja’far!” she shouted too enthusiastically.

 The sandy-haired boy slowly raised his head at the sound of his name. He already looked perturbed, his mouth pulled into a slight frown. Her overly cheerful greeting must have tipped him off to the fact that she wanted something from him.

 “What is it, Thalia?” 

“I need you to teach me how to fight,” she pleaded, lowering herself to her knees at his side. It was, perhaps, slightly overdramatic, but she was desperate. He was her best option.

He sighed, eyeing her warily, as though he didn’t trust her newly found interest in self-defense was anything more than a fleeting fancy.

“I think it’s great that you want to defend yourself,” he told her, scratching his head. “I really do. It’s just, we’re so busy right now. Maybe some other time.” 

“But—”

He turned back to his book.

“I only need an hour.”

He didn’t react.

“Thirty minutes?”

His eyes stayed fixed on the page.

“Five. Five minutes. That’s all I need. Just show me how to throw one of those darts so I can practice.”

He moved slightly, igniting hope in Thalia’s heart. She had swayed him! He was going to teach her! 

Her hopes were dashed when he turned the page of his book and remained stubbornly fixed on it.

Thalia growled in frustration, straightening back up. Fine. She would ask someone else. So what if she would never match any of her other friends in strength? The mechanics would be the same. They could still teach her to fight.

She sought out Hinahoho, the spear-wielding Imuchakk warrior, next. As a father, his patience for her incompetence would be nearly unlimited. After all, how could he get mad at her for being terrible with a spear when his son couldn’t even feed himself properly yet? She would look like a prodigy in comparison. She found her target in the employees’ living quarters diligently watching his son run around on stubby legs.

 Thalia smiled warmly, something warm and maternal stirring inside her as her eyes remained locked on Kikiriku. She had never worked with a child this young, but suddenly, she wanted to. She had seen this small person around the company, but she had never had the chance to interact with him. 

 Hinahoho noticed the way her attention lingered on the child and called out to him. “Kikiriku, look who’s here!”

The boy followed the sound of his father’s voice, then, noticing Thalia, broke into a wide grin. Thalia was immediately smitten. He waddled over to her, reaching out his hand, and Thalia responded in kind, squatting down and reaching out to him. His strong grip wrapped around her fingers, threatening to crush them. 

 “Ah! Careful, Kikiriku!” Hinahoho cried, moving in to sweep him away. Thalia laughed good-naturedly, waving the concerned father’s worries away with her free hand.

 “You’ve got a tight grip, huh?” she praised Kikiriku, resisting the urge to wince. “My name is Thalia. Can you say Thalia?”

 “Dahdee-uh!” he shouted, throwing his hands in the air. Thalia mirrored his actions, cheering enthusiastically at his attempt to pronounce her name.

 “You know,” Hinahoho mused as he watched the two interact, “this is perfect timing. I needed someone to watch Kikiriku while I take care of a few things. Do you mind?”

 Thalia stood up, clutching her skirt anxiously. “Actually, I came here to—”

 “That’s great!” Hinahoho was already leaving the room. “Thanks, Thalia!”

 Thalia glanced down at the oversized toddler at her side and smiled warmly. “I guess I can entertain you for a few minutes, huh?”

But what did kids this small like to do? When Thalia was a child, she had spent most of her time studying, but that wasn’t what kids really enjoyed, was it? A ball caught her eye from the corner of the room, and she remembered something she had played at Drakon’s house. She strode over and swept up the toy before settling down at Kikiriku’s side, facing the wall.

“This game is really simple,” she explained, demonstrating by bouncing the ball off the floor, against the wall, and catching it as it came back to her.

She handed the ball to Kikiriku. “Do you want to try?”

He nodded enthusiastically, raising the ball over his head. When he threw the ball, it hit the ground, cracking the tile floor upon impact. It then ricocheted off the wall, leaving a crater that peeked through to the other side in its wake.

Thalia gaped at the mess in horror. How could someone so small cause so much destruction? Kikiriku laughed as Thalia crawled over to inspect the damage, gingerly fingering the place where the wall had once been smooth. On the other side, the women’s bathing area was now exposed, and there were any number of perverts working here that would violate its sanctity if given the chance— her boss, for example.

“I’m back! Did you and Kikiriku get along?” Hinahoho’s cheerful voice greeted her as he stepped back into the room. Thalia blanched as he eyed the destruction, but, contrary to her expectations, he brushed it off with a proud, fatherly grin. “He’s a lively kid, isn’t he?”

“Hina, I actually came to ask you a favor,” Thalia hedged.

“Since you helped me out, I owe you one,” Hinahoho agreed. “What is it you need?”

Thalia glanced at the Rampaging Unicorn Horn he always carried around. “Teach me how to use a spear.”

He smiled kindly. “Sure! As soon as things settle down and I have some free-time—”

“I only need a little of your time, but it has to be today,” she asserted.

He scratched the back of his head, drawing air in with a hiss. “That’s going to be difficult.”

“I’m sorry, Thalia, but my husband has his hands full with the children and this new deal,” Rurumu said, entering the room. She stopped as her eyes rested on the wall behind Thalia, her lips pulling into a thin, restrained line.

“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to fix it!” Thalia rushed to assure her of the damage. “But maybe you can teach me?”

“I’m busy too, dear,” Rurumu informed her apologetically, scooping up Kikiriku into her capable arms. The couple wished her luck and exited the room, leaving her with the broken wall to repair. 

She slowly turned around to assess the damage Kikiriku had caused again and winced. For the comfort of her fellow female employees, she would immediately need to fix it.

On her way to the storage closet, she pondered her next option. Mystras was a lance fighter, and he was closer to her size than Hinahoho. Not to mention, he had a tendency to slack off, which meant he would have some free time for her. 

After grabbing a tub of spackling paste and a tool, she returned to the room, where a red-haired boy in a turban was scrutinizing the hole.

Thalia cleared her throat, and he immediately sprung to an upright position, his posture stiff with guilt. As he slowly turned to meet her eyes, his face revealed to be a guilty crimson. Thalia didn’t even have to ask if what he was doing. It was obvious. She narrowed her eyes.

“Mystras.”

“I- it’s not what it looks like,” he stammered. 

She hummed skeptically, shoving him aside to spread the spackling on the wall.

“I was just trying to figure out how to fix this hole! Some creep could use it to invade the privacy of our valuable employees! That’s all...”

“Pervert.” She irritably slapped more of the goop into the hole with a loud splat.

He stomped. “I told you, I’m not!”

“Whatever,” she sighed, deciding to let it go. He was less likely to help her if she antagonized him. “Mystras, you’re good with lances, right?”

He didn’t answer. Thalia looked back over her shoulder to find herself alone. He had run away, too embarrassed to face her.

“Damn it, Mystras,” she muttered, smoothing out her repair job with the pointed tool. She stood back up, twisting the lid back onto the jar and returning her borrowed items to the storage closet.

Thalia wandered the halls of the company, slowly making her way outside. She had been rejected by all but two of her friends. At this rate, she might become desperate enough to ask Serendine. Thalia laughed bitterly at the idea, but her laugh was cut short as the other princess marched purposefully around the corner, carrying a stack of documents. Judar trailed behind her, asking how long it would be until she was finished. Serendine dismissed him with a vague answer.

Bitter fury flared back up in Thalia’s heart at the sight of her enemy, but for the first time, she could sense the bonds that restrained her from acting on her hatred— the decayed remnants of love. 

When Serendine caught sight of Thalia, she froze.

“Why’d you stop?” Judar complained, ramming into her. He turned his eyes to Thalia, and he broke out into an amused grin. “Oh, it’s the Shitty Hag. Are you two going to get into a catfight?”

Thalia and Serendine ignored him, the air between the two girls heavy with things unspoken. Thalia looked into Serendine’s eyes, and suddenly nothing seemed black and white. There was only gray, like the churning water in the narrow strait that blurred the border between Attica and Parthevia. There was no hatred or malice in her lovely rosen eyes, only sadness. It was not the pity that she saw in Drakon’s sorrowful glances. Serendine seemed as much in mourning for herself as she was for the things that had happened to Thalia.

Thalia’s bitter heart began to waver as she remembered the way she felt when Serendendine had first helped her hold a sword, and she cursed herself. Serendine had killed her parents. Even knowing that, a part of her now begged for any excuse to shed herself of her hatred and forgive Serendine, or, better, to believe there really was some kind of misunderstanding. In a moment of weakness, words of reparation began to tumble out of her mouth.

“Serendine, I—”

She caught herself. What did she want to say? That she was sorry for being angry that her parents had been murdered? It was as ludicrous as her wanting sword lessons from Serendine. It was the stupidest idea Thalia had ever conceived. There was right and wrong in the world, and Serendine was clearly in the wrong. The fact that after all these years, after everything Serendine had done, the princess still held this kind of grip on her heart struck fear into Thalia.

She began to quake, whether with fear or anger she did not know. Serendine was dangerous. This feeling was dangerous. It made her weak, and she needed to be strong. 

  “It’s okay if you hate me,” Serendine said quietly, closing her eyes with a pained expression. “I’ve always considered you to be like a little sister. When everything happened, I already knew if you came back one day, you would never forgive me. That’s fine. I’ve already resolved to accept it.”

 Judar scowled, tugging on Serendine’s uniform. “You’re not apologizing, are you? That’s so boring.”

 “I have nothing to apologize for,” Serendine said quietly. “Everything I did was for you and my country, Thalia.”

 Thalia’s breathing caught. She had allowed a murderer to trick her, to make her believe that cold heart held some remorse. Thalia tore her attention away from Serendine’s deceptively compassionate gaze. She was trying to seduce Thalia into forgiveness. How could one person be so despicable?

“You’re going to try to tell me you killed my family for my sake?”

 “You don’t know the whole story,” Serendine rushed to defend herself. She placed a hand on her heart in an attempt to convey earnesty, but Thalia backed away, crossing her arms defensively.

 “Drakon already told me everything I need to know.” 

 Serendine shook her head. “Not everything. He wasn’t there. He was away at the military academy. He only knows what he’s been told.”

  Thalia didn’t listen. She began marching away, afraid whatever lie Serendine told might sway her. She ignored Judar’s mocking goodbye and Serendine’s attempt to call after her.

She wanted Serendine to suffer. She wanted to forgive Serendine. She didn’t know what she wanted. Thalia was weak, powerless against her own emotions. She needed to become strong, to have control over some facet of her life; she needed to be able to fight. Storming outside, Thalia pursued her quest to find a teacher with renewed energy. She still had Masrur and Drakon. One of them might be willing to help her. 

She found Masrur first in the shipyard, carrying a large box by himself and smiled to herself. He wasn’t her first choice, but he was a good choice nevertheless. He’d even defeated Sinbad in the colosseum. His fighting style depended heavily on the strength of his legs, and, as a dancer, Thalia’s legs were also her most powerful asset. Perhaps, even if she lacked his superhuman strength, she could still learn from him. She nodded to herself in approval of her choice,

“Masrur!” she shouted, bounding up to him. “Can I help you with that? It looks heavy.”

He shook his head.

“You’re too weak. No.”

Her cheerful smile slipped slightly. This response did not bode well for her next question.

 She walked alongside him, hands clasped behind her back.

“You know, I was wondering...”

 “Hm?”

 “Will you teach me to fight?”

 He stopped walking, dropping the crate. It cracked the concrete beneath his feet. The remnants of her smile vanished as she considered the amount of paperwork it would take for a repair of this sort.

 “You’re too weak,” he repeated. “No.”

 That conversation went about as well as she’d expected it too, honestly.

After arranging for someone to come repair the concrete Masrur had broken, Thalia once again set her focus on finding a teacher. Drakon now fought using his claws and teeth, but Thalia recalled he had studied swordsmanship in their youth. Maybe he could be her teacher.

 “Drakon,” She approached him timidly. Even though they had reconciled the other night, she still worried he hadn’t really forgiven her. Still, he was kind. Asking him was worth a try. “Can I ask you a favor?”

  The noble dragon was in the middle of directing the reception of a shipment of goods. He gave a worker directions on where to set a barrel before he turned his massive head to look at Thalia. “I hear you’ve been wanting to learn self-defense?”

Thalia nodded shyly, smiling to herself. He didn’t seem to be angry with her.

“That’s great,” He applauded her. “Good luck with that.”

Her smile dropped. She understood why he wouldn’t want to help her.

“Drakon?”

“Yes?”

She tugged at her skirts anxiously. “You’re not still mad about the other day, are you?”

He put his large hand on her shoulder.

“Princess— I mean, Thalia. I can forgive you for your outburst. I’ve been called worse.” He smiled wanly. “The truth is, I’m quite busy at the moment because of a large deal. Otherwise, I would help you.”

Thalia released a sigh of relief, letting go of her dress. He wasn’t angry. He was just busy.

“You know, I’ve been thinking a lot,” she hedged, shifting her weight nervously from foot to foot, “about the past. About the three of us, and about what you said, that we started out similar, but were molded into different people. I don’t think that’s true.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” Drakon admitted, eying her quizzically. 

“That little girl you met, the one who used to like to run around and dreamt of fighting with a sword, she’s still in there. I lost touch with her for a long time, but I found her again this morning while I was watching Serendine train. I...” Thalia hesitated, wondering just how much to tell him. “I always wanted to be like Seren, but I tried to change myself to make my father and my country happy. I still have a duty to my people, but in this one thing, I’m going to break tradition. I’m going to learn to fight because that little girl deserves to be acknowledged, and I was hoping you could be the one to teach me.”

He grinned, baring his sharp teeth. “I can’t help you. Not today, but perhaps Sharrkan could teach you.”

“Sharrkan? He’s a child...”

“I’ve heard his swordsmanship is exceptional. I think you could learn a lot from him. Why don’t you give it a try?”

Thalia nodded, mulling it over. It was unlikely Drakon would mislead her about Sharrkan’s skills. 

“Thank you, Drakon. I’ll go look for him.” She shifted back and forth awkwardly, waiting for a response.

He cleared his throat. “If you’ll excuse me, I need to get back to work.”

“Yes, of course.” She gave a fragile smile as he turned around and resumed issuing orders. The fracture between them would take more than an apology and a talk to fully mend, but this moment had been a good start.

She pivoted on her heel to go find the one person she had never thought to consider. Sharrkan would be her teacher.



Chapter Text

Thalia leaned against a marble wall, watching in awe as the young Heliohaptian prince performed a series of agile, skillful maneuvers in the reddish light of the setting sun. He darted from one side of the courtyard to the other, swinging his sword in smooth, controlled movements. Thalia had never seen anyone this fast— not Sinbad, not Ja’far, not Masrur. Maybe the Heliohaptians had superhuman traits like the Fanalis, but Thalia was confident that wasn’t the case. Sharrkan was proof that even someone normal like Thalia could become exceptional with enough hard work.

When he paused to take a break, dropping to the ground and wiping his forehead, Thalia approached him, beaming.

“Sharrkan, that was amazing!”

He looked up and grinned sheepishly when he saw her, scratching his back. 

“I’m really not that—”

Thalia dropped to her knees next to him, lowering herself to his eye-level. She eagerly questioned him, attempting to confirm her theory.

“Can everyone in Heliohapt move like that?” she asked excitedly. “Are you all just naturally special, like the Imuchakk and Fanalis?”

His eyes widened at her strange line of inquiry. “Er… no, I just trained really hard. I didn’t have much else to do at the palace, so I focused on my swordplay.”

It was as she thought. Sharrkan was just a regular human being.

“Then, even someone like me could…” Thalia’s voice quavered as her chest filled with hope. She could be a hero, perhaps even one that surpassed Sinbad. It was a lofty goal, but… 

Her eyes watered as, for the first time, her childhood vision seemed within reach.

Sharrkan watched her curiously. “What’s the matter? You’re not about to cry, are you?”

She shook her head emphatically. “No, I… I want to learn how to do that. Will you teach me?”

Sharrkan scrambled onto his knees and gripped them tightly, his young, sweet face becoming comically serious. “Yes!”

Her lips pulling into an involuntary grin, Thalia blinked. After all of today’s rejections, she had expected a reluctant agreement at best, but Sharrkan had pleasantly surprised her. He was such a sincere child. She wondered if he’d been looking for any opportunity to make himself useful in his new home and jumped on the first one he was offered.

“First, we have to get you a sword,” Sharrkan told her, lifting himself off the ground and offering his hand. Thalia gracefully accepted it, although he was short enough that his help made little difference in the amount of effort it took for her to stand back up. It was the thought that counted.

As they marched through the halls of the main building, Thalia realized she’d never visited the weapons salesroom. She’d never needed to, not when she had refused to acknowledge her curiosity about swords. Why would a proper princess have any need to shop for weapons?

When they reached the room, Sharrkan strode in without a second thought, but Thalia paused outside the threshold, a feeling of guilt holding her back. She still felt like she wasn’t allowed inside, like if she tried to enter, someone would shoo her away.

“Come on, Thalia,” Sharrkan encouraged her. “I can’t pick one out for you. You need to choose it yourself.”

“Eh?” a gruff female voice grunted from inside. “Thalia Alexandris, the chick that works with the kids?”

Thalia timidly stepped in and looked over to the counter, where a burly, battle-worn woman leaned on her elbows, eyes glittering with amusement.

“Well, I’ll be. It really is you. Never pegged you as the fighting type,” she mused. “Here shopping for your boyfriend, then?”

“Excuse me...” She nervously ground the ball of her foot into the floor, clasping her hands behind her back. “Are we acquainted?”

The woman burst out into hearty laughter. Wiping a tear from her eye, she answered, “No. My name’s Mak. You wouldn’t have heard of me, but everyone in the company knows about you. You’re the subject of gossip more often than not. I get sick of hearing your name, honestly.”

“Oh,” she said simply. She’d known on some level that was the case. Sinbad’s decision to promote her to a manager hadn’t been a popular one. She’d found out later that two people had quit over it. “I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m actually shopping for myself.”

She turned her attention to the rest of the room, her mouth falling open as she studied the multitude of gleaming weapons lining the walls. She hadn’t realized that there were so many different kinds of swords— thin ones, thick ones, long ones, short ones, straight ones, curved ones. 

“So the rumors about you and the boss having some kind of secret love affair, those are all bollocks?” Mak asked.

“Complete and utter garbage,” Thalia confirmed, attempting to pick up one with a broad, flat double-edged blade, like the one the guards had used in Attica— a xiphos. This was the kind of sword she’d always dreamed of wielding as a child. It was what the heroes of Attican myths had used to build their great civilization. 

She barely raised the hilt off the table before her arm began to burn plaintively, unable to handle its weight. Dropping it, she stretched her aching fingers. The memory of Serendine’s sword came to mind, slightly weighty but still light enough a child could handle it. Didn’t the company carry something like that?

“These swords are for warriors,” Mak reminded her. “We don’t have much that would suit a little waif like you.”

“You’re going to want to try something else,” Sharrkan advised from behind her. Thalia turned her attention to him, shifting to face him. “That sword is going to be too heavy for someone like you. You’d actually be better off with a two-handed sword. They’re bigger, but you use both hands, and that makes up for the extra weight.” He walked over to a wall lined with curved swords. “I think your best option is a scimitar of some sort. Its curve makes it a lighter weight and also makes it good for slicing from up close. The one you were just holding is better for jabbing from a distance.” 

“Distance?” she asked, fingering the sword’s hilt again. “I like distance. I’m less likely to be stabbed.”

Mak chortled again, banging on the counter. “I didn’t come into work today expecting a comedy show!”

“Not necessarily.” Sharrkan corrected Thalia “You’re a little short, so you’re not going to have the advantage when it comes to reach anyway.”

A sword with a long, narrow blade caught her eye. She walked over it and picked it up, finding it to be much more manageable than the last one. “What’s this?”

“That looks like what I’ve read is called a changdao. It’s a kind of sword from Kou.” He smiled kindly. “It really suits you, but I’m not familiar with techniques for straight swords. If you want to use that one, you better get someone else to teach you.”

She quickly set the sword back down. She couldn’t ask someone else to teach her. Everyone else had refused, so Sharrkan was her only option. 

“What do you suggest, then?” She asked, joining him by the wall of curved swords.

He brought his thumb and forefinger to his chin and frowned thoughtfully.

“A shamshir would be best because that’s what I specialize in. I could teach you more in-depth.”

“Which one is a shamshir?” she asked, eyeing the dozens of swords hanging along the wall.

He pointed to one with a blade that curved severely approaching the tip.

Thalia took it off the wall apprehensively. To her relief, its weight was much more manageable than that of the xiphos. Still, she’d never seen anyone fight with a sword like this. It seemed so alien. Could she really use something like this?

She removed it from its sheath and tried swinging it. To her surprise, she was able to control the sword’s arc beautifully.

“You like it?” Sharrkan asked, observing the smile her success had brought to her face.

“What do you know,” Mak teased. “She’s stronger than she looks. Should I ring you up?”

Thalia shook her head, sheathing her sword and holding it proudly. “I’m going to take it to Ja’far to see if he’ll give me a discount.”

“Eh?” Mak eyed Thalia jealously. “It must be nice being cozy with the bigwigs.”

“It does have its perks,” Thalia confessed.

“While you’re paying, I’m going to go outside,” Sharrkan dismissed her, leaving the room.

Thalia was about to follow, but Mak stopped her.

“Thalia, a lot of people talk about you, and most of it isn’t flattering,” Mak advised her. “You seem like an okay girl. Gossip like that… people only get a fraction of the story, and they jump to conclusions. Everyone does it. I’ll be honest, when you came in here, I thought you were some prissy, stuck up snob who didn’t know a thing about swords. I wasn’t totally wrong. You’re clueless, for the most part, but your grip on the sword, and the way you swung it? You’re not a total novice, are you?”

Thalia tried to pull her lips into a smile and failed. “Once, when I was younger, I had a teacher for about a week. I guess she was pretty good if I still remember.”

Mak pulled out a rag and started dusting the counter. “I’d say so.”

Thalia marched happily through the halls, holding her new prized possession with pride. Sharrkan was already proving to be a patient and competent instructor in the way he’d guided her in the sword selection process. She had no doubt that in a few years, she would be able to rival the dungeon conqueror himself. She stopped outside Ja’far’s open door and popped her head in. 

“How much for this?” she asked, waving the sheathed sword around in the air.

Ja’far didn’t look up from his pile of paperwork as he addressed her. “Honestly, if it’s not a block of gold, just take it. I don’t have time to deal with this right now.”

Thalia blinked in disbelief. She hadn’t expected him to be so generous.

“Are you sure?” she asked cautiously, eyeing him warily. This was not the business-savvy and by-the-book Ja’far she was familiar with.

“If I stopped to deal with a minor transaction, we would lose more money than anything we made from selling you whatever you picked out,” Ja’far explained absentmindedly, scribbling in the book. “The company can absorb the loss. Just remind me to mark whatever it is off the inventory later.”

“This deal…” Thalia prodded hesitantly. “What kind of deal is it?”

Ja’far shrugged. “Some rich guy from Reim is buying enough supplies for an entire army. Something Alexius. I can’t remember his first name, but I think it started with an M.”

Thalia tensed, tremors rippling down her spine. She knew an Alexius whose first name started with an M. 

“Was it Marcus?” she asked quietly, her apprehension barely concealed behind her level tone. 

She took a deep breath and steadied her breathing, trying to calculate the chances of him making such a disruptive order from the company she worked at. Was he trying to send her a message? He’d promised he would make her his. Now he couldn’t, not legally, but Thalia was still afraid he would come after her. He’d already proven he was willing to do whatever he wanted with her regardless of her wishes.

And the contents of this order… Thalia had seen Rurumu writing letters to all their providers trying to procure the vast amount of swords, chest plates, and travel supplies Marcus had ordered. Was he building up an army? She shook her head, dispelling her anxieties. It didn’t matter what the hell he was doing. They’d be shipping all the supplies to Reim anyway. She was safe here. Marcus wouldn’t find her, and even if he did, she would slit his throat before she let him touch her again. She hugged her new sword to her chest protectively, calming her trembling.

“I suppose it could have been a Marcus,” Ja’far mused, oblivious to his friend’s turmoil.

“Oh,” Thalia responded deceptively brightly, slipping into her old habit of hiding behind a cheerful mask. It was for the best Ja’far didn’t know how she felt anyway. He was too busy to concern himself with her. “Well, thank you for the sword. I’ll see you around.” 

“No problem,” Ja’far assured her distractedly. 

Thalia left the room brooding as she returned to Sharrkan. It had been months now since she had even heard about Marcus, and he likely wasn’t searching for her. Now that she was in Balbadd, her chances of running into him were lower, but his name still struck fear into her. Thalia gripped her new sword tightly. She didn’t need to be afraid anymore. Next time they met, he would be the one who needed to be scared.


 

After a week of learning absolute basics— how to breathe, how to position her legs, how to swing, Sharrkan suggested she start to learn actual fighting techniques.

“As I said before, shamshirs are a close-range weapon,” Sharrkan explained. “You can jab from a distance, but the curved tip makes it hard to be precise. For that reason, you’re going to have to get close and slice.”

Thalia nodded, holding her sword the way she had been instructed.

“For now, I recommend you try to keep your distance, then, when you spot an opening, swoop in, strike, and pull back out. Avoid getting hit at all costs.”

Without warning, he swung his sheathed sword at her. She jumped back just in time, startled.

“Good. Keep that up,” he ordered, coming at her with more blows. She was fast, but this child moved with inhuman speed. She wondered for a fraction of a moment if there was any point trying to learn to fight. If a child could overpower her so quickly, she feared to know what an adult like Marcus could do. Maybe it was hopeless. Maybe Marcus was an obstacle she would never be able to overcome. 

Another swift attack came at her, and she deftly dodged, feet agile from years of dancing. Emboldened by her continuing success, she decided she would not quit. Acquiring the strength to protect herself would be hard, but hadn’t she known it would be? When had anything ever come easy to her? Thalia wasn’t like Sinbad. She wasn’t one of those people whom success embraced. She had always had to wrestle it into submission, and swordplay would be no different.

She bounded sideways, avoiding another swing. She would devote all of her energy into learning this skill. She would learn how to protect herself and the people she loved. She would reap her vengeance on Barbarossa, Lady Maader, and Marcus. No one would be able to humiliate her again because she would become powerful.  

“Ah!” Her foot twisted underneath her weight and she toppled backward, the cold, hard ground knocking the breath out of her. Power would come in the future. For now, she needed to focus on staying on her feet.

“You’re dead,” her partner told her, the handle of his sword pointed at her throat.

“Can’t you slow down a little?” she asked, propping herself up on her elbows.

He shook his head. “Not yet. Don’t worry, when we start to work in actual attacks, I’ll go easy on you at first. You want to defend yourself, right? The first step is not to die.” He lowered his sword and reached out a hand to help her up.

“Well, that’s a fairly straight-forward philosophy,” she agreed, accepting his help and brushing off her skirts.

“The technique I’m using right now is Heliohapt’s royal swordplay, the crawling sword,” he informed her, crouching low, ready to strike again. “Speed is the most important skill.”

Thalia nearly dropped her sword. 

“Is that what you’re teaching me? Royal swordplay?” She narrowed her eyes at him admonishingly. “Sharrkan, you can’t. That’s supposed to stay within the royal family!”

Sharrkan lowered his weapon, his eyes darkening. “I’ve been wondering how I can make it up to you about the lamp, and I think this is it. I’m going to teach you the most effective swordsmanship I know,” He raised his shamshir again. “and I won’t hold anything back!” 

The sword came down at her in a downward arch, nearly grazing Thalia’s arm as she jumped out of the way. She arched backward as it redirected and swung back toward her from the side. He continued to bombard her from every side, moving too quickly for her to keep track. She managed to block an attack with her own sword, but the blow nearly knocked it out of her hand. Soon, her arm holding the heavy sword began to burn. She could barely lift it. Thalia stumbled back, avoiding yet another swing.

Sharrkan stopped, seeing her panting and dripping with sweat, sword arm hanging limply by her side.

“I think that’s good for today,” Sharrkan dismissed her. “Nice effort.”

“Wait!” she called after him as he started to walk away. “I can keep going. I’m not tired.”

He turned back to her and raised an eyebrow.

“Please,” she begged. She was impatient. She wanted revenge. She wanted to be a hero. She wanted so many things she could only gain through obtaining power. If she had to sweat blood, she would do it. She would do anything to not feel so helpless.

“Why don’t you practice your swings, then?” he suggested reluctantly. He paused for a moment, as though considering whether or not he should say what I wanted to say next. Shifting uncomfortably, he finally opened his mouth to finish his thought, his youthful, green eyes glimmering with concern. “Don’t push yourself too hard, Thalia. You’ll burn yourself out.”

Thalia nodded, finding his suggestion a sound compromise. She practiced her swings by herself, forcing her sore arm to obey her through sheer will power. Painful blisters formed and popped. She winced as she rinsed them with soap and water. Maybe she had pushed herself too hard. Perhaps she should slow down. 

“You’re learning how to use a sword?”

Thalia jumped, turning around to find Judar had appeared. He eyed her with a hungry expression not fit for a child his age, as though he were planning to catch her in some kind of snare… but he was too young to do anything so deliberate, right? 

She smiled kindly at him, squatting down to his eye-level. He was just a kid, and there weren’t any adults who could be manipulating him at the company. He’d come back to Balbadd with them by himself. Her gut had to be wrong about him. He was a troubled child, but he just needed affection, like all kids.

 “Hey, Judar,” she chirped happily. “Did you want to go get some peaches? It’s been a while.”

Puffing up with joy, he grinned. “I knew I liked you for a reason.”

As they wandered the streets looking for a fruit vendor open this late, Judar continued to talk.

“It’s power you’re after, isn’t it? That’s why you decided to learn how to fight. You want revenge for what Serendine’s country did to yours.” 

“How did you…?”

Judar shouldn’t have known that. He hadn’t been around during her confrontation with Serendine, so who had told him?

He smirked. “I’ve been asking around to find out what’s up with you two.”

Was Thalia’s situation a subject of gossip among her coworkers? Did everyone know about her grudge against Serendine? She scowled, unhappy with the idea that people had been spreading information behind her back.

“That face…” Judar muttered, studying her intently.

Thalia realized she was making the expression that Ja’far had pointed out so many times and schooled her face into a placid mask.

“You don’t have to hide it,” Judar assured her, his eyes gleaming excitedly. “It’s interesting. You’re interesting. You have so much inner turmoil.”

Thalia shifted uncomfortably at his astute evaluation and even more so at his apparent delight in her pain. Why was this kid so good at picking up on the worst parts of her?

He floated languidly beside her as she continued down the street, stirring the air with his wand. “If it’s power you’re after, I can give it to you. I can make you a king vessel.”

Thalia froze in her tracks. “You’ll help me get a metal vessel?”

With a metal vessel, she would be powerful. Becoming good with a sword would take years, but capturing a dungeon would instantly make her a force to be reckoned with, and she would obtain the funds to hire an army. But, Sinbad had said she would need to earn the djinn’s respect and to do that she would need to already be strong.

“Would a djinn even acknowledge me?” she asked hesitantly.

He shrugged. “Of course. You’ll need to polish that sword skill a little more— I can’t do all the work— but in a couple of years, you should be able to hold your own enough that I can keep you alive all the way to the treasure chamber. With a magi on your side, the djinn will acknowledge you. I’ve never had a king vessel rejected.”

“Is that a promise?” she prodded, clutching her skirt anxiously. She needed some kind of guarantee before she allowed herself to get her hopes up.

He grinned wickedly. “It is on one condition.”

“Name it.”

She would do anything to not feel so helpless, even sell her soul if it meant gaining the power she needed.

“I have some friends I’d really like you to meet,” he hummed. “When the time comes, I want you to come with me to visit them for a while.”

Thalia let out a surprised laugh. “Is that all? Sure, I’ll come to meet your friends, little Judar. Where do they live?”

“Who are ya callin’ little?” he snapped. “They live pretty far away, but don’t worry about it just yet. It won’t be time for a while.”

Thalia scanned the street one more time and spotted a fruit seller packing up. She bounded over to him to get his attention.

“Excuse me, Sir! Would you mind selling us a few peaches?”

He glared at her, clearly perturbed she hadn’t respected the fact that his stall was closed for the night.

“Two silver coins,” he grunted through a thick mustache.

Thalia begrudgingly paid the exorbitant price and gave the fruits to Judar.

“Remember, you made a promise.” the magi reminded her, crunching into one of the peaches. The juices spattered in every direction, dribbling down his chin. She smiled warmly. Despite being a magi, he really was just a kid.

“I’ll keep it in mind,” she assured him, bending down and wiping the juice off his face with her sleeve. 

His wild eyes widened in shock as he pulled back, pushing her hand away. “What the hell? Who said you could touch me?”

“It’s fine, isn’t it?” Thalia asked playfully. “After all, you’re like my little brother, right?”

“Damn delusional hag,” he grumbled, wiping her germs off his chin. “Like I’d be siblings with someone like you. If I had a sister, she’d be a lot cooler…”

Even as he said that, the tiniest of smiles graced his lips. Thalia had been right. All he needed was a little affection.

When she said goodbye to Judar, all thoughts of slowing down were gone. So what if her hand hurt? She would be capturing a dungeon in a matter of months. She needed to improve as quickly as possible. She decided she would wrap it in gauze until the blisters healed and turned to calluses.

She needed to obtain a metal vessel. After that, everything would fall into place. For the first time, it seemed like there was a light at the end of the tunnel, however fuzzy. After years of struggling by herself, someone had finally offered a solution. She felt amazing, almost drunk with joy. She half walked, half skipped to the one person she wanted to share her happiness with, ignoring the judgmental stares of her fellow employees.

Screw them. They only wish they had something to be this happy about.

Thalia opened the heavy wooden door to Sinbad’s office without knocking. She knew her best friend would be working late, trying to fill Marcus’s monstrous order. Hell, not even Marcus’s looming presence could shake her pleasant mood. After all, he was a continent away. She was safe here with Sinbad.

She leaned against his desk, admiring the way his handsome features were sharpened by the light of the lamp. How was it that he got better looking every day? Someone should stop him, she thought. After all, he already had a string of heartbroken girls behind him. It was no secret half of Sindria Trading Company’s female employees had joined in hopes of catching his attention. If he became any more charming, someone might seriously get hurt.

She shuffled over to his side, tutting. 

“You should really start wearing a bag over your head,” she suggested as she dropped to her knees and rested her chin on the unoccupied arm of his chair, “for the safety of your employees.”

“Yeah...” he agreed absentmindedly, still focused on whatever he was working on. His hand drifted to the top of her head, ruffling her hair. Thalia relished his touch even more than usual, leaning into it affectionately. A few moments later, her presence finally registered with him. “Oh, Thalia!” he greeted her with a cheerful grin. “Good timing. I just received this communication from the customer. Instead of having us ship the goods out, he wants to pick it up in person.”

Thalia came crashing down from her high. Marcus was coming to Balbadd. What if he really had found her? What if he wanted to hurt her again? She swallowed, her tongue dry in her mouth. Fear carved its way through her veins like a great river, cold and overpowering.

“Since everyone’s been working so hard to get everything together, they’re going to be exhausted, and I suspect a lot of people won’t show up that day,” he continued, not yet picking up on the subtle shift in his friend’s demeanor. “I know you don’t really do a lot of physical work, but I was wondering if you could help us out. If you do me this favor, I’ll keep it in mind when bonus season comes. What do you say?” He smiled warmly before Thalia’s trembling caught his attention. “Hey, are you alright?”

She quickly came up with an excuse.

“I… um… I think it’s food poisoning,” she covered. Her stomach did feel like it was about to empty itself, but it wasn’t caused by a bad dinner. “I should be fine in the morning.”

He started to stand up. “Do you need medicine? I’ll go get some…”

“No, no, no, that’s not necessary!” she assured him, catching him by the arm and tugging him back down. “You’re working so hard. I couldn’t ask you to go out of your way for me. Besides, I...” she gripped her stomach with one hand and covered her mouth with the other to give the impression she was about to get sick. Using her fragile stomach as a pretense to escape, she dashed out of the office, locking herself in the nearest bathroom and collapsing to the cold tile floor.

She had promised Sinbad she wouldn’t lie anymore, but what else could she do, tell him to cancel the deal? He and everyone else had already put so much effort into procuring the items, and at least half of the payment had already been made, as was standard for orders this big. Even if he wanted to refuse to do business with Marcus at this point, there was no going back. She chewed her lip anxiously, hugging her arms around her protectively.

So this was it? She was just going to accept that she would be in the same city as the man who’d hurt her again? There was nothing she could do? She closed her eyes and wrapped her fingers around the hilt of the sword at her side. If that was the case, she could at least distract herself. She knew on some level she was already pushing herself to her limit, but she could feel the turmoil, fear, and anger churning dangerously inside her. Wasn’t that why she’d taken up a new hobby? To channel all that into something constructive? 

Trembling, she rose and let herself out of the bathroom, making her way back to the courtyard. She quietly thanked the moon for its light because soon, the last of the lamps would be extinguished as everyone went to bed. Thalia would not be joining them. She positioned herself in the center of the courtyard, drawing her sword, tightening her grip around its hilt even as her blisters stung through the gauze. What was a little pain? Lady Maader had put her through much worse. Taking a deep breath, Thalia raised her sword and swung.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 33

 "One… Two… Three…" Thalia was in the warehouse with two of her employees, counting out chest plates. She was double-checking that they had collected the correct quantity before packing them in a box to be picked up by the customer tomorrow. "Twenty-eight…"

A wave of dizziness hit her, nearly causing her to swoon. The interruption broke her already feeble concentration, leaving her unsure where she had left off.

Inhaling deeply, Thalia massaged her forehead. She could do this. She just needed to push a little further. 

"Twenty…" What number had she been on? Twenty-seven? 

 "Twenty-nine," Cassius, reminded her.

 "Right." She returned her hand to her clipboard. "Twenty-nine… Thirty… Thirty-one… Thirty-three…"

 "Thirty-two," the other child, Dulcia, corrected her.

 "Ah. Yes. Thank you." she replied sheepishly. It was embarrassing she was struggling so hard to count, but lately, she'd been having trouble focusing. The fact that Marcus was probably in the city at this point only made it worse. She shoved that thought back forcefully. She needed to finish this as quickly as possible so Cassius and Dulcia would go play with their friends. They technically weren't supposed to be here; their shifts had ended an hour ago, but they had insisted on helping her, and, quite honestly, she needed them. "Thirty-two… Thirty…" She paused. Which ones had she already counted again? She reluctantly started over. "One…"

 The two children groaned, flopping onto their backs.

 "It's fifty, Thalia. I promise," Cassius assured her.

 "I got the same number," Dulcia agreed, hopping up to her feet. "Let's just pack them up so you can go rest, okay?"

 "Yeah," Cassius said, backing Dulcia up. "Don't practice your sword today. Just go straight to bed."

 Thalia smiled at them kindly. Of course, she had no intention to follow their advice. She planned to throw herself into her swordsmanship completely again all night tonight. If she didn't, she would drive herself into hysterics thinking about the dangerous predator that was lurking the streets of Balbadd City, waiting to hurt her again. Practicing with her shamshir was the only thing that calmed her racing heart.

 "You're both so thoughtful," she praised them. "Come on, let's pack these up." She set down her clipboard and began placing the chest plates in the crates labeled "Order Number 00093220": The order that had been placed by an M. Alexius. Working on this fulfillment had been torture. After her veil of ignorance about the identity of the customer had been lifted, she'd spent the last two weeks continuously on the verge of tears, fighting back memories of what happened, but these were the last boxes. It was almost over. After the crates were picked up tomorrow, Marcus would probably return home, and Thalia could feel safe again.

 When the last box was sealed, the two children cheered, each grabbing onto one of Thalia's hands and jumping up and down.

 "I mean it about the sword," Cassius reminded her as they exited the building. "Take tonight off, or we'll tell Ja'far."

 Thalia mustered enough energy to tut at him playfully. "No one likes a tattle tale—" She paused, her heart skipping a beat. A tall boy her age with long red hair caught sight of her and started to approach. His golden armor and the white cloth draped over his shoulder announced to the world his place of origin: Reim. She winced, shielding her eyes as the sun reflected off his brightly shining chest piece.

 "Maybe you can help me?" he asked, bounding up to them with a friendly smile. His eyes were distinctive, a thick line like eyeliner accenting the lashes. He was Fanalis. "I'm looking for someone, and I was told she would be here."

 "Who is it?" Dulcia offered brightly. 

Thalia quickly stepped in before he could answer. "Cassius, Dulcia, go ahead and play. I'll help this gentleman."

 The two children skipped away agreeably, leaving her alone with the stranger. Thalia didn't want to be alone with him, but she needed complete control of the situation. This boy probably worked for Marcus, though she'd never seen him before. Maybe he was new. In any case, if he really was looking for her, she needed to throw him off her scent. The children would have given her away in an instant. Ignoring her pounding heart, she slid into an accommodating persona, clasping her sweaty hands together in front of her and forcing a serene smile.

 "May I ask who it is you're looking for? Perhaps I can help you."

 His friendly smile widened. "I'm looking for a Thalia Alexandris… or maybe she still goes by Echo. Do you know anyone by either of those names?"

 Thalia blinked several times, her facade nearly faltering as he confirmed her worst fears. Her back stiffened, but she allowed herself to give no other sign of her distress.

 "Oh… I'm sorry," she told him, feigning sympathy. "I'm afraid she recently took a new job all the way in Kou." Kou was a six-month journey away, and it was huge. If Marcus started looking for her in a place that big, he would never be able to confirm she wasn't truly there. She gave the servant boy a pitying look. "She left yesterday, but it was a quiet departure, so not many people know about it. Whoever told you she was still here probably didn't know. I hope you didn't come all the way from Reim just to find her."

 He sighed, scratching the back of his head. "Well, not just to find her, but that was a big part of it. Kou? Seriously?"

 Thalia nodded slowly, relieved he was buying her lie.

 "Did she tell you anything else, like where in Kou she was going?"

 Thalia shook her head forlornly. "She was very private about her life and didn't have many friends. I only worked in the same division as her."

 The boy perked up. "But you did know her. That's great!" He grabbed her arm and began to pull her along excitedly. "Tell me everything you can about her over dinner. It's my treat."

 At first, Thalia was too stunned to react. He'd just taken hold of her like it was no big deal, but this boy worked for Marcus, the man who had violated her. He had no right to touch her. She tugged her arm away, clasping it protectively with her other hand.

 "What the hell do you think you're doing?" she demanded.

 He looked back at his empty hand, then to her, confusion clouding over his face. "I just wanted to talk to you about Thalia. Are you alright?"

 "You can't just touch people without permission," she growled. He'd gotten that habit from his master, no doubt. "And I never agreed to go anywhere with you."

 He folded his hands apologetically. "I'm sorry. I guess I got carried away." He sighed. "I've been finding out everything I can about this Thalia girl for over two weeks, and no one really knows much about her. I guess I was hoping someone could finally shed some light on her." He shook his head, his eyes sorrowfully glued to the ground. "The more I learn about her, the more sorry I feel. She's had such a tragic life, and it seems like she didn't have many friends to share her burdens with outside this company."

 He felt… sorry for her? This man was essentially here to kidnap her, right? Why did he seem so nice? Maybe his master was terrible, but this boy seemed to have a good heart. She couldn't allow him to find out her identity, but this time, when she smiled at him, it wasn't quite so forced.

 "I implore you not to ask around about Thalia. Those who would have the answers to your questions are still devastated by her departure. I hope you can understand."

 "So she did have good friends here?" he asked thoughtfully. "That's a relief. Come to think of it, when I was researching her, people kept repeating this rumor that she and the president of the company were romantically involved. Do you know anything about that?"

 Thalia coughed uncomfortably. Why wouldn't that damn rumor ever die? "That's not true. At all. Not even a little."

 He arched an eyebrow. "You sound pretty confident. I thought you two weren't that close?"

 Thalia stumbled over her words, trying to come up with a satisfactory excuse to keep him from catching her in a lie.

 "That's because… I um…"

The boy shook his head. "It's okay. I don't believe it either."

Thalia perked up. No one ever believed that there was nothing between her and Sinbad.

 "Really?"

"Yeah," he told her. "She and I are destined for each other, so of course she wouldn't fall for someone else."

Thalia was too stunned to speak. First of all, he was wrong. He was so completely wrong. She had fallen for someone else, and that had exploded in her face. Second of all, what did he mean destined for each other? Like soulmates? What kind of kidnapping plot was this? That guy was a Fanalis. He could easily have taken her by force in the dead of night. He didn't have to come up with some elaborate ruse. Did he even work for Marcus? Just what the hell was happening?

He turned around to leave, sending her a casual wave goodbye. "I'll be back to pick up an order I placed tomorrow. Will I see you then?"

Was he the one who'd placed that huge order? Had Thalia jumped to conclusions? Had she tortured herself all this time over nothing?

"N-name," she sputtered. "What's your name?"

"Oh, forgive me. I never properly introduced myself, did I?" He turned back to face her, placing a hand formally over her chest. "My name is Muu Alexius."

Muu… Alexius… 

  1. Alexius… 

Muu… 

M.

Shit. 

Ja'far had said the name had started with an M. He'd never said it was Marcus. He'd only said that it was a possibility. Thalia was the one who'd assumed the worst. 

She'd never heard of Muu Alexius, but he definitely wasn't Marcus. Thalia was an idiot. She'd lost weeks of sleep over the wrong person. Overcome with relief, she didn't know whether she wanted to laugh or cry.

He cocked his head to the side. "And you are…?"

She couldn't tell him who she really was now. Besides, he was delusional, thinking he was her soulmate. Maybe he was some kind of stalker. He seemed nice, but, deep down, he could have been an ax murderer.

"Parsine," she told him quickly, using the first name that came to mind. The image of the real Parsine finding out she had stolen her name flashed into Thalia's mind, chilling her to the core. Thalia may have dodged one arrow only to find herself in the path of another. If that scary woman found out about this, Thalia might actually die.

He held out his hand to her. "Alright, Parsine. It's nice to meet you. See you tomorrow?"

"Y-yeah…" she answered absentmindedly, still focused on the weirdness of the entire conversation. She held out her hand limply, letting him shake it within his firm grasp.

 Now that she was sure Marcus wasn't after her, she wandered back in the direction of her room to get an early rest, the last few moments replaying in her head. 

He'd said, "see you tomorrow," and she'd said, "yes." 

He'd said, "see you tomorrow," and she'd said, "yes." 

He'd said, "see you tomorrow," and she'd said…

"Yes."

Thalia bit back a frustrated scream. Tomorrow, her friends would all be there, and they would call her Thalia. Then this Muu guy would know she was a liar. 

And then what? What was she so worried about? Even if Muu had bad intentions, he couldn't hurt her, not with Sinbad nearby. Was she afraid Muu would dislike her for deceiving him? Was she really that invested in his opinion of her?

He held up the hand he had shaken and studied it carefully. If he were her soulmate, Thalia would have expected to feel some kind of spark, electricity even, the way she'd felt when Serendine had first touched her. All she'd felt when Muu had touched her was warmth. It wasn't nothing, but it seemed like he wasn't her soulmate. Some charlatan fortune teller must have given him Thalia's name at random, and the poor fool had believed it and come all this way to find her. There was no reason to think falling for him was inevitable or her "destiny" or whatever.

That was good. It meant she was safe. Thalia wouldn't fall in love ever again. She refused. She absolutely— 

Realizing she was passing Sinbad's office, she paused, shifting awkwardly on her feet and wondering if she should go in. She hadn't seen him since that night when she'd left his office in a rush. He'd been so busy, he'd even been taking his meals in his office, and Thalia had been so focused on distracting herself, she hadn't thought about visiting him. She reached up to knock on his door but stopped herself. He was probably still busy, and she would see him tomorrow anyway.

Smiling quietly to herself, she returned to her room and prepared to climb into bed.


 

 "Muu Alexius, huh?" Sinbad wondered aloud, surveying the hundreds of boxes this illustrious customer would be picking up today. Rumor had it the half-blooded Fanalis was in the beginning stages of putting together some kind of Fanalis army, and judging by the supplies he'd ordered, the rumors would seem to be true— fifty sets of armor in all different sizes, several dozen swords and shields, and travel supplies to last for months. 

"It's going to take hours to move all of this onto the caravans," Ja'far sighed. "You were right about people not showing up, Sin. The whole company is exhausted."

Sinbad nodded. "Well, we have Hinahoho, Rurumu, and Drakon. A single one of them is as good as three regular workers. Dinarzade also agreed to help. We'll be fine."

"You're forgetting Thalia," Ja'far admonished him. "She's here too."

"Is she?" She'd never responded when he'd asked her to work, and he had been too busy to ask her again. Sinbad cheered up at the thought of spending time with her. It had been a long three weeks, and though he'd seen her around in his periphery, he'd barely talked to her. So much for his plan to start flirting with her. At least he would get a chance today if they were working together.

"Don't you dare go harass her," Ja'far warned him, reading his intentions. "Focus on the job."

"The job is all I've thought about for three weeks," Sinbad complained. "Don't I deserve a reward?"

Ja'far relaxed, a thoughtful expression spreading across his face. "I suppose you have been unusually focused. Maybe you've finally got your priorities straight…"

Sinbad tuned Ja'far out, his eyes wandering until they rested on two girls hovering among the towers of boxes. Thalia and Dinarzade were giggling conspiratorially with each other. Thalia leaned toward Dinarzade and brought a secretive hand up to her mouth. He frowned, noticing for the first time the white bandages around her palm. Had she hurt herself during her sword practice? 

He really didn't understand her sudden interest in swordsmanship. He'd never seen her as a girl who was interested in that kind of thing, but she had seemed so serious when she'd requested he teach her. His lips quirked up into a cocky grin. He would have to see how she was improving now that his workload was about to return to normal.

"Sin? Sin, are you listening?" Ja'far's voice called out from beside him. 

Sinbad didn't respond. He was already locked on his target. Why had he designed the company uniforms to be so loose-fitting? It was an unfortunate oversight on his part. He was certain training with a sword had toned Thalia's physique, but he just couldn't tell when she was hiding under all that fabric. He remembered how enticing she looked in that Heliohaptian tunic. Maybe he could convince her to pull it out and wear it again… 

Ignoring Ja'far's exasperated scoldings, he strode over to the two girls, casting a shadow over Thalia as he leaned casually against one of the towers of boxes. She turned around to face him, her eyelashes fluttering in surprise. Her lips parted into a pleasant smile as her cheeks flushed with pleasure. He puffed up, his ego inflated by her reaction. She really did like him. Maybe she wasn't ready to admit it to herself, but everyone else could see it, and now Sinbad could too.

He turned his gaze to Dinarzade, who was watching him curiously. She did that a lot, he noticed. Sometimes, it seemed like she wasn't really looking at him, but something around him. He had his suspicions on what it could be, but he didn't want to speculate too much. Maybe she was just nearsighted. He didn't know Dinarzade very well, but he knew she was kind-hearted and enjoyed gossiping. He was indebted to her kindness back on Ria Venus Island. 

"Thanks for helping out, you two." He grinned, winking at Thalia. "You really saved us today."

"I'm not sure how helpful we'll be, but we'll give our best," Dinarzade chirped cheerfully.

"Speak for yourself," Thalia scoffed. "I'm just here for the bonus money."

Sinbad believed it. Thalia seemed to be very motivated by money, even though he was pretty sure she rarely spent it on herself. Knowing her, she probably donated most of it to charities that helped orphans and underprivileged children. She certainly had a soft spot for kids. She even seemed to like that troublesome magi that had followed them from Cathargo.

"Hey, Sinbad, do you know anything about the customer?" Dinarzade asked. "Thalia was just saying he's weird."

"I didn't say weird," Thalia defended herself. "I said he's probably an ax murderer."

"That's worse," Dinarzade scolded her before looking to Sinbad expectantly.

He quirked an eyebrow at Thalia. 

An ax murderer? Really?

"That's… unlikely," Sinbad said as the two girls leaned toward him eagerly. "Muu Alexius is from the influential Alexius family and is a direct