Her father was going to be furious when he found out.
Auriella fingered the end of her braid as she walked, and glanced down the castle hallway. Not many were up and about this time of morning, the other guests no doubt having enjoyed their revelry late into the night. Lucky for her. She descended the marble stairs and strolled into the wide lawn, seeing only a few servants.
A pulse of adrenaline shot through her, but she forced herself to slow down. Someone running across the wide lawn just past sun up would definitely attract attention. The tall stone walls of the castle’s outer perimeter loomed above her, blocking out some of the morning sunlight and keeping what was inside the walls safe and protected. In a flash she was through the great iron gates of the castle entrance and into the city streets.
Just get to the docks, and get back without being seen. Then she could figure out how to tell her father in a way that would make the truth not be so awful. She huffed out a sigh. As if that would be possible. The thought jumbled in her head, clanking against her justification the way her father’s sword did on metal.
Saints above, just get on with it.
She glanced over her right shoulder towards the Lodge. The great stone walls and towers of the castle were not the only thing keeping it and its royal family safe. Inside the unassuming stone walls of the Lodge was the King’s greatest defense - His Royal Guard. Trained killers slept there on rotation, tasked with protecting their King and his holdings. The Lodge yard stirred despite the early hour. She steered clear of it. Her father was there, ignorant as to what she was up to.
Ignorance was not something she could claim. As Captain of the King’s Guard, her father was used to having his wishes followed. Even the ones he didn’t speak aloud. And going to the docks was definitely breaking a rule, even if it was one he’d never actually voiced. Her heart pounded harder and sweat slicked her palms. She’d rather endure one of Henna’s beatings than go against him. Which made what she was doing tremendously stupid. Forcing her eyes forward, she crossed into the city square. No more thinking about her father.
A Servant Exchange. Even the name of it made her shudder, and she strained for breath like when Lynia laced up her corset too tight. A million old memories clamored for attention in her mind, but she shoved them into a corner.
She’d been in the kitchen last night, half way through a bowl of stew when she heard the name mentioned. In the rest of the castle, servants remained quiet and moved about nearly unnoticed. In the kitchen they talked, even around her. They mentioned the Servant Exchange, and the words jarred her brain. They could not possibly mean what she thought they did.
She’d dashed back to her room, knocked on the door that opened between hers and the one beside it, and practically dragged Lynia through when she answered. Poor Lynia, she hadn’t wanted to tell. Auriella cringed now at how she used Lynia’s sense of duty as her handmaiden against her. Unfair? Yes. Effective? Yes to that, too.
A Servant Exchange, and it was as the name suggested. People were bought and bartered for right here in Valera’s capital city, down at the docks so that they could be snatched up like livestock as soon as they got off whatever ship brought them here.
The thought of anyone being bought and traded like goods made Auriella’s head spin. Images from her past had flown through her mind all last night and she pressed her eyelids tight, wanting to forget them. When morning dawned she hadn’t wakened intending to go. It’s not as if she could do anything. She couldn’t keep those people from their fate, or stop it from happening. But she wanted, needed, to see them. Really see them. So here she was.
Keeping her head low she wove between people, the city already wide awake and stirring. She breathed in the smell of cheese and vegetables piled high on carts, and walked right past the shops and booths she normally would frequent. Her steps over the stone streets hopefully appeared calm and certain. She had no idea where she was going, and the list of things that could go wrong stretched out longer than her father’s list of rules.
Her heart picked up speed when she left the busy shopping section in the square and headed down unfamiliar territory towards the south part of the city. Her eyes still down, she hadn’t gotten far from the square when someone grabbed her shoulder.
Gasping, she spun around under the grip of the man who held her. “Saints alive, Marus!” She looked up into the familiar face, her heart racing. “You scared the life out of me.”
“I thought that was you.” Marus let go of her arm, a smile playing on his lips. “Good thing it was, or else I’d be accused of man handling a lady.”
Auriella plastered a smile on her face. Saints above. If he knew where she was headed, he’d probably drag her back to the castle. Even if he only wondered why she was this far from the square, she was going to have a hard time keeping where she was headed a secret.
“You’re out early,” he said.
“I could say the same for you,” she said, keeping her voice light and carefree. He hadn’t mentioned where they were. Maybe she’d be able to throw him off.
“I’ve got morning drills at the Lodge.”
A playful smile tugged at her mouth. “You’re late.”
Drills started just past sun up. Lucky for Marus, her father had a soft spot for him, a fact Marus would probably deny and definitely never abuse. Marus smiled again, a shock of his dark hair falling into his eyes, making him look as young as she was though he was a good three years older.
“Farron sent me out on an errand.” Marus cast his eyes down the street he had come from. “So that’s my excuse to escape the captain’s wrath.”
Indeed. Her father had high expectations for the men under his command, including punctuality. No different from his expectations for her, really. As if she needed to be thinking about that right now.
“And where is the lady off to this fine morning?” Marus asked, the same easy smile on his face.
Leave it to Marus to be nice and inquiring. Auriella shifted her weight and kept her expression blank. “Just out for a walk.” She glanced down the street, not able to look at him.
Marus stared at her for a moment. “You’re a horrible liar.”
She turned wide eyes to him and he held her gaze. Marus was a Guard, and a good one. He noticed everything, and he’d known her for as long as she’d lived with her father. Indeed, if she were lying, as she was now, Marus would be one to easily spot it.
“So I am,” she admitted, keeping her voice light and sweet. “But that doesn’t mean I’m sharing my secrets.” She smiled as she said it, willing him to drop the subject and not pry any further.
“Now you’ve piqued my interest,” he said and she bit her tongue to keep from yelling in frustration.