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Tess sighed. She was getting looks again. Pitiful looks. This was one of those days.

Princess Irulon had returned from her day’s activities with a bright smile on her face. A few of the other servants even reported humming. Normal days saw the princess return from the academy with a blank expression at best. Maybe a vapid smile with no real joy behind it. Her actually smiling threw up red flags for Tess’ fellow workers.

Being a servant girl wasn’t easy. Being Irulon’s personal servant even less so. Her mornings consisted of waking up before everyone else in the palace—which wasn’t that hard, she barely slept most nights anyway. Bath water had to be heated. Chamber pots emptied. Meals retrieved from the cooks and set out. Clothes laid out. Then she had to wake up Irulon.

That was… never fun. Tess had to be respectful, but Irulon was… not a morning person. That was putting it lightly. Speaking to her wouldn’t get the slightest reaction. Even physically nudging her couldn’t get her moving. It was bad enough that most days, Tess had to scoop up the princess, carry her to the bathroom, and dump her into the water. Even that didn’t usually wake her up all the way, but at least it got her morning underway. If Tess didn’t do that, Irulon would probably be late even to her evening appointments. By the time Tess finished scrubbing Irulon clean, she was usually awake enough to stand still while Tess dressed her.

And that was just the mornings.

But she didn’t get pitiful looks because of having to wake Irulon. Well, not always. Sometimes. However, most of the pitiful looks were because of things that happened before Tess even started working at the palace. Allegedly, many of Irulon’s personal attendants tended to… disappear. They weren’t publicly released from their stations or punished in any way. They weren’t executed. None of the other servants ever found bodies. They just vanished.

Apparently. Tess had been here for almost a full year. The longest serving personal attendant according to the others. That didn’t stop the others from looking at her with sad eyes at times like this. Even when she stopped by the kitchens, the chef looked at her as if mentally saying, it was nice working with you as he handed her a plate of sauteed vegetables, thick slabs of roasted meat, and a loaf of freshly baked bread. It was irritating. Even worse, she would have to come back for more food and see him again. Irulon never ate her vegetables and always wanted more meat. Tess didn’t know why the chef bothered in the first place.

Carrying the plate with one hand, Tess picked up a large bottle of Tyrian wine and an emerald encrusted goblet with her other hand. Tyrian wine was Irulon’s favorite. Tess had tried a small glass once on a rare occasion when Irulon hadn’t finished off an entire bottle. It had a fairly unique flavor, similar to maple tree sap. Too sweet for her tastes. Also far too expensive. Even having been paid relatively well for working as the princess’ personal attendant over nearly a full year, her entire savings would only buy her a single bottle.

Tess stepped lively up the stone staircase that led to the princess’ floor. It was a tight spiral with no decorations, used solely by the servants to get between their kitchen on the tenth highest floor and the royal family’s personal living quarters above.

The top three floors of the palace tower were reserved for the Pharaoh and his wives, the top two of which only the most trusted of servants were allowed on—an exclusive number that Tess couldn’t count herself in. From there, the children of the Great House each had their own floors. Irulon had six older brothers. She was the eldest girl. There were several younger siblings, but as the tower floors widened and their social importance lessened, none had an entire floor to call their own. Irulon often said that she was the luckiest child, having not only an entire floor to herself, but the largest as well. In Tess’ opinion, the entire tower was topsy-turvy. Who would ever want to climb from the ground floor all the way to the top every single day? If Tess were queen, she would definitely relocate to a far lower level. Maybe not completely ground floor, but maybe around the fifth floor.

Of course, Irulon cheated with magic. As did her older brothers and the king. It was just the poor servants that had to clamber up and down thousands of stairs unless they were lucky enough to be walking alongside one of the royals.

Letting out a small sigh, Tess stepped off the spiral staircase onto Irulon’s floor and started heading toward the wide open doors at the end of the hallway. With the doors to the princess’ bedroom wide open, she didn’t need to figure out how to knock with her hands full. So she just paused at the threshold. “Your meal is ready. Would you care for it in your dining room—” Her voice caught in her throat as she actually spotted the princess.

The bedroom was a wide room. Far too large for one person, in Tess’ opinion. The bed alone could fit ten people without any of them having to touch one another. It was a heavenly bed. Tess would never tell anyone, but there had been occasions during cleaning while Irulon had been absent that she had opted to take a short rest on the bed. The soft cushioning molded to her body, cradling her as if it were made from clouds. But the princess wasn’t on her bed.

Neither was she at her polished wood desk. Nor the chair near the bookcase and fire pit. The wardrobe door was closed, but Tess had never once seen Irulon enter there—getting clothing was a servant’s job, after all.

No, the princess was beyond the wide glass doors that led outside. She stood on the balcony railing, standing with her arms outstretched and only her two bare feet anchoring her to the tower.

“Princess!” Tess shouted as she rushed across the room. There was a limit to how reckless the princess could be. Even with magic. She didn’t even have the spell tome attached to her hip. If she fell, she wouldn’t be able to catch herself with a spell. All she had was an untied robe that billowed in the high winds. “Princess! Come down from there!”

At her cry, Irulon spun around, picking up a foot to twist on a single toe. She stood there, still on the railing, staring down with her pale violet eyes. There was a hunger there. A hunger that shifted straight toward the plate in Tess’ hand. She slipped off the balcony, landing on the tips of her toes right in front of Tess. With her bare hands, she grabbed a slab of the roast and tore off a piece with her teeth as she leaned her back against the railing.

Ignoring the impropriety of it all, Tess just sighed in relief. She was just glad the princess was safe. If Irulon had fallen, she wouldn’t have only lost the one she served—something Tess definitely didn’t want—but likely her life as well. She would have been hard pressed to convince anyone that she hadn’t thrown the princess from the balcony, being the only witness. Her head would have rolled in the city center, kicked around by children like it were a ball.

Pushing the morbid thought from her mind, Tess knelt next to where the princess had leaned against the balcony railing to snack on her food.

“Excellent timing, Tess. I am absolutely famished. It has been an exhausting day. I can barely keep my eyes open.”

“Did something good happen today?” she asked as she pulled the cork stopper from the bottle of Tyrian wine.

“Something good? Hm. You could say that. She didn’t have a soul!”

Tess blinked. Out of all the possible things that Irulon could have found pleasing, that hadn’t even registered on the list. “No… soul? I’m afraid I don’t understand.”

“Neither do I! Even monsters have souls. I would say that she was using concealment magic, but I don’t think she’s ever used magic before today! Not much anyway. And when she did, she used a Rank Three spell without even straining. Hm. What is she? An elder lich?” Irulon bit down and tore off another strip of the tender meat.

“A-A lich?” Tess shuddered. There were few things worse than monsters. A human who gave up their humanity to become a monster? Well, she had never met one, but it sounded ghastly. Who would even do that? A foolish question. The answer was simple. People who were afraid of the Divine Tenebrael’s embrace. Or people who didn’t believe in her at all. Still, didn’t they have a shred of decency? Betraying everyone like that to join humanity’s mortal enemies. It was worse than turning traitor to Lyria, fleeing northward across the desert to join the Juno Federation. “Should we contact the guards? Or bounty hunters? The guild maybe?”

Irulon had her hand out, reaching for the wine. As soon as Tess spoke, that outstretched hand snapped to her mouth, clamping it shut. “No. No. We don’t tell anyone.” Her grip loosened, letting her hand fall. She skipped the goblet entirely, going straight for the wine bottle. “I want her.”

“What.”

“If she is a lich, I want to take her apart. To pull off her skin and pry open her bones. Adventurers kill liches when they cause trouble, but what do we really know about them? They show up so infrequently. Do you think she has real meat in there? Or is she just wearing the skin over her bones like I wear a dress?”

“I don’t…” have any idea how to answer that. Tess could use magic. But she just used it for simple things. Lighting candles, filling the bath with water, cleaning, and other things useful for a servant girl. She certainly wasn’t obsessed with it, let alone with undead and monsters…

Smoke curling out from holes in the thatch roof. The coppery scent of blood, mixed with fire and screams. People running outside the home, leaving her stranded behind a fallen log. Midnight-black eyes with—

A firm hand clasped down on Tess’ shoulder. She gasped in a breath. Her heart beat in her chest, thumping hard enough to feel like it might explode. The hand gave her shoulder a comforting squeeze, just as it had back then.

“Don’t worry,” Irulon said. “You are mine. I won’t let anyone touch what is mine. Not my father. Not my siblings. Not some lich. Though if she is a lich, I wonder why she was reading such a beginner book of magic. Perhaps not a lich then. Or perhaps her true goal was to initiate contact with me. Ahhh, need more information to make an accurate assessment.”

Tess gave a shaky nod of her head. Falling into bad memories—in front of Irulon, no less. How embarrassing. Drawing in another breath shook her chest with slight tremors. Something wet was running down her cheeks. She quickly wiped it away with the sleeve of her uniform. Thankfully, Irulon didn’t notice. The princess was doing her best to drain the bottle of wine in one go. And succeeding.

“Ahhh.” Irulon let out her held breath in a sharp sigh. The empty bottle rolled across the open balcony, knocking against the small lip near the railing. She wolfed down the last of the meat but, as Tess had expected, didn’t touch the rest of the plate. However, it didn’t look like she would send for more food. Her eyes were already half-lidded and she wobbled slightly in place. It was still quite early for the princess to sleep, but then again, she had mentioned barely being able to stay awake. Maybe if she got to sleep now, she would wake at a reasonable time in the morning.

“Shall we get you to bed?” Tess asked once she was sure that her voice wouldn’t tremble too much. The princess didn’t respond, but Tess knew her well enough to know what that meant. Slipping her arms behind the princess’ back and under her knees, Tess hefted her up.

Then she paused, getting her first real look of the landscape beyond the balcony’s railing. Night had fallen some time ago, but there was a great deal of light down in the distance. Down in the fields near the northern desert. Fire? And up closer near the wall, there was something going on there too. Occasional flashes of light. Magic.

“Princess Irulon, what’s going on in the city tonight? The fields look like they’re on fire!”

“‘S nothing to worry over. Brakkt left the palace with Juno and his personal knights. He’ll take care of it.”

“You’re not going to run off and cause trouble for me?”

“No,” Irulon said with a long yawn. “Bed now. Too much thinking today. My head hurts too much.”

Too much thinking? Or too much drinking? Whatever the case, all the better if she wasn’t going to run off to try to collect corpses. Really. The clean-up was such a pain. “Alright,” Tess said softly as she carried the princess back inside.

Irulon had said not to worry about it, so Tess put it completely out of her mind. Even if it was something to worry about, the fact that the Black Prince himself had gone to deal with the situation meant that nothing bad would happen to the palace. So Tess focused on her duties of preparing the princess for sleep.

With her robe already open, it was a simple matter to slip her out of it and get her beneath the silk sheets of her bed. Irulon’s eyes were shut before she had even gotten fully tucked in. Tess was a bit envious of her ability to fall asleep like that, but at the same time, couldn’t help the smile on her face. She was the only person in the whole palace that got to see Irulon like this. Everyone else only saw Princess Irulon. Tess got to see the real her.

It was why Tess had never worried. Maybe the other servants were right. Maybe Irulon had gotten rid of her past attendants. Maybe violently, maybe not. But they must have done something to deserve it. Tess would never betray her princess. Her savior. She knew just how kind Irulon truly was.

Turning back to the balcony to clean up the remains of the meal, Tess froze as something clamped around her wrist. With a foot already in the air, a light tug was more than enough to send her off balance, falling into the cloud-like bed. Arms wrapped around her and pulled her close to the princess.

“Sleep with me,” Irulon mumbled without opening her eyes.

Tess smiled, but said nothing. Neither did she move. After counting to ten in her head, she carefully slipped out of Irulon’s arms and out of her bed. This time, when she made to move, nothing grabbed her hand. “Sorry, Princess.” She couldn’t sleep. There was work to do. The empty bottle. The plate. The goblet. After that, well, she had to find something else to do. She could clean the windows, sweep the floor, and polish up the handle on the big front door. After that, well, there was always work to do in the palace.

She couldn’t sleep.

Every time Tess closed her eyes, she saw those black eyes with the white rings, peering out of the smoke of her burning village.

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