Warning: This work has been rated 16+ for language.
Warmth and chatter spilled from the tavern. Rieka stood in the open doorway, peering into the dim lobby, each table filled with drinking and eating guests. The smell of ale and roasting meat wafted to greet her, and Rieka’s stomach growled. Stars, she hoped a meal was in the prince’s plans. And soon.
Rieka stepped the rest of the way inside, the door slamming shut behind her. Nerves skittered up her arms, but she shoved them aside and marched to the front counter. The portly owner turned lazily towards her, his beady eyes weary.
“I need two rooms,” she barked out in Styrkish, raising her voice to be heard above the clamor. She slammed a few silver coins upon the sticky counter.
The man itched idly at his full, dark beard and swept the coins into his palm with his spare hand. Without a word, he stooped his broad shoulders to grab keys beneath the counter, room numbers displayed upon them. After shoving them in Rieka’s direction, he peered over her shoulder.
“Next!” he called gruffly to the couple at her back.
Rieka set her palm on the counter between them, drawing his eyes back to her. “I have barrels of fish outside,” she said. “The buyer won’t pick up until tomorrow. If you’ve got room in your cellar, I’ll pay to keep them there.”
He lifted a bushy brow, his flat forehead wrinkling. “How much?”
Rieka shrugged in an attempt at nonchalance. “Two silvers?”
“No,” he grunted, dismissing her with a glance.
“Three,” Rieka prodded. When she was met with a silent look, she rolled her eyes. “Four.”
“Five,” he argued. Rieka scowled but nodded in agreement. “Kostya will show you to the cellar.” He turned his beefy neck towards the door that undoubtedly led to the back kitchens. “Kostya!” he barked.
Muffled curses and slamming pots sounded from within, then a scrawny boy stumbled out, a dirtied apron tied at his waist and a mop of matted blonde hair upon his head. Sweat gleamed on his upper lip and stained the neckline of his dark tunic.
“Take her and her fish to the cellar,” the man ordered before turning to the waiting couple behind Rieka.
Kostya glanced up to meet Rieka’s eyes, his lips pinching in an irritated frown. With an eye roll, he trudged past the counter and out the tavern door, not bothering to assure she was following.
Back on the street, the prince was in the process of politely declining a shopper’s offers to buy the fish. She couldn’t help but smirk as the prince shrunk away from the wide gesticulations of the robust woman as she bartered.
“It’s already sold,” Rieka told the woman, waving a hand in finality.
“To who?” she demanded.
“That’s none of your business. It’s sold, so move along.”
The woman muttered curses under her breath, but spun on her heel and marched off, her thick, wool skirts swaying.
“Your absolute lack of a spine astounds me,” Rieka muttered under her breath in Styrkish.
“I was being polite,” he countered, though his cheeks reddened.
“If you keep that up, nobody will believe you are Styrkish.”
Though she had meant to make the prince uncomfortable, he took her words to heart and straightened his spine, puffing his chest. Rieka fought a laugh. Now he looked like a bird in mating season.
Kostya stopped before the barrels, peering down at them. Rieka gestured to the boy and said, “This is Kostya. He’s going to take our fish to the cellar.”
“No,” Kostya argued. “I’m going to show you the cellar. You can take your fish there yourself.”
“That’s not how I remember your boss’s orders.”
Kostya’s eyes narrowed and his nostrils flared. “What? Are you too weak to lift them yourself?” he jeered.
Rieka snorted, rolling her eyes. “I can go back inside, if you’d rather. See what your boss says.”
With an exasperated sigh, Kostya turned back to the barrels. “Fine,” he huffed. “Grab the other side.”
The corner of her lip hiked up in triumph, and she rounded Ren’s barrel to grab one side, Kostya grabbing the other. As they lifted it, the boy grunted, his jaw clenching.
“Heavy fish,” he muttered as they waddled down the alley beside the tavern.
“Too heavy for you to carry?” Rieka taunted.
The boy glowered, his nostrils flaring once more.
Once they got both the barrels down the alley, Kostya pulled out a set of keys and unlocked the slanted, metal trap door just beside the tavern. The door swung open, releasing a wave of cool air scented with raw meat, fish, and vegetables.
Kostya tossed the keys to Rieka and said, “Lock it when you’re done.”
“We still need to get the barrels into the cellar.”
The boy shrugged, already stalking down the alley. “Do it yourself,” he muttered, his words barely legible. Then he was gone, turning around the corner.
Rieka rolled her eyes, muttering curses to the boy’s name under her breath.
“Can I come out, now?” Ren squeaked from within his barrel.
Rieka kicked the wooden side. “Fish don’t talk,” she snapped.
Ren responded by quietly mocking her words, but after another kick, he fell silent.
“How busy was the tavern?” the prince asked, peering cautiously down the alley. He gestured for Rieka to lift the side of Ren’s barrel and they began the laborious process of carrying it down the small staircase and into the cellar.
“Full,” she said between panting breaths. When they set the barrel upon the dusty cellar floor, they returned to grab Kai’s.
The prince met her eyes, his gaze prodding. “I need to know precisely,” he said, grunting as they lifted Kai’s barrel. She was left carrying the brunt of the weight due to the prince’s scrawny arms. “How busy was it?”
“It’s rush hour,” she grumbled, sighing when they finally set Kai’s barrel beside Ren’s. “It’s packed.”
“Good,” the prince said with a curt nod. “Let’s get them out.”
After prying off the lids, Rieka placed a hand to each barrel and shoved. Fish spilled across the stone floor followed by two groaning men.
“Gods above,” Ren hissed, scrambling away from the slick fish. He stood, stretching his arms above his head with a low groan, his nose scrunching in disgust. Fish slime and scales were plastered over his skin and hair, clinging to his clothes. Rieka grinned at the sight.
Kai, apparently, needed far longer to recover. It took him several seconds to rise, each movement stiff and difficult. Once he was finally on his feet, he arched his back with a grimace, placing his palm to the base of his spine.
The prince brushed past them both, grabbing his bag and Kai’s sword among the scattered fish. After setting them both aside, he righted the barrels and began refilling them. The slap of fish on wood was the only sound within the cellar.
“The barrels won’t be full,” Rieka commented, arms crossed over her chest. “If someone checks, it will be suspicious.”
“No one will check,” the prince assured, securing the lids over the partially filled barrels.
Rieka arched a brow. “Yeah? And why not?”
“Because they have no reason to.” Though he said his words with surety, he still shoved the barrels into the furthest corner of the cellar, partially hidden behind racks of mutton and beef. He straightened, turning back to face Rieka and the others. The side of his cheek sucked in as he gnawed on it.
Rieka lifted a brow. “So now we just stand here until Kostya comes back?”
The prince shook his head and tossed her a pouch of coins. “You can go buy the tavern the next round of drinks.”
Rieka grumbled as she entered the tavern once more. She was sick of being ordered around by the gangly prince. Sick of lying and conning. If only Aryotsk was a single man, she could fight and be done with it.
With a sigh, she shoved the thought away and marched to the counter, noise clattering around the lobby’s dusty walls. She gazed briefly about the open chamber, finding the dark hallway that led to the upstairs rooms. Full tables were placed just at its face, nearly blocking it. Rieka’s stomach clenched. There was little chance the prince was going to get Kai and Ren past them without being seen.
Rieka had left them in the cellar as they attempted to conceal their features with the few spare clothes they had. Kai had tucked his sword into his coat, buttoning the fabric tight. Both he and Ren had secured small caps on their heads, pulling them as low as they would go. It was better than nothing, but Rieka knew they would stand out regardless. While Styrka had no prejudices to Larabosi, it was rare that foreigners would make it past the trade cities on the coast and border. Rarer that that someone would be wandering the streets of Aryotsk.
Pushing her nerves to the recesses of her mind, Rieka jangled the coin in hand, glancing over the counter. The portly owner was busy pouring ale and didn’t bother glancing her way. Rieka counted silently, waiting for the moment the prince specified they would be at the tavern’s door.
Her eyes darted to the window along the tavern’s front wall. Shoppers continued to bustle past, speckled with the occasional guard. Their stolen wagon was only a few paces away, the mule pawing at the stone road.
Rieka lost count and silently cursed. How much time did she have left? Shit.
She drummed her fingers on the counter, peering at the window. Maybe she could catch a glimpse of them as they neared… How long had it been? A minute? Two?
“Do you want anything?” the owner barked at her.
Just then, she saw three bundled forms pass the window. Rieka straightened and pounded her fist on the counter, drawing no attention in the already noisy tavern.
“Next round of ale is on me!” she shouted.
This time, she was heard. Rowdy shouts echoed against her ears, the men and women lifting their mugs to her in thanks. As the portly owner began filling mugs of ale wearily, the tavern door creaked open, three forms slipping inside.
Rieka grabbed the handle of one mug and marched to the center of the room. Eyes followed her expectantly, faces grinning. Rieka nervously glanced to the corner of the tavern to find Ren, Kai, and the prince scurrying past.
“A toast!” she called, turning back to the strangers. As they all awaited her cheer, Rieka’s grin faltered. Suddenly, it wasn’t her in the center of the tavern, but her father, brandishing his mug of ale with a mighty grin, his presence commanding attention.
She shoved the image away with a shake of her head and plastered that same grin upon her face. Her cheeks ached with the force of it.
“To us sorry folk who sit here drinking ale at noon!” she finished, her voice shaking slightly. The tavern boomed with boisterous laughter as they all tipped back their mugs, draining them.
Rieka didn’t hesitate before emptying her own into her growling belly.
As she slammed the mug onto the counter, her eyes drew back to the dark hallway. It was as empty as it had been before, Ren, Kai, and the prince nowhere in sight.
After paying the massive bill for everyone’s drinks, Rieka stalked out of the tavern, her departure going unnoticed by the once again preoccupied customers. She took a deep breath of the fresh, cool air, letting it soothe the churning emotions in her gut.
She needed to get herself together. Entering Styrka had been like flipping a switch. Memories and feelings she had long since discarded rose up without prompting, distracting her from what needed to be done.
Thinking about the past was useless. Thinking about anything personal at all was useless. She needed only to focus upon the tasks at hand, which was getting the mule-pulled away far from the tavern.
She pulled herself onto the wooden bench and snapped the reins, joining the flow of traffic along the street. The clatter of hooves and wheels on stone replaced the tavern’s racket that still echoed in her ears. The streets were a series of steep hills, each building’s roof terraced like steps. As she rode past the few flat sections of the city, she peered at them. The wealthy districts—though truthfully, they were nowhere near the contrast of wealth in Reindale. The only visual separation of wealth in Styrka was seen through the vibrance in color and the higher quality clothes the passersby wore.
Rieka stopped at a tavern on the outskirts of one of those districts, unhooking the mule from the wagon and sneaking it into one of the nearby stables. After tying it to a post, she marched away without a second glance.
Her stomach began to roar as she walked, aching to the point of nausea. Stars, all she wanted now was to get back to the tavern so she could eat and drink until she forgot about this damned day.
The irritation that had begun to itch at the back of her mind just that morning began with renewed vigor. She found little reason to its presence, only that it burned, choking her throat with its ashes.
Housed away within the tavern walls was the idiot prince, likely gorging on a bowl of stew while she walked through the streets of Aryotsk. He hadn’t assigned a single legitimate task to himself throughout the entirety of his plan—his plan. No, all the truly dangerous tasks had been granted to her. She had to talk to the tavern owner. She had to lead the wagon away from the tavern so as to not draw attention. And foolishly, she had followed his orders like a dog as he sat behind, watching like a king upon a throne. An Arlanian King.
Rieka scowled at nothing in particular, shoving her hands deep into her pockets. She was here for the gold, she reminded herself. Not to betray Styrka. Not to do so in Arlan’s name. No, she was here for the gold that had the power to grant her a life. The thought wasn’t as comforting as it once was.
A group of warriors marched past as Rieka climbed up a steep hill towards the tavern. She followed their path with her eyes, bitterness gnawing at her gut.
That was meant to be her life. She was meant to wear gleaming iron armor and sheath an axe upon her back. She was meant to march and gain the respect and pride of those who watched. Instead, she was invisible on the side of the road, a fugitive in her own home.
Rieka swallowed down the lump of rising anger and bitterness in her throat. She was being ridiculous. She was focusing again on what didn’t matter. None of it mattered, she reminded herself repeatedly, the silent mantra carrying her the rest of the way to the tavern.
By the time she returned, the sun began its descent in the sky, and her mantra had done little in abating her growing anger. Her hollow and raging stomach only fueled the irritation. It clawed at her skin, seizing each muscle.
As she stepped within the lobby of the tavern, greeted once more by the aroma of roasted meat and ale, her stomach growled with such a ferocity it could have been heard across the narrow sea. Rieka ignored it, shoving past the crowds of people and up the thin staircase to a line of doors. She knocked thrice upon the room the prince had specified. It opened within a second to reveal a scowling Kai.
Rieka brushed past him and glanced around the small room, two thin beds shoved against the right wall. The prince was seated at the end of one of those beds, his eyes upon his clasped hands in his lap.
She pointed a finger at him. “Next time,” she spat. “Don’t leave all the real work to me.”
The prince blanched and didn’t respond, his jaw tight. Rieka’s nostrils flared as she debated strangling his scrawny neck. She was sure it would ease some of the anger beneath her skin, and there was no harm in trying.
Shaking her head, she turned away to assess Ren and Kai. Both had peeled off their coats, their undershirts clinging to them from sweat. Their faces were damp, likely washed by the cloth Ren still held in his hand. While he had managed to get all the fish slime and guts from his skin, he remained plucking scales from his curls.
“Do you speak fish yet?” Rieka crooned, looking him up and down mockingly.
Ren’s lips curled in disgust, his hands dropping to his sides. “Next time someone gets shoved into a fish barrel, I volunteer Rieka,” he declared haughtily as though issuing a decree.
Rieka slumped on the other single bed within the cramped room. “You can’t volunteer someone else. That’s not how that works.”
“Then I suppose I will have to force you into the fish barrel,” he said with a shrug.
“You couldn’t force anyone to do anything with those flimsy things you call arms,” Rieka snapped.
“Says the dwarf.”
“Stop,” Kai said, his voice hard. “I just spent an hour in a barrel. I’d rather not hear you two bicker.”
“If I had my ax, we wouldn’t be bickering at all,” Rieka said, glaring pointedly at Ren.
Ren chuckled. “It’s so funny when you get angry. You are like a frowning gnome. It’s so cute!”
“You’re one to talk. You look like a little elf.”
“A gorgeous one,” Ren said, running a hand through his now fish-free curls. “You’d be surprised at how many I’ve stunned with my beauty.”
“If they were stunned, I’m guessing it was by your smell.”
“No,” Ren said with a shake of his head. “Just ask the prince. He’s stunned by my beauty.” He turned to the prince whose eyes widened at the sudden attention.
Any annoyance Rieka had felt with Ren flickered away as she saw the prince’s face turn a vivid scarlet. A grin began to pull at her lips, abating that rising irritation.
“Oh no,” Ren said with a mock gasp, placing a hand over his mouth. “Have I embarrassed you, Your Highness?”
“I—” the prince said, his face reddening even more, if that was even possible.
“Stop,” Kai repeated. “We have plans to work on.”
Ren groaned. “The last time we worked on plans, I ended up in a fish barrel. I think we should work on hunting down some meals instead. I’m absolutely famished. And you know what they say: Nothing good gets done on an empty stomach.”
“For once, I agree with the elf,” Rieka said. She leaned back onto the lumpy cushions of the bed, bracing on her elbows. Following her relaxed pose, Ren nudged her aside and collapsed beside her. Kai remained stiff before the door, his hand upon his sword.
The prince stood, palming a pouch of coins. “I can go get the meals.”
“Wonderful,” Ren said. “Get me something good.” Ren winked at the prince. “Something meaty.” The prince blushed furiously once more, and Rieka snickered under her breath.
Saving himself from any more embarrassment, the prince stumbled out of the room.
“Stop tormenting him,” Kai ordered as soon as the door clicked shut.
“Oh, but it’s so fun,” Ren whined.
“He has enough to deal with as it is without you making him feel self-conscious.”
“Face it, Kai,” Rieka said, falling back so she was staring at the water-stained ceiling. “Your friend has a stick up his ass. It’s not our fault it’s so easy to embarrass him.”
“Embarrass is one way to put it. You insult everything he says or does.”
“You call it insulting, I call it honesty,” Rieka said with a shrug.
“I call it bitchy,” Kai retorted.
Rieka sat up and glared at him. Ren muttered something that sounded distinctly like, “Uh oh.”
“You want to hear bitchy?” Rieka spat. That anger that she had managed to shove deep down rose up like a flood. “Here’s bitchy: You are a stuck-up boy playing soldier. You think your life was so hard because, boohoo, ‘I’m an orphan, and I’ve never been accepted for who I am’. Bullshit. You grew up surrounded by riches and you have the audacity to pity yourself for it.” Rieka paused to cock her head as she scrutinized Kai. “Your life is based on blind loyalty. From your gods to your king, you follow with no reason but that someone told you to. I’m here for the gold, but you are just a little lost puppy following his master’s orders.”
Silence met her words. Ren glanced between them, eyes wide. He started to rise. “Wow… I really have to use the restr—”
“At least I have loyalty to something,” Kai interrupted. “You are just a selfish little girl who cares about nothing but yourself. You left your home here and for what? So you could make coin in a dark alley? And now you agreed to this quest despite not believing in the gods, betraying the last home you had for a pocket full of gold. So insult me and my purposes all you’d like, but at least I’m doing something honorable and for somebody other than myself,” Kai seethed. His fists clenched at his sides, lightening his knuckles.
“You know nothing about me,” Rieka growled, standing to point her finger at Kai’s heaving chest.
Before either could speak again, the door creaked open and the prince shuffled inside, his arms laden with bowls of stew.
“I got everyone stew,” the prince commented idly, oblivious to the havoc that was occuring.
“Wonderful,” Ren squeaked, jumping to his feet. “I’m starved.” After grabbing his bowl, he shot a pointed look at Rieka and Kai.
Rieka sent one last glare Kai’s way before stalking towards the prince and yanking a bowl from him. His brows furrowed at her violent gesture, but she spun on her heels and slumped on the bed. Kai ignored her entirely as he accepted his own bowl and they all began eating in silence.
After several bites of the stew, Rieka’s anger ebbed to the recesses of her mind. It had been two years since she had eaten Styrkish food. Two years since she had tasted the thick gravies and fatty meats flavored with salt and garlic. Rieka savored the sweet carrots that were softened in the gravy, her eyes falling shut. This stew… It was Styrkish through and through. And though it was delicious, her mother’s was better.
Rieka’s eyes snapped open. She shoved the bowl away, only half-finished. She was being foolish. While Aryotsk had brought back memories of the home she had lost, she couldn’t dwell on the people within that home. Because she hadn’t just lost them. She had disgraced them. Their name, honor, and reputation. She had ruined it so thoroughly, they had chosen to forget her very existence.
And Rieka had deserved it.
Yet here she was, pining after her lost life like a sentimental child.
“We should go over the plans for tomorrow,” the prince began, shuffling through the pack that contained his many papers.
Rieka shook her head, rising from the bed. “You all go ahead. I’m going for a walk.”
“I don’t think that’s very safe…” the prince warned.
“Being here isn’t safe,” she retorted. “You all have fun chatting about whatever useless plan you can come up with, but I’m going for a walk.” Before anyone could disagree, she shoved out of the room and down the hall.
Once on the street, she found it empty but for a few stragglers in the deepening dusk. Rieka began to make her way to the lake, following the misty breezes that cooled her skin.
The stars began to blink into existence, vivid against the cobalt sky. Once she reached the lake, Rieka sat beside the lapping waves and stared up at the heavens.
Rieka had taken comfort in the stars in Reindale, for no matter how far from home, they were still visible. Still bright. But it hadn’t been the same. Here, she saw the magic that had enraptured her as a small child. The magic that had snagged her attention as the storytellers recounted tales of their ancestors and the starlight that had created them.
Rieka had refused to apologize upon entering Arlan two years ago. She had exhausted every last apology after reciting them to no avail before leaving Styrka.
But underneath the stars, she tipped back her head and whispered, “I’m sorry.” She wasn’t even sure what she was apologizing for.