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The Whores' Queen

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In the sixth year of the young Queen Alexandria's reign, Lord Jakob Griffin of the Arkadian Hills – often called Jake by those closest to him – took his eldest daughter to visit Fief Miller, home of one of the lord's bannermen and a lesser lord in his own right. Clarke, heir to the Griffin estates and next in line to her father's title, saw the trip for what it was: an excuse for her father to not only show her more of their land and teach her more about their fiefs, but also to see if Lord Miller's son might make a good match for the heiress. At almost fifteen she knew her father and mother were beginning to seriously look into marriage prospects for her, hoping to find a match that would do their daughter and the Griffin name proud. She herself cared little; while other noble girls her age blushed and grinned at the idea of marriage, Clarke could care less about it. She was far more interested in learning about the four lesser fiefs to her father's land, that of the Jahas, Kanes, Millers and Sydneys, than who might one day soon be her husband. When not listening to the instructors her parents had hired to teach her all she could learn, she preferred riding and racing with her friends, helping them get in and out of mischief, and spending time with her younger sister. Marriage, as far as she was concerned, could wait.

The Miller's estate was a full two days' ride to the east. On the back of her lively piebald mare Patches – a name she had so seriously decided upon when her parents gifted the mare to her at seven – the trip flew by. Her father rode beside her, constantly quizzing her on the plants they passed and the histories her teachers had been filling her head with, grinning at every correct answer she gave. On her other side rode Lord Jakob's squire, Wells Jaha, the only child of Thelonius Jaha, the minor lord of the Jaha estates and Jake's best friend. With only a year between them, Clarke and Wells had grown up together, becoming best friends themselves, and with Jake and Thelonius's relationship it had only made sense that Lord Griffin take him on as squire when Wells expressed an interest in a knighthood. Riding between her father and best friend with a dozen or so men-at-arms traveling around them, Clarke had a hard time doing anything but laugh as they rode through the Arkadian forest.

Reaching the estate, Lord Miller met them at the gate and ushered them inside, all smiles and small bows of his head. Clarke was used to the greeting, had even come to expect it, and returned the motions directed at her with small nods of her own. She and Wells followed her father and Lord Miller into the small castle, looking around as they went. The stone structure wasn't as large as either of their own homes, but the young heiress thought it all seemed well-kept. The few tapestries hanging from the walls were clean, their colors bright and stunning in the mixture of sunlight streaming in from the windows and torches placed evenly along the walls. Servants moved about, some with armfuls of clothing or linens, others with trays or buckets or herding children, but each one of them stopped to bow to the nobles as they passed by. Clarke took it all in, only half-paying attention as she listened to her father already lost in conversation with their host.

Lord Griffin's party remained at the Miller estate for five days, at times holing himself away in Lord Miller's study and at other times walking around the castle. Winter was only a few short months away and he wanted to be sure Lord Miller had everything he would need to pass the cold season. “We support our fiefs,” he would often say to Clarke, the heiress rolling her eyes after hearing it so many times, “and our fiefs support our people. A noble is only as strong as those who follow him. Or her. If our people face hardships, it's our duty to pull them through. Remember that Clarke: your first duty is always to the people who follow you.” He and Lord Miller created lists, went through their winter stores, even visited the local village to make sure the people were doing as well as reported.

Clarke stayed in the thick of everything. If her father needed a list made, chances were she was the one doing the writing. She moved through their stores with quill and paper, keeping count of everything available, and by the time she finished she knew if she never saw another sack of grain again it would be too soon. When the lords traveled to the village she went with them, Patches eager to get out of the stable and get a little extra exercise. Her father had told her this trip would be a learning experience for her, and so it was.

Despite how busy her father kept her, she was seldom alone while at the Miller fief. Lord Miller's son Nathan kept her company at nearly all times. Though her father said he needed the experience as well, Clarke saw right through the excuse; at seventeen, Lord Miller's second son was at just the right age for a marriage arrangement to be made. While typically a first-born son and heir would be the match a father would want to make for his noble daughter, she knew as the someday Lady Griffin her husband would be required to join her at the Griffin estate. Growing up she'd often wondered if her father would reconsider that and arrange a marriage between her and Wells, a likely scenario considering their families' ties, but no such arrangements had ever been made. Now she was thankful for it: she loved Wells but as a brother and best friend, not as a husband and lover.

Whether her father thought she and Nathan would make a good match, he didn't say. Five days came and went and Jake never spoke of marriage, at least not within earshot of Clarke. Despite the way many families did it, she was relatively sure that before a potential match would be made her father would speak to her about it to get her thoughts. He always looked for her insight and opinion in just about everything, so she doubted he would ignore them with something as important as her future marital status. Nathan and his father saw their party off and Clarke waved to them as her father did before turning her focus to the road in front of her. The younger Miller seemed nice, was handsome even, but she wasn't sure she could imagine herself married to him. During their time together she'd quietly put him through tests of her own and found that though he certainly seemed smart, his wit didn't quite match up to her own. Her father often accused her of thinking too quickly for anyone else to keep up with, and she knew if she were to be married she wanted it to be with someone she didn't have to slow down for. Nathan Miller, for all he was nice and handsome, just didn't quite match her. While she knew any number of men would trip over themselves for her hand in marriage, what with her title and blonde-haired-blue-eyed looks, the idea of marriage just didn't work for her if the suitor couldn't keep up. She knew the day was coming when a suitable match would be made whether she thought he was right for her or not and dreaded it, enough that for now she pushed the thoughts from her mind.

The two Griffins spent their first day of travel going over what they had seen at the Miller fief, planning out what goods of their own they could spare to help stock up where they had been lacking and the best places to purchase everything else they'd promised to send. Wells added his own thoughts to the conversation, very much an heir in his own right and learning all the same things Lord Jake taught his daughter, until they stopped to briefly rest the horses. While the horses rested Jake took over training his squire, the two drawing their swords and having a mock battle while Clarke watched on. She'd had a few sword lessons, at ten deciding if Wells was going to learn then so would she, but the training hadn't continued. Her mother decided there were other, more important lessons for a young noblewoman to learn and by twelve her days had become so full she no longer had time to keep her sword skills sharp. If she were being honest she'd admit she never really cared for the weapon, enjoying work with bows more than the heavy sword, but she was too stubborn to say as much out loud. Instead she stuck with the many other lessons in her day, squeezing in bow work when she could and left the sword to Wells and their friends Bellamy and Octavia Blake. Between the Blakes and her father, Wells had all the dueling partners he really needed, so she just didn't say anything and silently slipped the sword she'd been given to Octavia who gladly accepted it.

Once the horses were rested they continued on, cutting out another handful of miles before the sun began to set behind the trees. Knowing it would be foolish to try to keep going in the dark, Jake led them to a small inn he often stayed at when traveling, one Clarke had been to a number of times before. The innkeeper was delighted to see them, telling them he'd been expecting them after their stay a few days earlier, and promised hot baths for the nobles and a warm meal for the entire party. Only a couple of hours later Clarke stripped out of her traveling clothes and changed into her nightgown, yawning by the time she let her body drop into the bed waiting for her. She knew her father was likely still up in his adjoining room, probably going back over any number of the lists they'd made, but she couldn't dig up enough energy to go join him. Her thighs and back ached after a long day in the saddle, her eyes burned, dry and tired, and despite the fire dancing in the hearth in her room there was a slight chill in the air. Laying down she tugged the warm fall blanket under her chin and closed her eyes, ready to let sleep take over so she could rest up for another day of travel.

***

Abigail Griffin, the Lady of the Arkadian Hills, gaped wide-eyed at the man standing in front of her. This man had ridden east with her husband and daughter a week ago and though she had expected them back around this time, she'd never expected this. She could read the exhaustion that bore down on him, so firmly that he practically swayed where he stood. His hair was a mess, windswept and filthy. The pants and shirt he wore, once of good quality, now bore holes where the cloth had burned away, while patches of sooty black stood out along the rest of the fabric. Where those holes were revealed patches of skin, and what skin she could see appeared red and raw and angry. The healer in her wanted to whisk him away immediately to be seen to, but the wife and mother in her remained unmoved, stuck in a state of stupor, terror breaking through in thin veins.

“Say... Say that again,” she demanded, her voice breaking. Her mind had difficulty forming coherent thoughts and those thoughts nearly refused to translate into words. She could see the pity in the man's eyes as he did as she ordered.

Fire. A fire had burned down an inn, the same one that Lord Jakob Griffin and Clarke Griffin had been staying at. As they slept the fire had started, and soon the entire building was engulfed in flames. According to the man-at-arms he'd only made it out because he'd been with the horses in the stables, and as it was he'd barely managed to escape with his life. No occupants inside had been able to get out. He'd heard their screams, but there was nothing he could do to save them.

News of the fire traveled nearly as fast as those flames had in the Arkadian Hills, and soon everyone, from nobles to the poorest street urchin, had heard: Lord Griffin was dead, and so was his eldest daughter. The lesser lords and their families mourned, Lord Griffin having been loved by them all, and even the commoners cried out for the loss. A change in noble rank seldom meant anything good, and the old lord had been kind to them. With a woman who'd only married into the Griffin family in charge, what would this mean for them?

For days Abby locked herself away in her room, her only company her only remaining child. Madelaine – nicknamed Madi by her sister before she could even remember – clutched her mother as the older woman held her close, her grip so tight the little girl could barely catch her breath. More than once she asked her mother when her father and sister would be home, and each time Abby's grip around her only seemed to tighten more. The six-year-old-and-sudden-heir didn't understand, just wanted her sister, and began crying when her mother tried to explain Clarke wouldn't be back.

Arkadia mourned, and in one small room mother and daughter wept, everything about their lives suddenly changed forever.

***

Seven Years Later

Queen Alexandria Woods stopped herself just in time from shifting her weight from one foot to the other. It wouldn't do for any of the dozens of people in the room to know of her boredom, so she instead mentally checked her posture, straightening her spine a hair and letting her shoulders set back. The movements were slight, almost minuscule, but she knew they would help her portray the image of royal interest, even if she was entirely uninterested in the party going on around her. Unfortunately for her, she had about three months of them to get through, and this was only the second. She knew it was a small price to pay for a war won, but at the moment she felt she'd rather be knee-deep in mud on the battle field than dressed in silk and surrounded by all the pomp of a royal celebration.

For four years her people had been at war with the Reapers, the monstrous neighbors far to the south that had killed her father and made her queen at only eleven. For years before that she had fought an entirely different kind of war, trying to unite the thirteen major houses into one solid nation of people, what was now known as the Kongeda Nation. The next three months would be the first true opportunity the thirteen Lords and Ladies and lesser nobility had to come together in peace and truly establish their reconciled nation together. It was a much needed opportunity but one the queen dreaded.

The queen – called Lexa only by the few people she would consider friends – scanned the crowd and internally winced when she caught Titus, her adviser and the man who had practically raised her since her father's death, glancing quickly over the crowded room despite the fact he himself never moved. Though for most this time would be used to steady themselves and come together after a war that had drained them all, Lexa knew Titus had other plans, ones that didn't involve any kind of resting and entirely revolved around the queen.

For years now the adviser had been on her to find a husband, the need to birth an heir and ensure her legacy a top priority of his. As a child queen Lexa fully understood better than most what a country without an heir faced, but she had neglected that one duty, putting it off for as long as she could. Uniting Kongeda had been too important, she'd argued with him at seventeen, to risk it by choosing a husband from only one noble family. Three years later her united nation had been formed which meant she'd finally had the army to fight the Reapers, arguing whenever Titus brought up the subject of marriage and babies that her brother Aden was the heir and that was enough until their enemy was beat. Now the monsters had all but been defeated, only small skirmishes still taking place where Lexa's army had beaten them back and into hiding, and she no longer had any good excuses to put off the subject of marriage. Titus certainly wouldn't listen to how the idea of getting into bed with a man made her skin crawl any time she thought of it, and that's all she had now. As she'd been taught, she would do her duty, find a husband, and secure her line.

Surely though she didn't have to choose that man tonight.

“Bored Your Majesty?” she heard a voice murmur quietly behind her, and she felt the corner of her mouth twitch up into the barest hint of a smile. She would know that voice anywhere and therefore didn't have to turn to know who spoke.

“Not nearly as bored as I'm sure you are,” she replied, keeping her voice down low so only her companion could hear her. It wouldn't do for any of her guests to overhear, but luckily somehow a pocket of space had developed around her momentarily, everyone apparently too occupied by food, dancing, or any of the dozens of others in the room to hang off the queen's shoulders. Moments like these were rare and she treasured them.

Glancing over her shoulder she caught Anya hiding a grin behind her goblet before taking a sip. Unlike the rest of the room the head of her own personal guard drank water; Lexa knew Anya never had more than a single glass of wine at any occasion, and never any when she was on duty. Technically tonight she wasn't, had been invited to the party as the queen's personal guest and a lesser noble in her own right, but Lexa knew Anya still considered it her job to keep the queen safe. Even though the Captain of the Guards had strategically placed Guardsmen throughout the room Anya wore her sword at her waist and her eyes constantly scanned for any signs of trouble. Lexa's safety had been drilled into the older woman since they were young and would always be of the utmost importance to her. At times it had irked the queen, knowing she was always watched when she knew she could take care of herself, but at the same time she understood; with Aden as the only possible heir her life must be protected at all times. If she died the country she had just managed to unite would fall apart, and the results would be a bloodbath as those who believed they could rule fought for the throne. If somebody had to be protecting her at all times, she was at least glad it was her only true friend.

“At least I don't have to kiss the feet of everyone in this room,” Anya told her easily. “All I have to do is stand here and watch you do it.”

To anyone else her words had no affect on the queen, no noticeable change in her expression taking place, but Anya knew her well enough to see the slightest shift of her brow and hid another grin behind her goblet.

“I will not be kissing anyone's feet,” Lexa argued, her tone even though she knew Anya could hear the resentment that laced itself through the words. The smug look remained on her guard's face and she almost rolled her eyes. She didn't of course, but she wanted to.

“Of course you will,” Anya replied, looking nonchalantly around the room as though they might be discussing something as trivial as the weather. “All these pretty lords and ladies will kiss your feet and you'll kiss theirs right back. It's the way of your world, Your Majesty.”

Lexa ticked an eyebrow up, her expression also one of casual interest. At that moment a servant walked over to her, bowing his head respectfully to the queen and holding out a tray of crystal glasses to her. She accepted one of the goblets with a nod and then took a sip from it, the sweet wine a much needed relief. Looking over the rim of the glass to her friend, she asked mildly, “And when will you be kissing my feet, Lady Anya?” The question was a pointed reminder that though she often tried to forget it, Anya herself was one of the pretty lords and ladies in the room.

The remark worked exactly as Lexa had known it would and Anya scowled, not even trying to cover the look up. “I will happily knock you off your feet in the training yard, but you know I'll never be kissing them,” she growled and Lexa's face lit up at the challenge. She loved a good fight more than just about anything, and Anya was one of the few opponents who wouldn't hold back just because of her title.

“Tomorrow then,” she agreed with a slight nod, matching the grin that slowly tugged at her guard's expression. “We'll see who knocks who off their feet.” Glancing past Anya she caught Titus watching her and winced, all too familiar with the look he was giving her. “For now though, I have feet to kiss.”

Anya's grin grew again and she held up her goblet in a mock salute. “Good luck, Your Majesty. Hopefully everyone washed thoroughly before coming tonight.” Lexa's nose scrunched up at the image Anya had given her and her guard let out a quiet chuckle, and then the queen pulled herself away, her expression immediately even once again as she turned to the rest of the room. Spotting a group from the Ingrona Plains standing nearby she moved over to them, nodding as they all bowed to their queen.

For hours Lexa circled the room, making sure to talk to everyone present. As the time ticked by more people seemed to appear, but she knew the dozens now would only grow as the spring turned to summer. Currently only seven of the great houses were represented, those who didn't have as far to travel or who had come back to the capitol with the queen at the end of the war rather than go back to their fiefs. The rest would trickle in slowly she knew, so that by mid-to-late summer each house would be accounted for. By then Titus would expect her to choose a husband and likely by the start of fall she would be married. In a year she would be fat with an heir growing inside her; the thought made a shiver crawl up her spine and she doubled down on her efforts of speaking with the lords and ladies around her just so she could try to forget it.

The queen danced with lords and ladies alike, the soft music coming from the strings of the musicians she'd hired for the night wafting gently over the crowd. Others she simply spoke with, covering topics all the way from the recent war to the different types of agriculture the thirteen houses provided for their nation. To sons and a few daughters she spoke of knight's training, some still in their squire years and others newly-made knights. Though she had never gone through the training herself she'd experienced pieces of it and learned far more of it from Anya, enough that she could easily speak to it with those who had. With many of the lords and ladies she mourned the loss of their children, young men and women who had fought in her war and lost their lives. It was really only in those moments she gave her undivided attention, a chord of guilt striking inside her as mothers did their best not to weep and fathers held their shoulders back proudly: their children had died in her fight, her war, and she knew she would continue to mourn the losses for the rest of her life.

She was speaking with General Semet and his wife, lower nobility of the Trikru Forest and a hero who had nearly lost his leg in the final major battle of the war when something caught her attention out of the corner of her eye. Anya was standing with Indra, the Captain of the Guard, a few feet away and both seemed to be preoccupied with something. Lexa didn't like the scowl she could read on Indra's face or the curiosity on Anya's, so politely she excused herself from her company and made her way over to them.

“What is it?” she asked quietly, looking between the two women. A sense of trouble stirred in her gut, and she almost reached down to her hip where a sword would have been were she not in the middle of a great party. Looking down she noticed that neither of the two women had grasped for their swords so she knew whatever it was couldn't be that threatening, but even so the feeling in her gut churned, making her wish she hadn't just finished a third cup of wine.

“Your Majesty,” Indra said without looking at her, head dipping in a clipped nod. Like Anya she was a trusted friend, or at least friend-like, so Lexa never expected her to show the same level of respect that most others did. To an extent it was always a relief being around Indra, as her gruff respect was easier to deal with than the people who would throw themselves at her feet, always expecting something in return.

“Over there,” Anya told her, nodding to a corner of the room and answering the queen's question. “The woman with Sir Finn; do you recognize her?”

Lexa followed their gazes, finding a small group of young people clustered together by one of the food tables. Her eyes trailed over the group, identifying each of them including her younger brother. Aden, like the others in the group, appeared to be smitten with the young woman speaking if his wide smile was anything to go by. Internally she rolled her eyes at her brother, wondering just how many young women he would fall in love with over the next few months, and then turned her focus on the center of the group.

The woman who had captured her audience's attention so completely stood angled in a way that made it hard for the queen to get a good look at her face, but every now and then she would turn just enough for Lexa to get a peak. The dress she wore was a deep rusty red made out of fabric a few steps below the fine silk of the queen's own dark green gown, but somehow the way she wore it made it seem like the finest material money could buy. Her hair, piled in loose ringlets along her head, was a shade of red the queen wasn't sure she'd ever seen before, the burgundy locks so dark Lexa's fingers itched to run through them to see if they might get lost in it. Her pale skin told the queen she was from the north and that she didn't spend much time in the sun, meaning she was likely a lesser noblewoman who spent most of her time inside her castle's walls. She had to be from a lesser house, because much to the queen's astonishment, she didn't recognize her.

“No,” she answered, knowing her companions would be able to hear the surprise in her voice. “I don't know who she is.”

“Neither do I,” Indra growled, clearly vexed. As the Captain of the Guard, Lexa knew Indra always made it her mission to know every single person who entered the palace, and the fact that this young woman had somehow slipped by her would likely chafe against her pride for some time. Lexa understood how that felt, her own pride rubbed a bit raw by this unknown noblewoman as well. As the queen and host of this party, she had been certain she knew the face and name of every person who would be attending but here this mystery woman was. From the way Sir Finn's hand rested along the small of her back she assumed the two must be betrothed and that just irked her more. As far as she had known the third son of Lord Emerys Collins of the Glowing Forest had been single with no prospective brides. Luckily for her being the third son meant he wasn't on Titus's list of potential husbands, but that she had no knowledge of the girl's name or this union was a slap to her pride.

“Excuse me,” she told the two guards politely before making her way over to the small cluster of nobles. Her eyes didn't leave the mystery woman, taking in even more detail the closer she got. Her brother was now talking, apparently telling some joke, because as she drew closer she heard the woman let out a small laugh, the sound light and almost musical and tugging at something inside Lexa's chest. With her back still to the queen Lexa studied her, wondering just who this woman could be.

Her brother was the first to notice her, eyes glancing over the woman's shoulder, and he bowed his head to her just slightly. The motion caused those beside him to look as well, and quickly they fell into deep bows, knowing exactly how they were expected to greet the queen. Their friends who had had their back to her as she approached turned around and also fell into quick bows, but Lexa ignored all of them and watched as the mystery woman finally turned to face her.

A spark of immediate recognition lit in the woman's blue eyes, and as she dipped into a curtsy Lexa was reminded of the crystal blue water of a shimmering lake. A beauty mark perched itself just over the left side of her lips, drawing the queen's eyes to a full mouth bare of the lip paint many noblewomen wore. A light touch of rouge looked to have been dusted along the woman's cheeks, that or the woman had had one glass too many of wine. A thin silver chain with a blue pendant hung from her neck, and Lexa's eyes followed it as she knew they were supposed to. The cut of her dress bordered on impropriety, showing off enough of her bosom that Lexa wasn't surprised her audience had been so captivated, but for her part she only allowed her gaze to drop down to the revealed skin for a fraction of a second despite the urge to just stare at the wonder. One hand grasped at the skirt of her dress as she fell into a deep curtsy while the other held onto the goblet she'd been drinking from and the queen's gaze fell to them, noting the lack of rings on any of her long fingers. The loose ringlets of hair swayed as she moved, a few falling over her shoulders, and internally the queen knew this must be the most beautiful woman she'd ever met.

She didn't let that knowledge show on her face, instead giving the group a polite nod of her own as she tore her focus from the woman and made herself look at the companions around her.

“Your Majesty,” Sir Finn said, rising from his bow a second before the others did. Other than Aden, he was the highest ranking person of their group. Gesturing around the room with the hand that had been on the woman's back he added, “This is an excellent party you've thrown.” Quickly those around him nodded their agreement, everyone but Aden and the strange woman. She simply watched the queen and Lexa had the strange sensation of being sized up. It wasn't a feeling she was used to.

“I'm glad to know you're all enjoying yourselves,” she replied politely as was expected, ignoring the strangeness of the woman's look. Turning her focus back to her, she met those blue eyes easily, giving the woman an apologetic smile. “I'm ashamed to admit this, but I'm afraid I don't recognize you, Lady...”

“Blake,” the woman replied, returning Lexa's smile, and the queen didn't know if it was the smile or the woman's voice that made her heart suddenly skip a beat. “Clarke Blake, and please Your Majesty, I'm no great lady.”

That bit of information piqued an interest Lexa was trying to pretend she didn't have, wondering how Lord Emerys had allowed his son to become betrothed to a woman not of their rank, but she stuck that bit of curiosity away to go over another time. Instead she heard the band begin a new song and held out her hand to this mystery woman – to Clarke.

“Mistress Blake, could I interest you in a dance?” she asked, giving the woman the polite, charming smile she'd learned to carry practically at birth. “I'm still ashamed to not know a guest at my own party.”

Focused so fully on Clarke, she missed the smug grin that appeared on her brother's face or the way their other companions glanced back and forth at each other.

Clarke curtsied a second time, reaching out and accepting the offered hand. “I would be honored, Your Majesty.”

Lexa led her across the room, the two setting their cups on a server's tray as they walked by. Everyone they approached quickly shifted out of their way, leaving an open path to the dance floor. As Lexa pulled her into her arms, the two easily falling into the dance's steps, she ignored the fact that everyone else was likely stealing glances at the pair if not openly staring. For her part Clarke ignored it too, and that impressed the queen; it had taken her years to get past the staring, but this woman who likely wasn't used to it at all seemed so easily to pretend no one else was around.

“So Mistress Blake, tell me a little about yourself,” Lexa began as they fell into the steps, her eyes never leaving her dance partner's face. She took in every detail from the quirk of her lips to the spark in her eyes, storing the information away. This close she could see the thin white line of an old scar peaking out at her from the woman's hair line just above her left temple and briefly she wondered how she got it. Probably a silly accident from when she was a child, an overzealous act attempted by a brazen girl; she certainly had the look of someone constantly challenging the universe. Lexa's thumb itched to brush over it but instead she held firm to her hand, the appropriate touch for the moment.

“Mistress Blake is too formal for me,” the other woman told her, flashing her a small smile. “I'm just Clarke.” Stepping away and then back to each other as the dance dictated, she asked, “What would Your Majesty like to know?”

“What does your family do?” the queen asked, the palms of her hands tingling where the heat from Clarke's body hit them. She ignored it.

“My father was a merchant in Arkadia,” Clarke answered. “After he died I came to Polis.”

Regret flashed across Lexa's expression before she could stop it. She understood the pain that came with a family member's death and immediately felt guilty for reminding this young woman of her loss.

“I'm sorry,” she told her quietly, hoping for once that her true emotions showed. Normally she forced them back, hid them from the world, but in this moment she wanted the other woman to know how true her words were. Clarke simply nodded, saying nothing before she glanced around the room. Clearly changing the subject she said, “You really have put together quite the party, Your Majesty. The food alone is exquisite; I like that you have something from each of the thirteen nations instead of just what's most popular in Polis.”

That surprised Lexa, and for a moment her brow rose, showing it. As a merchant's daughter, she wouldn't have expected Clarke to know that the food she served tonight came from all across Kongeda, a gesture she'd made as another symbol of how they had all come together. Hiding that momentary shock of surprise, she looked at this woman again, really looked at her, and found an intelligence in her eyes she hadn't expected. Worse, one of Clarke's eyebrows rose, amusement tugging at the corners of her mouth, and Lexa realized she'd been caught. Cheeks heating up momentarily from embarrassment, Lexa silently thanked the gods her complexion didn't allow the blush to show easily, and then dipped her head in a silent apology.

“How do you know about the cuisine of the different nations?” she wanted to know, now more curious about this woman than she had been a moment ago. Before her interest had been simply due to the fact she was a stranger, someone she couldn't name on sight, and – she could silently admit to herself – in her beauty. Now her interest grew further, curious to know more about this mystery woman who seemed to be able to surprise her so easily.

“I traveled for a year or so before coming to Polis,” was Clarke's easy answer. “I admit, I didn't make it to every nation, but enough of them to recognize the variety in the food tonight.”

“Really? And which was your favorite place to visit?” Lexa asked, genuinely curious. As she'd been trying to unite the thirteen houses she'd had to travel to each one, seeing more of the land than she'd ever been able to imagine before.

Clarke's lips curled up into a cheeky smile as Lexa spun her lightly, the two never missing a step in their dance despite their conversation. “I feel like I should say nothing could ever be more beautiful than Trikru since this is your home, but I don't think I can do that.” The cheeky grin slipped away as she seemed to really think about it and then she continued more thoughtfully, “After growing up with trees everywhere I looked, there was something very... intense about seeing the Ingrona Plains. It makes you feel small, you know, just being able to stare at that bare expanse and feel like you can see to the end of the earth.” Her cheeks darkened for a moment, apparently thinking about what she'd just said, and she bowed her head slightly. “Not that you could ever seem small, Your Majesty.”

“No, I know what you mean,” Lexa assured her, gripping the woman's hand a little tighter to reassure her. “I admit I felt the same way when I stared across the same view.”

Their conversation continued as one song flowed into another, and Lexa found herself forgetting about the party around them, at least as much as was possible for the queen. What she'd believed would just be a simple dance so she could identify this woman and mentally box her away as she did everyone else turned into a conversation about different lands and foods and cultures. As they talked she found she genuinely cared what Clarke had to say, even when they argued over what the best way was to prepare snake, a delicacy among the people of the Glowing Forest. Clarke argued the stew it was often made into was best, while Lexa insisted there was no better way to eat it than freshly roasted over the fire.

“So is that how you met Sir Finn?” Lexa asked, once they had agreed to disagree. For the first time since they started dancing she made herself look away from her partner's face and back to the party around them, finding the young nobleman in question watching them, her brother beside him and grinning smugly. Odd, she thought, having expected him to seem more jealous than smug, but didn't think anything more of it as she returned her focus to her companion. “How long have you two been engaged?”

Confusion swept across the other woman's face, her head tilting to the side. “Who told you we were engaged?”

“I just assumed,” she answered, “from the way he was holding you earlier.” Something mischievous flashed across Clarke's face, her lips creeping up into a slow grin, and suddenly the queen felt as though she'd just said something very foolish.

“Sir Finn and I aren't engaged,” Clarke informed her, amusement coloring her tone. “We only recently met and are just... friendly with each other.”

“Oh,” the queen replied dumbly, embarrassed. Glancing back over at Finn she felt anger briefly boil over in her gut before she could quickly tamper it back down. She knew many noblemen would meet a commoner and play with her emotions before leaving her behind, especially when the commoner was as pretty as Clarke. These men would have their fun and then do their duty by their family and marry someone of their rank, leaving the common girl behind brokenhearted, and the idea that Finn might be playing with Clarke in such a way stirred something within her. Never before had she truly cared other than to shake her head at people's foolishness, but now she found herself saying, “I hope Sir Finn treats you well. As the son of a lord, I'm sure he must seem... important.”

“Not as important as the queen,” Clarke replied smoothly as she dipped into another curtsy, the song they were dancing to ending. Despite the way her body moved she maintained eye contact with Lexa, once again surprising the queen, and she thought she saw another flash of something cross those intelligent eyes. “You don't need to worry about me, Your Majesty, I've been taking care of myself for a long time. It might even be Sir Finn who should be careful around me.” Lexa noticed a teasing lilt to the woman's smile and internally thought she might be right: Clarke certainly seemed like someone who could take care of herself. Something about the intensity of her gaze reminded the queen of the lioness she'd once encountered while visiting the Hundred Mile Desert, the same awe and fear sparking in her now as it had then. As quick as it appeared the flash was gone and finally Clarke's head dipped down, adding, “Though if you'll excuse me Your Majesty, I really should be getting back to him.”

Not letting any of her thoughts show, Lexa returned the curtsy with a nod of her head, returning the motion with the barest of bows as was expected. “Of course,” she replied, “I've taken up enough of your time. It was nice to meet you, Clarke Blake.”

“It was an honor to meet you, Your Majesty,” Clarke told her sincerely, giving her another small smile, and then she had turned and was walking away. She made her way back over to Finn, the young man's expression immediately lighting up as he extended his arm to her. She took it and the two made their way back to their corner, and Lexa pretended not to notice or care that his hand moved back to the small of her back the moment they'd stopped.

Walking off the dance floor and about to find another conversation to include herself in, her plans changed when she noticed Anya and Indra watching her, a large smirk on Anya's face and – more surprising than anything else that had happened that night – a smaller smirk on Indra's. Frowning, she made her way over to them, Anya's amusement only seeming to grow the closer she got until the queen was practically glaring at her.

“What?” she all but demanded once they were in front of her, and only years of training kept her from placing her hands on her hips in annoyance.

“Did you have a nice dance, Your Majesty?” Anya asked smoothly, ignoring Lexa's question and just irking the queen more. “You looked like you were having fun.”

Still not understanding their looks, she answered, “It was perfectly fine.” As a second thought, she told them, “Her name is Clarke, by the way. Clarke Blake.”

“So we've heard,” Indra replied, that one corner of her mouth still pulled up in a small smirk that made Lexa's brow furrow. She could not for the life of her figure out what was going on, and for the second time that night she felt like she had done something stupid. It was not a feeling she cared for in the slightest.

Just then Aden moved over to them, a similar smirk tugging at his lips. “So Lexa, did you have fun with Clarke?”

Looking between the three of them, Lexa had to close her eyes and take a deep breath, getting her irritation under control. She wasn't used to being the butt of some unknown joke and she certainly didn't like it. “Okay, what is going on?” she demanded, using the tone that had commanded an army and united thirteen strong houses.

“Please let me tell her,” Aden said to Indra and Anya, practically dancing where he stood in excitement. Only being the heir to the throne kept him from actually doing so, his own title keeping him from acting the part of a normal fourteen-year-old boy with a secret.

“Do it,” Anya agreed with a sharp nod, one that Indra mirrored, and Lexa fought to keep herself from rolling her eyes at them all. Turning to her brother she lifted her eyebrows expectantly, waiting to be brought in on the joke, and he told her absolutely gleefully, “You just danced with a whore.”

Blood rushed to her ears, making them pound and she was sure she must have misheard him.

“Excuse me?” she said, and he nodded over to the corner where Finn and his mystery woman still stood, telling her, “Clarke. She's a whore. You just danced with a whore.”

The bottom dropped out of Lexa's stomach and her eyes closed slowly, for the first time in her life wishing she could entirely disappear from sight. Behind her, she could practically feel the force of Titus's eyes boring into the back of her head.

***

Clarke Griffin, one-time heir to her dead father's title, laid silently in bed, staring up at the dark ceiling above her as the remaining firelight in the hearth across the room danced along the walls.

Beside her the third son of Lord Emerys of the Glowing Forest slept, one arm wrapped possessively around her middle. A thin sheet had been pulled over their naked bodies when Finn had finished and he'd immediately curled against her, claiming her in yet another way. While he'd fallen asleep quickly, no doubt worn out by the night's activities, Clarke remained awake, her mind ticking away as it always did. Her fingers fiddled with the pendant of her necklace, the only thing she still wore and one of the few things she'd brought from one life to the next, and she planned. She could feel something in the air, something not yet attainable but nevertheless drawing nearer and she knew the time was coming. For years now she'd worked for this, worked for the revenge she felt slowly creeping towards her like a scared animal, and once it was within reach she would have it. First she would have her answers, and then she would have her revenge and everything she'd done to obtain it would be worth it.

In a dark room filled with only flickering firelight, a noblewoman who had donned the life of a whore lay still, waiting for her revenge to find her.

It was only a matter of time now.