The capital of Adrid sat atop a massive hill, bordering on the edge of a six-hundred-foot cliff overlooking the Andrian Sea for which the city was named. Like many towns in Adrid, it had once been prosperous, a mecca to those seeking knowledge and wealth. Now, poverty-stricken, most of the inhabitants and shop owners fled some years ago for neighboring cities or other countries, hoping to rebuild the wealth lost from taxation and a declining economy. Once filled with happy people, it now stood as nothing more than a glorified military fort.
The palace sat at the back of the city, at the crest of the cliff. Its towers wove up into a gray sky like narrow fingers grasping at the dreary clouds. Most of the palace was in fine shape, save for the older wings. The brickwork on the east end of the palace, the oldest, was crumbled, and some of the towers teetered more in the breeze than others.
The quiet city sat walled away from wide grassy plains, once lush in farmland and vegetables. Small farmhouses dotted the fields, most collapsed upon themselves, while the fields were overrun by waist-high weeds. The road that led into the city stood in such a state of disrepair that massive ruts filled with muddied water replaced the cobblestone paving.
The army passed along the trail toward the city in a slow, somber pace, more like a funeral procession than a formidable force. The wagons and horses limped along the beaten path, avoiding the deeper holes when possible until they reached the threshold of the city.
Heavy iron gates opened with a low groan while soldiers in the gatehouse struggled with the heavy crank to lift it high enough for the wagons to pass beneath. The harsh weight of invisible chains latched around Saran’s arms and legs as the iron clashed to the earth behind her. Her prison door now closed, the cold stone walls squeezed in around her. She took deep breaths to calm her rattled nerves and reminded herself that it was merely temporary. A promise she made every time she returned, and she always returned.
“We welcome you back,” said a burly soldier from the bastion wall. He clanked his armored hand against the stone before wrapping it across his chest plate. “Did you paint the earth red with blood?”
Odan turned on his horse to glare at Saran. His hateful smile transformed into a grin too wide for his narrow face. “That we did not, friend. We had a problem with one of our Mages. The problem will be dealt with shortly.”
Saran’s eyes rolled. Once they were well into the city and at the foot of the castle steps, she passed the reins of her horse to the stableboy. He always waited near a woodcutter who sat at the base of the steps, feeding the great fire basins that sat upon stone pillars either side of the grand staircase. The woodcutter gave her a curt nod as he splintered wood with a sharp hatchet and tossed it into the fire.
Saran turned to Odan. “Do you think I’m afraid?”
“You should be,” Odan said, working the gloves off his slender hands. “I wonder, has the king ever had you whipped? I’d very much enjoy the sight.”
“Scarring a royal heir is not his prerogative, especially one he wishes to barter like chattel for the right marriage proposal, but I digress. Shall we?” She motioned with a quick wave of her hand for him to ascend the stairs ahead of her.
He blinked at her and did not move, looking very much like a man who thought to be set on fire any second. “If I go with you to accept my punishment, rather than have you tattle like a scorned child, it ends all of this quicker. I desire a hot bath and a warm bed, and I can have that as soon as I’m done catering to you.” Saran snatched the leather gloves from her hands and motioned again for Odan to walk ahead of her. “It’s nothing personal, Lord Marki. I just want some peace. I’m tired, as I’m sure you can relate. It was a long road and I must atone for what I did to you, correct? What difference does it make if it is now or later?”
Anxiety welled in her, but her face revealed nothing but a confident woman. Saran had practiced hiding her fears and sorrow behind a mask of aggression and bravado, and as always, Odan Marki bought it. The Ice Mage snarled, turning with such melodramatic fervor that his long cloak slapped in the light breeze. Saran smiled and sauntered up the steps behind him.