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"Swing harder!"  The cadence of Skacharm's voice had an echo to it that would be undeniable to anyone listening, and Malia was no exception.  She used all the newly developed muscles in her arms to swing the sword with dangerous force.  Her opponent, Ja' Haber, blocked with ease.  He'd been training for over a year now, and could almost guess her moves.  

When she started training with Ja'Haber she'd been woefully inexperienced, but after a few lessons she'd caught on quicker than any student he'd ever had.  Her only issue had been her lack of body strength, which they had been working on all this time.  Skacharm had noticed how quick a study she was, and every time she caught on quickly in weapon training his eyes narrowed suspiciously.  So much so, that Malia wondered what she was doing wrong, or what he suspected her of doing wrong.  

Feeling her arms begin to tire, Malia tried to adjust and make the strikes closer so she didn't have to use more muscles to swing out.  Some of her moves started to get sloppy.  

"Maybe we should take a break," Ja'Haber suggested.  "We've been at it for hours."

"Tired already, Ja'Haber?"  Skacharm jeered good-naturedly.  

"Tired of looking at your ugly face," the hired trainer came back with quick as a blink.  The two of them laughed and gave manly pats to each other.  Malia didn't understand the male bonding, but wished she did.  Skacharm, always looked at her like a lacking queen, never as an equal he could respect.  She sighed, knowing these thoughts weren't exactly true.  He also saw her as a father would, one who felt the need to protect.  This was why he pushed her so hard to learn how to protect herself.  The assassination attempts on her life didn't make things easier.  Those instances just pushed Skacharm harder to do what he could to train her.  If he wasn't so hard on her, she could be weak and make a mistake, and that would be her death.  She just wished she could start worrying less about protecting herself, and worry more about running her kingdom.

Realizing she was wasting her short break on useless thoughts she'd had many times before, she shook them off and made her way to the water well where the guys had decided to congregate.  Skacharm was staring at her with a strange look on his face.  After a few moments of him watching her while she drank the water, she broke the silence.  "What?"  She didn't mean to sound snappish, but she was tired and knew she had hours of training left to do.  

"You have a birthday coming up."

Malia was surprised by this acknowledgment, since Skacharm didn't mention her last birthday at all, and it went by with no cake or presents.  Malia was used to the large celebrations her foster parents had for her, so she was sadly disappointed last year.  "Yes."  She didn't elaborate, knowing Skacharm had a reason for everything he did and said.  She waited patiently.  

His lips twitched into a smile, and Malia thought she almost saw a twinkle of pride in his eyes.  "You know, a couple of years ago, you would have pepped me with questions by now."

"A couple of years ago I wasn't a queen."  The statement was bald and telling, showing both of them how much things have changed for her.  

Skacharm's twinkle faded, but his smile stayed as he gave her a formal bow.  "My Queen, I think it is time we hosted a ball in honor of your birthday."

This was the moment Malia had been training for.  The moment when Skacharm decided she was to go back into the public eye.  "Do you think I'm ready?" she asked with a mixture of excitement and nervous fear.  

"We shall see." 

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Lorial watched from the tree line as the training lesson commenced.  The little queen was pretty good, as she used aggressive force to shove back her opponent.  Of course that wouldn't be a threat to Lorial, since she had superior strength.  Thinking her hiding spot was a good one, she was surprised to hear a loud command.

"Show yourself!" The elf who spoke was a golden hunk of gorgeous.  Too bad he was an elf, or Lorial would have made a play for him.  She didn't slowly step out of the woods, but used her vampire speed to appear before the trio.  The male with dusky dark skin drew his sword, but the golden elf did one better.  He made a dark ball of magic appear in his hand, ready to be thrown at any threat.  Lorial had no defense against magic, and could easily be killed by it.  Or worse.  Cursed. 

"Hello Queen," she uttered quietly. 

There was no doubt she was heard, as the golden one bit out with a threat in every word, "What is your business here?  And how did you find us?"

Lorial didn't taunt them, or sashay around as she normally would.  She stood stock still as her eyes met the queen's, hoping she was a worthy queen.  "I am a mercenary.  It is my job to kill.  I've done terrible things."  The sword raised, and the golden one's hand twisted menacingly.  "I don't deserve a damn thing."  Then Lorial did a surprising thing.  She fell on her knees and bowed her head.  Her shoulders shook from the power of her dry sobs.  Tears didn't flow, because she had no more tears to give.  But the pain in her heart was just as great, if  not greater.  "But please," her voice broke, "please.  I beg for your help.  My son has been stolen by an evil wizard.  He has come to your land.  I cannot defeat him alone.  I need help.  Your help.  If you do this for me, I will serve you all the days of my life.  I hope you would find a need for my services.  Please, please..." Lorial's voice faded off and her whole persona reflected her despair.  At any time the sword or the magic could have killed her, but she made no move to defend herself.  She left herself vulnerable, knowing this young queen was her last hope.  If she was rejected at least she could die knowing she'd tried every thing she could.

Gentle fingers touched Lorial's shoulder.  She looked up into the beautiful visage of the queen.  The sun shone behind her, lighting her up like a halo. 

"Of course I will help you.  I will do whatever I can to help you find your son.  What is your name?"

Lorial let out a sigh, one that shook her whole frame.  "Lorial," she said on the end of the sigh.  "I am indebted to you for life."

The golden male's face held a strange mix of pride and concern.  Lorial didn't blame him for his lack of trust in her.  Trust has to be earned, and Lorial planned to do all she could to earn it. 

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"Another one, bartender," Pearl said evenly.  The bartender gave her a squinty look, trying to see how drunk she was.  But though she'd consumed enough booze to kill a small elephant, she still didn't look drunk.  She placed her coin on the bar and he shrugged as he took the money and poured her a shot.

Before her fingers could touch the shot glass, her glass was scooped up and the liquid consumed by someone else.  Rage crossed her features, and she was about to throw down before she realized who it was.  Skacharm, sat beside her, as confident and observant as he always was.  The fact that he could see all irritated the shit out of her.  She respected it too, but would never say so. 

"What the fuck, Charm?"  her speech wasn't slurred, but her reactions were slow and he would notice that.  She frowned.

"Sorry.  I needed it more than you at the moment."  He sighed and ran his fingers through his golden hair.  Pearl thought to herself again how Skacharm might be considered sexy by her, if he wasn't such a douche. 

She was about to order another drink when Skacharm placed his hand on hers.  Her eyes narrowed, and she looked like how a cat would before it hissed and tried to bite your face off.  He moved his hand.  She relaxed a little, knowing he was here for a reason and not just to get a drink.  "What are you doing here?  Aren't you usually joined at the hip with your little teen queen?" she snorted.  Pearl couldn't help but be sore about the new ruler of Elendaron.  She still felt loyal to Rainbow Bridge after all they'd done for her, and it grated that a tiny elf that had no idea how to rule a kingdom was now in charge.

Skacharm didn't deny her statement.  "Usually."  He drummed his fingers on the bar, a telling sign that something had gotten his panties in a twist.  "She's about to have a birthday party.  She's turning 18."

"Wow," she said sarcastically.  "Too bad I don't have a present for her."  She rolled her eyes.

"You could," Skacharm said cryptically.  He paused a moment, took a breath, then continued with, "I never told you that you had to leave, Pearl.  Elendaron is still in need of your services."

"Services for what?  To watch your queen get assassinated?"  She gave a bark of laughter that neither one of them thought was funny.  She knew she was hitting below the belt, but she was drunk so allowed some privileges. 

"She just needs to be protected.  You could think of it as the most challenging job a soldier could have.  And that's what you are, Pearl.  You're a soldier."

"Sorry," she said as she motioned for the bartender to come back.  "I stopped being a soldier when Rainbow Bridge left." 

"So you could become..... what?  A drunk?"  Skacharm knew how to hit below the belt as well.

"Fuck you," she bit out, angry at the truth and at him for pointing it out.

"Think about it Pearl, when you get sober.... if you get sober.  You can be more than... this."  Skacharm turned around and walked out, not looking back. 

One Month Later

Skacharm walked into the study of the castle to see Pearl standing there.  Her eyes were clear, and her stance as stiff as any good soldier's.

"Where do you need me?" she asked in resignation. 

 

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Shanna roasted the meat over the fire, tearing free from the bone and burning her fingers.  She didn't notice.  Recently she hadn't cared if she'd gotten hurt.  Ever since that fairy had healed her she'd kept healing.  She didn't know how long it would last, or if she'd heal forever, giving her eternal life, but she refused to think on it anymore.  The changes in her body was too overwhelming to concentrate on.  Even how she looked, the lines gone from her face, the black roots growing back where there used to be gray... it was all hard to accept.  She needed to focus on something simple.  Something she was used to.  Something she was good at. 

Killing.

Her target was clear, and had been for two years.  It didn't matter if her employer had given up on her succeeding and refused to speak to her, or pay her.  This had become her vendetta.  She would find the queen of Elendaron.  She would finish the job she'd started. 

She would kill the queen. 

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Queen Malia of Elendaron hired many new people to be her protection for her 18th birthday/comeback party.  She had been training and learning about the lands that she owned, studying how to be a good queen.  Now she must put what she'd learned to the test.  Some of those she and Skacharm hired had come to them, some they had sought out.  But either way, her royal protection will now always be in place for the queen that is constantly in danger of assassination. 

The opposition to the queen are many, some being distant royal relatives that want a chance at the crown.  Some are assassins from other lands, sent by other kingdoms seeing her as young and weak.  Some are people within her own land, who don't see her as a ruler they can stand behind.  She will have to prove herself to many enemy forces, and to her own people. 

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