The city of Flecton is ruled with an iron fist by Demon Prince Vehr, whose human citizens suffer under demonic enslavement and live in fear of her ever-watchful presence. The prince herself is never seen, living in her underground palace and sending demons to kidnap skilled humans to serve her.
Ten years earlier, Merle's best friend and closest confidante Abeille, a promising silversmith, was taken to Vehr's palace. Now, Vehr seeks a hairdresser, and Merle has exactly the skills she needs. Surviving the hairy situation will take more than wits—it'll take good people to rely on, old friends and new.
Being chosen to do a service for a demon prince was a great honor.
At least, that was what Ors—the man who ran the beauty shop where Merle worked—told her. "The Watchful Prince has requested our most beautiful hairdresser to attend her in her palace," he'd said, while Merle swept up the shorn hair of the last demon she'd attended. Even though she was pretending to be occupied, she could see him glaring at her in the mirror. "Do not offend her."
"Like I would," Merle muttered.
"Do not," he insisted emphatically.
It wasn't like she had a choice in the matter. Not offending her was the only thing Merle could do. She couldn't refuse to go; after all, humans in this fiefdom existed only to serve the demons who were its true citizens. The prince even lived in their city, Flecton. If Merle went and angered the prince…
Well, Ors wasn't worried about her so much as he was looking out for himself. He'd be made an example of for supplying the prince a poor excuse for a slave. If he was lucky, he'd be relieved of his relatively safe position as a shopkeeper and forced into harder labor in the quarries as punishment.
If he was unlucky, his shop would be razed to the ground with himself and the others still in it.
Merle made a face at herself in the mirror. Ors could worry about that on his own time; whatever happened to her would probably be way worse.
Sighing, she folded her arms across her chest and lowered her eyes, trying to peek up through her lashes to see if she had the obsequious pose mostly right. To do it perfectly, she had to keep her head bowed and her eyes closed—it didn't do to look at the Watchful Prince, Vehr, without her permission.
But you couldn't exactly confirm the pose if you couldn't look at it, could you?
She gave up on that part. At least she was nice enough to look at, she figured, since that was apparently part of Vehr's demands. Long black hair, bangs cut short above her sharp eyebrows. Almond-shaped, monolid eyes, heavy-lashed, set in a round face. Strong nose, soft pink lips. She twisted those last left and right, screwing up her expression in disgust.
Wonder if it's true that since the prince sees so much, she refuses to look on anything that isn't beautiful. It would be a little ironic if so. After all, slavery wasn't a pretty business. Merle had seen plenty of people disfigured from hard work, wracked with ugly illness—or scarred and injured by demons, just for the fun of it.
No way to know if it was true or not. The prince never actually showed herself, staying in her inverted palace deep underground and sending up demons who would come and fetch slaves for her when she felt the need.
Ten years earlier, when Merle had been fifteen, her dearest friend had vanished into that palace.
Abeille's mother had been a blacksmith, stooped and bulging with muscles. Abeille—though that hadn't been her name then—had been starting to follow in her path. Her specialty was silversmithing, but that didn't mean she left iron alone. She'd swing swords around like they weighed nothing. "I'm practicing," she'd say to Merle, "for the day we fight our way out of this horrible city."
They'd shared it all together, talked about everything, shared every secret. It was Abeille to whom Merle whispered that she thought girls were far, far prettier than boys. It was Merle to whom Abeille, in return, burst out in a panicked soft whisper, "Actually, you might not believe me, but I'm a girl too. I just am."
They'd stared at each other, Abeille with her short-cropped dark brown hair and umber face full of freckles, broadening shoulders, muscular chest, gangly teenage height. "That makes sense," Merle had whispered back, "'cause I think you're so damn pretty, you know."
Abeille had burst into a smile so wide it looked like it might hurt, her eyes sparkling enough to bring heat to Merle's cheeks. Merle had laughed and promised her, "You're my best friend. Don't worry. I know you."
"You're mine too," Abeille had said, and they'd clasped hands. "Let's never keep secrets. I trust you."
But most of the time they hadn't talked about anything that serious. Their secrets were about freedom and escape. Swords and adventure. It had been their favorite topic—how to get free before Vehr's fiefdom gobbled them up and left nothing but picked-over bones.
Well, Abeille has been eaten by it, all right, Merle thought bitterly. Abeille had been swallowed into the depths of the prince's palace, never to return. Merle had tried to go after her but was refused entry. Not pretty enough, not talented enough. Just an underdeveloped child with few skills, back then.
She wanted to be happy that she was more interesting now, skilled and beautiful. She couldn't be. Abeille was likely long dead.
The prince had taken so many people over the years. Only a few came back. For the rest, who knew? Merle was pretty sure they were used until they became boring or ugly, then killed or given to the prince's other demons to be destroyed.
And Merle didn't intend to go the same way.
She rose out of the obsequious pose, spinning a pair of scissors on a finger.