Balance by Inghild Økland

1

A Mare of the Night

Sigve’s blood soaking the sand, my mind revolting as the men praised a job well done. Meeting my companion’s glassy stare, bile rose to my throat. How stupid I had been, believing these strangers, trusting a piece of paper. And now it was too late. A face loomed over me, eyes alight with glee. His dagger was at my throat. Before I could scream, I felt the sting of pain.

I opened my eyes, and the pain lifted. Phantom images dispersed like mist on a mountain, replaced by my serene surroundings. Muffled sounds of a new day carried through the hull. Sailors talked while unloading heavy cargo, and waves lapped against the shore. I was still on the ship, in my cabin where clothes lay discarded in a pile on the floor and the wooden carving of my old pony stood on a shelf by the bed. Outside, a sea of shattered sapphire gleamed beneath the bright sun. My heart, beating something fierce, slowly returned to its steady rhythm.

“I heard—Lady Vildi! What’s wrong?” Eyes wild, my companion barged into the room with his sword drawn.

“Why are you here?” I bundled the blankets up in my arms until they reached my chin, covering the essentials.

“You were screaming, my lady.” Sir Sigve blinked, shoving brown tufts of hair out of his eyes to take another sweep of the place, as if trolls were about to hop out from behind the bed. Rather than a precaution, his room was next to mine for practicality and old habits. Never had I thought he would run the door down.

“I’m fine. Just a nightmare.”

“Oh.” His shoulders dropped, although the frown remained. “Good. We’ve arrived.”

“I know, so please stop with the ‘lady.’ I’ll see you outside.” My face felt stiff around the smile. I gave a wave for his benefit, but Sir Sigve’s gray eyes lingered, and his rigid lips didn’t soften one bit. Truth be told, protecting me was a rather unthankful task that Father had pushed upon him. Sir Sigve shut the heavy pine door behind him.

My dampened hair caught on my comb, the long, light strands pulling off my head in sharp stabs. Recognizing removal of the knots as a fool’s attempt, I put what remained in a quick braid, masking the influence of three weeks at sea and one nasty nightmare. I could do little for my face and skin, but the plain dress suited the image of an unremarkable girl. Mother would have cried had she seen me.

With my belongings thrown into a bag, I rushed through the door without a backward glance and sure enough, outside was the ocean, glimmering in the morning light. Our ship, the Disandri, had finally made anchor, reaching harbor in a small city called Fiar. The culture, food, and people of Lakari waited for me.

With land beneath me again after weeks at sea, the ground seemed to be leisurely bobbing up and down like a small boat on waves. The bumps in the pavement were set on tripping me. My stomach twisted, and I grabbed onto Sir Sigve for support. More familiar with this than I, he gave me an arm without comment until I could trust my feet.

He was an old soul, Sir Sigve, despite being young in years. Glancing my way once more, he stilled, squinting with tight-knit brows. “You don’t look well, L . . . Vildi. Are you sick? If you’ve fallen ill, we can find a pleasant inn to rest. Let’s return to the ship in a fortnight, and then go home.” Sir Sigve drew a hand down his well-kept beard.

“Please. We’re not going home.” Sure, I wanted to go back. Mother would be more than welcoming, thrusting a fresh assembly of suitors in my face. Of course, the not-so-fresh would follow, including Lord Gaute with his forty years and plethora of desperate gifts. But worse—sweat broke on my skin. That voice: my little star—fingers digging into flesh, pressing himself against me—no! I would have my fairy-tale adventure, thank you very much. Worm free.I will not be locked inside a cramped room. I’m here to explore seas of sand, silk markets . . . and meet people who see me.” A grimace pulled at my lips. “I’m fine, just . . . not yet recovered from my nightmare.”

“I see. That’s a relief.” Sir Sigve’s shoulders slumped. “But we can always go back. Just say the word, my lady—”

As if his flattering need for subservience, shattering my cover at any opportunity, would tempt me to return. “Stop calling me that, dear Papa. Merchant’s daughter, remember?”

His eyes crinkled with the first sign of crow’s feet. “Of course, Lady Vildi.” Oh, his bad habits lingered. Even worse, stupidity was not among his flaws. It was a question of motivation, and he found this particular arrangement unimportant. I turned away from him to take a last look at the ships.

At port there was the usual hustle of men hard at work. From the next ship over, song filled the air in spontaneous bursts as men with midnight skin worked on the sails. One of them met my gaze with a beaming smile, waving his hand. They looked like good company. I lifted my hand in response, snatching it back to my chest as my breath left me. Flailing arms and a cart loaded with carpets rushed by, only a hair’s breadth away from my nose, almost crushing us. My pulse slowed. The driver was clearly too busy and important to even offer an apology.

Sir Sigve shifted the heavy bag on his shoulders, scowling at the offender.

“Come, don’t mind him,” I said, adjusting my own, considerably lighter bag, and pulled at his shirt. “We’ll just have to walk anywhere but the middle of the road.”

With a sigh, Sir Sigve moved on.

Fiar was a place of trade for sure, prospering by the influence of outside forces, with shops and stalls so close together they almost overlapped. A jewel shop stood side-by-side with a street stall overflowing with pearls in white, black, and rosy pink, competing against clothes and tea displayed in a strange harmony. By the end of a cramped street, the shops all dwindled into a local market of sorts.

“Only the softest silks for the lady. Have a look at the finest . . .”

“Spices, oi, spices, the best and greatest, spice up your meals, for every occasion, spices . . .”

“Delicate jewelry, the very best of metalwork, the sharpest knives—we have it here, we have it all . . .”

With our fair complexion, Sir Sigve’s russet beard and reddening nose, and my wheat-colored hair, we stood out like a torch in the darkness. At home, black hair was a rarity. Here, I saw not a single person without raven curls. Brown eyes peered at us from within crinkling, leathery skin. A few men, adorning rather bulky headwear, rested their shoulders against a sculpture in the center of the square. Between their frames, I identified two dragons coiling around each other.

Dizzy, I stumbled. How did these people endure the heat? Grasping Sir Sigve for support, I barely avoided a cactus and its vengeful armor. Those needles looked more than ready to bite into unsuspecting skin. “I think I need food,” I mumbled in reply to Sir Sigve’s worried look.

A wonderful whiff teased my nose, more tempting than a gift from the gods. By the corner of the square stood a stall overflowing with small, delicate cakes. I wanted them all.

Sir Sigve didn’t quite match my admiration. “My l—dear daughter, we ought not to eat sweets for breakfast.” Such words were like hearing Maya, my lady's maid at home. She had surely entrusted Sir Sigve with strict instructions, despite his hasty departure.

My stomach protested the statement with a loud groan. “You’re right,” I said. “I’ll only have that pink little thing then. Oh, and that golden cake!” As a glutton at heart, it was my duty to partake.

Perhaps it was her dark tan, but I had never before seen teeth as white as those of the girl selling cakes. She handed me the pastries with careful fingers and a seller’s charm, as happy with the coins as I was with the sweets. Sir Sigve scowled as I put the pink, swirly delicacy into my mouth. It was sugary and crunchy, and it melted on my tongue. The greatest treasure, however, was the golden cake, with paper-thin layers of dough held together by thick, sticky honey. Truly, it was heaven in small bites.

“Have you heard the news?” A voice like a bird’s song brought me out of my stupor.

With my mouth already full and my lips tugging into a smile, I swallowed. “I won’t know unless you tell me.”

“You like that cake? You may want another, perhaps?” A sensible proposal, although judging by her wide and glinting eyes, the girl would spill her news regardless.

I bought one more—not one to waste such a perfect excuse for us both.

“So, you know about the prince, right?”

“No.”

The market girl sighed, her gaze reaching for heaven. “It’s so romantic. Tragic. Our prince is finally getting married!”

“Oh. Why is that tragic?” With her starry eyes, I could scarcely believe the girl shared my thoughts on matrimony.

“Well, this is his second time.” The girl clutched her chest. “And he is still so young, our poor prince. Even as an arranged marriage, it’s said they loved each other very much. But he lost his wife in childbirth, and you see, neither of them survived.”

Any amusement died within me. I was the sister of at least three siblings I never got to meet, perhaps more. Thank the gods for the two I never lost. Bowing my head for the dead, I focused again on the girl’s tale.

Her gaze softened. “And they used to be such a cute couple too. They came riding through this very town once. Oh, it was a beautiful sight! When the princess passed on to Rashim, we all felt his pain. Sorrow is never easy, but he lost himself to it for so long, our grieving, handsome prince.” She took a deep breath, and then cast away her gloom with a bright grin, meeting my eyes. “But he finally found a new bride!”

“Who is she?” I leaned closer, oddly intrigued despite myself. But—may the gods forgive me—I was seventeen. Why wouldn’t a story of tragic romance with the twist of a happy ending excite me? So long as I could remain a simple merchant’s daughter.

“Well, I don’t know. Some foreign princess, I think.” The girl crossed her arms, eyebrows furrowing together. Perhaps this unsightly void in her otherwise full recount of the prince’s affairs annoyed her.

“Let’s hope it goes well,” I said, my mood rather softened by sugar.

“Yes. He is such a wonderful person.”

“I’m sure he is.” I repressed an urge to roll my eyes. “The cakes were delicious. Thank you.”

“Have a pleasant stay, miss.” The girl’s full smile made me feel at ease, as it was quite similar to Madalyn’s. My sister would have enjoyed the cake too. Another bite, and honey flooded my senses as we walked among the market stalls. Behind us, the girl was already working on her next customers, her voice drifting with the wind. “Would you want a cake? Oh, and have you heard about the prince . . . ?”

Sir Sigve cast me a sideways glance, lips pulling down in a grimace. “I wish you would stop. What will your parents say? And your marriage prospects, if you get bigger than in your paintings?”

I tried not to choke on the last bit of cake. Sir Sigve was dead serious, having the audacity to look quite concerned. Why, I couldn’t fathom. I was still slim enough. “Yes indeed, what a great tragedy. But I fail to see how this concerns you.”

He averted his eyes, thin lips pressed together.

I sped up, heading deeper into the market. “Let’s have some breakfast.”

“Do you even want breakfast anymore?” He stared at my last mouthfuls of cake as if they personally offended him.

“Of course. Let’s go before I starve.”

Later in the day we explored the outskirts of town, reaching an establishment of wide, low buildings and a long row of stables which housed camels exclusively. The creatures were strange and shaggy with bulbs on their backs, as I had only ever seen as drawings in books. They were cute animals with enormous eyes encircled by envy-worthy lashes, and their fur, especially the area around their noses, looked soft like velvet.

A huge caravan—several heavily loaded wagons, merchants, and even three traveling families—left town along the main road. The company drifted into the desert, soon hidden behind a rise and bend in the path. The immense sea of sand seemed to lead to the very end of the world. My gut twisted, a reminder of the nightmare pains, of crimson soaking the ground, and a blade blinking in the burning sun as it plunged—no! “Let’s go back to the market.”

As merchants put away their wares beneath the searing sun, Fiar settled into a midday lull. As the city slept, we resorted to a stroll through empty streets, searching for an inn. My body didn’t seem to agree well with this climate and I fought off nausea for a while, carefully hiding my condition. Sir Sigve was too quick to worry.

“Around this corner is a place to dine,” I guessed, as a sandy gust peppered my cheek. We turned to see taverns lining the street, merry light spilling out their windows. “Hah, I was right. I’m getting better.”

“You’re getting lucky,” Sir Sigve pointed out. “We should settle on a place to stay.”

Cold crept down my arms.

“Do you see over there? It’s even near your beloved camels. If the inside matches the outside, I think we’ve found our place. If they have room, that is.” He seemed satisfied with the discovery, eyes gleaming with well-known anticipation of strong drinks. “Let’s put our bags down for the evening.”

Crammed between a smithy and a closed grocer’s shop, a small inn was visible beyond his pointed finger. Torches illuminated a facade of dragons on each side of the entrance, welcoming travelers through a door made from dark, old wood.

“Fine. Take a skaal with me?” A toast with Sir Sigve wasn’t the worst thing to do after a long boat ride. I would miss out on wandering through the town at night, viewing the lights, partaking in feasts. Although I was not above sneaking out again later.

Our entrance barely disturbed a hum of laughter and easy banter. Behind a gleaming counter, an innkeeper methodically wiped glass mugs as his wife flitted about, distributing drinks and food. A few men had gathered around the tables, all of them of leathery skin and gray in their beards, looking as if they were more comfortable with each other than their homes. It was a place for playing games and sharing news. A common, ordinary, in-all-ways-typical tavern.

A sudden pain clenched my stomach, and my breath heaved. The air was surely all too stagnant. “No.” My voice cracked. “Let’s go. I don’t feel like staying here.”

In truth, it seemed like a respectable establishment, where a good drink and an even better story should be possible to come by. And yet, as I turned for the door, my condition instantly improved.

That sensation faded fast. From the dim light of the doorway, two men emerged, cloaked by darkness.

I tried acting normal—I really did. Greeting with a smile, relaxed posture, and arms at ease by my sides. I failed. My lungs heaved, gasping for air which suddenly was too sparse.

And they all gawked. Every person in the room turned for a glimpse at the hysterical girl by the entrance. Of course they did.

The man closest to me leaned forward, hitting my nose with a pungent odor. “It is her,” he declared in a dull voice.

“Are you sure?” This one was younger, though no less gruff. He had to bend around his companion to get a better view, with a wide-eyed stare and mouth slightly ajar. When he moved again, the light caught something glinting from the shadow of his cape.

“Do you see other girls with golden hair around?” The older man adjusted his stance, a tinge of rust coming from him in waves. His gaze pierced pain to my throat.

“And her eyes. Yes, that must be her,” the young one said, stepping forward. The candles shining down on him revealed clothes stained over and over until the color had turned a patchy, strange brown. “I think I liked the portrait better.” His voice was just loud enough for me to hear, and he had the indecency to smirk. As if I wasn’t already aware of my travel-worn self.

Stepping forward, Sir Sigve glared down at the men.

“I don’t care about your likes,” the first said, sparing his partner a taste of fish and stale ale before again facing me. “You, come here.”

“You have the wrong person. I’m not who you think.” I backed up a step, clammy palms pressed against the fabric of my dress. I held my breath.

They shared a look.

“No. You’re exactly who we think. Now come along, Princess Alvildi.” The man held a hand at his belt. Between his fingers, I caught a glint of steel. A chill ran down my back. Kidnapping?

“On whose authority?” Thank the gods for Sir Sigve. He stepped forward, obscuring my view of the men.

I glanced behind us. Throughout the room people were busy pretending a confrontation was not happening by the entrance.

The man reached inside his cloak to reveal an official-looking scroll. “Move. We have our orders. The princess has been su—”

“It’s fake.” As the words tumbled out, I knew them to be true.

The man narrowed his eyes, his hand sinking like a stone in water.

I took another step back, throat constricting. “I’m not coming, whatever you say or show.” Only the fingers digging into Sir Sigve’s arm kept me from crumbling to the floor.

The rude one sneered, facing my companion. “Your princess will come with us.”

“I’m afraid I cannot allow that.” Sir Sigve stood his ground, right hand finding the hilt at his hip.

“Do you still wish to do this the discreet way?” the man asked.

“No,” the other said. His eyes were pinned on me. “Better here than not at all.” Curved daggers spun into two pairs of hands. They moved as one.

“Vildi . . .” Drawing his sword, my companion held off the advancing men. He met their daggers with a twist of his blade. Metal screeched as blade grinded against blade and Sir Sigve sidestepped, his sword flowing like an extension of his arm. A knife flew past him as Sir Sigve lunged. The rude one ducked and the older man stepped in, his daggers cleaving air. As one threw blades in quick succession, the other reached for more knives at his belt. Sir Sigve’s labored breath already hit as bolts of lightning. “Go, Princess. Run.

They came at him with renewed vigor and twin grins, promising pain, sharp edges ready to deliver death. Kicking and upending a stool, Sir Sigve created some distance, desperate eyes piercing me for a fleeting moment as he whirled around.

I looked around the room. There had to be another exit. Sir Sigve would be fine. He was such an accomplished fighter, striving, heaving, protecting me. A table toppled over, halting the strangers for a second. A blade pierced the air; Sir Sigve dodged, losing balance and falling hard against the bar. The dark men advanced. As if Sir Sigve was a pesky inconvenience, their eyes followed me. Perhaps if I fled, they would leave him be. A back door. Surely, if I only reached the other side of the room, I would find a way.

The scent of copper reached me from behind, a grunt and the poor person coughing. But Sir Sigve was fine, so skilled—a thud, the dull impact of flesh against hard stone and another immediately after—and then came the steps, following fast, and it was not Sir Sigve because his were heavier and these, so light.

Blood hung in the air. I pushed past a table, a stool crashing down in my wake. A glance behind—a shape on the floor—and I stumbled forward, nausea again flooding my senses. I grasped for something to hold, clutching the bar counter and meeting the brown eyes of a pale innkeeper. Behind me was a blotched cloak, a dark figure dashing toward me, yelling. My heartbeat was in my ears, and every other sound came to me as if through water.

A hand grabbed for me—grasping only at air—and I stumbled forward. The wall towered before me and there was no door, nowhere to go. He would never expect a princess to fight back, but surely, I could punch even though I had never hit anyone in my life. My only option. His breath was at my neck, and so I turned—

Wide, pleasantly surprised eyes stared into mine as his dagger plunged into my stomach.