Monday, September 21, 2020

Read Chapter Three of Talystasia: A Faerytale by Novelist KJH Cardinalis!

 

Talystasia stands divided. An ancient wall runs down the city’s center, and for centuries, the Lorens and Telyras have vied for dominance. But their endless feud is not the only schism that runs through these pages. Here, loyalties are fractured and hearts and minds are divided. Will Andreas Telyra and Roselia Loren triumph on the war grounds within, or will they succumb to the cycle of violence and spiral even deeper into the dark?

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III: Home is My Castle

Andreas drew a shuddering breath as the city gates closed behind him.  It was like being dropped to the bottom of a featureless well: coal-black thunderheads shut out the moon, and the high oak gates and the towering stone walls were indistinguishable from the severe enclosure of the sky.  His exhalation made a silver cloud, dissipating into the ink-black stillness.  Every bone ached from the downpour, old scars complaining in sore silence. 

He’d grilled the gate guard on his way in.  The man had only just awakened for the night shift, but his ignorance of any disturbance was still a good sign.  It should have placated his fears.

It didn’t.

Seleda's horseshoes rang off the cobblestones, mud splashing his trousers.  Light peered out of a few thatched inns and cottages, defiant against the crush of the rain, but the greater crowd of windows lining the thoroughfare gaped like empty sockets.  They offered nothing to ease his anxieties: no warmth, no humanity.  He stilled Seleda at intervals to listen, squinting down drenched alleyways.  No scamper of running feet or cries or shouts broke the pattering rain—only his own quiet breaths.  Everything was silent, sleeping, or hiding.

Didn't he even have any homeless...?

The only noise beneath the pelting drops was the scurrying of a rat across the cobbles. 

He didn't waste money, and there were no shortages.  

So he supposed he didn't.

This uneasy silence—he should appreciate it.  It was a wanting substitute for true seclusion, but it was all he was going to get.  Cling as he might to the bastion of his authority, nothing could stop the relentless, clutching tides of unresponsive humanity from crashing against it, eroding his soul like the floodwater from the sky.   

The joyless journey through the soaking, cheerless labyrinth reached its terminus, culminating in the weathered grey stones of the Telyra castle condensing out of the gloom like solidified fog.  Dim figures paced atop the turrets and walls, a testament to order and command. The firelight dancing from arrowslits cast apparitions across the haze.  They danced around him, slipping in and out of substantiality, the ghosts of slaughtered adversaries stalking him across the yard. 

Spurring to a canter, he raced across the drawbridge, bypassing the stables.  The enormous doors to the entry hall were flung wide, the golden glow from the fireplace gilding the threshold. It caught in the rainwater pooling across the flagstones, sparkling like a veneer of Loren ostentation over his own austere estate, as much a chimera as their actual riches.  

He halted just shy of the narrow band of burgundy carpet running the length of the hall.

Dorthelda, Thomas and another footman he knew only by sight were waiting for him.  The housekeeper gave him a hard look, pushing a strand of greying hair from even greyer eyes.  She nodded firmly in greeting, as if pleased to see him, but her eyes were flinty.

"What's the matter?" he asked, swinging down.  Patting Seleda’s neck he added, "Need some food for Seleda.  I didn't get the carpet wet."

"You did now," she snorted, nodding stiffly downwards. 

Hastily, he stepped backward, leaving two muddy boot-prints on the runner.

He smiled with mock sheepishness.  "Clean it up.”

Rolling her eyes, Dorthelda drifted off mumbling under her breath.  Within seconds, as if by clockwork, two young maids detached from the shadows at the edges of the room and knelt on the floor at his feet, cleaning rags in hand. 

"Is anything amiss?" 

"No my Lord,” Thomas answered as the head housekeeper returned, glaring down at her charges.

One of them, a bone-thin girl with dishwater hair, scrubbed vigorously, her face averted.  Dragging his eyes off her neck, he shifted them to the footmen.

"Really?  Are you sure ...?”

"Why?" Thomas returned.

Andreas shrugged and turned to Dorthelda.  What's her name?” he probed, indicating the new maid.  “What a lovely neck,” he added appraisingly for the girl’s benefit.  “But slow at what she does.  And her appearance is sloppy.  You should beat her.”

The girl looked up, revealing her eyes.  They were colourless, the soul behind them as insubstantial as the veneer of dust on the mantelpiece. Apathetically, she wiped her nose, staring vacantly at the wall.    

"That's Traceira. Hired last week."

"Hired or bought?"

"Hired." 

"Ah," he shrugged indifferently as the girl resumed her work.

“No longer satisfied with what you’ve got?” Dorthelda asked, scarcely concealing her scorn. 

Maybe I will be tonight. 

“Maybe you should beat her,” she added, when he didn’t reply.

"See to it that she stops looking like filth," he snapped.  "She has a wage; she can afford to look decent."    

"Of course, my Lord," she called after his receding back.

Ascending the wide stone steps, he paused outside his study. A warm glow issued from underneath the door. 

A fire. A fire and rest. Thank hell for that.

When he opened it, cold, damp air gusted into the hallway from inside.  Crouched underneath the window, Julia looked up, dark eyes wide as the draft ripped her cleaning rag out of her hand. 

“Hello, Master!”

His steady magical lamp, a gift to his grandfather from the Elders nearly a century before, rested on the little table beside her.  The light glinted softly in her hair, the loose brown curls over her shoulders limp with grease, rendering them—like her—stubborn and unmovable. 

The fire crackled in the grate.  It’d give him more warmth than she would.  But her face brightened even as she shivered, clasping her skinny arms.  The embers between them refused to go out, resisting even the fiercest gales.  It wasn’t just the reflection of the firelight that lit up her eyes, and he couldn’t help but stir at the ashes.

Maybe I will be tonight.

Everything was in its right place. 

To hell with the Elder and her portents.

~~~

The door to the study slammed thunderously behind Lord Telyra. In the silence that followed, he leaned lazily against the frame.  There was a fog in his eyes like the fog through the window.

Something was wrong—but he was trying to hide it.     

"Hello slave,” he greeted softly.

Only he could wear the bane of Talystasia’s miserable climate like it was a mantle of nobility, towering like a river god in a storybook woodcut.  His long scarlet dreadlocks clung to his body, dark with rain, rivulets of it trickling down his uniform, pasting his tunic to his chest, turning the blue fabric black.  A small puddle was forming on the hardwood at his feet. 

"You'll catch cold,” she chided.  “I'll get you some towels.  Take off that wet cloak.  What were you thinking, bein’ out so late in that downpour—"

Lord Telyra raised his mouth in a thin, sarcastic half-smile, and shook with silent laughter.

"Good observation, slave," he said.  Then the smile fled his voice like the warmth from the room. 

"So why ... are you ... still sitting there ...?" 

Julia lurched to her feet. 

"Wait."

His quiet command cut through her thoughts like distant thunder.  Perhaps she’d misread his mood.  Not a fog, but a storm brewing.

"You dropped your rag," he said, grimacing at it, and her, like he would a dead thing.  "That thing—on my floor—disgusting." 

Wordlessly, she bent and placed it on the table, carefully meeting his stare.  "I'll get your towels now, Master."

"Slave—" he said as she reached the door.

"Master?"

He raised one arm over her head to grasp the doorframe.

"Milord?"

"I'll answer in my own time," he answered, looking past her out the window.  "Learn patience.  Think you'd learn a damn bit of patience.  If I speak to you, you answer.  If I speak to you again, you answer.  If I say nothing, you have no place to speak.  I should throw you to the dogs."

"You wouldn't.”

"Of course not.  I am much worse than the dogs.  Loren's mangy ghetto dogs would rip you apart in minutes, so small you are ... weak.” 

He reached for her, looking intently at her mouth as he passed a hand over one of her curls, his movement so soft it could have been a breeze from the window. 

"Yes Master," she replied, and looked away, focusing blankly on the far wall.  Yes … this was a dangerous mood.

"Look at me when you speak to me, slave."  He grabbed her chin and twisted her neck sharply, his hand rough and cold. 

She forced herself not to flinch, clenching her jaw and settling her gaze on the thin vertical scar that ran across his right eye.  If she focused on the scar, she could ignore the blue iris fixed on her, stormy and dark.  His hair was slowly drying against the circlet, its colour re-emerging.  The vibrant red highlighted the rust-coloured stains that had discoloured the gold band over the ages: dried blood.  Some spilled by Lord Telyra, some by his predecessors.

"You'd suffer for a few minutes—but then you'd be free; free to rest in blessed oblivion."  He spat on the floor.  "Never another day of your short, stunted pretend-game of a life.  You’d like that, wouldn’t you?  You lazy little shit.  Clean that up."

"Yes Master," she agreed indifferently.

He tightened his grip on her chin, pressing till it hurt.

"It's a good thing that I like you, isn't it?  Impertinent and impatient as you are.  A foolish dreamer who shirks her work, who doesn't know her station in life.  You are not even a part of life.  You are sub-life.  Just imagine if I were heartless."  He let out a breath, releasing her.  "… Like you.”

I said I was gonna get you some towels, you bastard.

She opened her mouth, almost daring to say it, but he grabbed her by the collar and jerked her head back against the door.

“I’m sorry Master—” she choked.

… Weak.  So pathetic. 

Part of her, displaced in time, craved his belligerence—and that was the worst of it.  Invoking this response was unintentional.  Or perhaps it wasn’t, and it was done out of spite—a reminder of what they no longer shared, and the power he still had over her.  Her back against the door, his hand clenched around her collar, his scarcely contained aggression—it was all the same on the surface, but underneath, it’d been poisoned. He’d defaced them by corrupting their essence, and now, he wielded them like a weapon.  There was nothing for it but to disown that part of herself, each and every time.

You’ve ruined everything.

“How did you waste my generosity today?"

"I cleaned all four rooms you assigned, plus the drawing room, and I finished off that pile of axes.  Shiny and new."

“That didn’t take you all day.  How did you amuse yourself?”

“Your new Atlas.  And then I cleaned the study, just to get it done.”

Don’t appreciate it though—or the fact that I stayed up here waiting for you for an hour and a half, when I could’ve been downstairs, asleep.

"Did you learn anything?"

“Despite not being able to read, yeah, I did.”

"No."  He smiled.  "No, you can't.  Such a pity."

“I’m so glad I have an Atlas to learn about the world.  It’s so much better than the real thing.  Just paging through it, I can see how little I’m missing out on cooped up in here.”

“I was playing, slave.  But now I’m not.”

“We don’t play,” she replied quietly.  

“I had a hard day.  Is this really the way you want things to go—?”

“Why did you have a hard day?”

“Like hell you care,” he growled.  “Go.”

She edged forward nervously, glancing at his arm above her head. 

"Girl—"  His face distorted.

"Gone," she stammered, and shoved at the oaken door, fumbling with the knob; the damn thing was jammed again.  Finally, it pulled free and she got away.

~~~

Andreas chuckled lightly as he withdrew.  "Run, little girl," he said softly to the empty room.  "I'll catch you when I feel like it."  Unhooking his scabbard, he flung his blade onto the cushions still sheathed, and slumped down on the edge of the couch.

Enough.  This day was damned enough as it was, and she was burning up in the same acid he was.  

There were days it was all too much.

"I have your towels, Maste—" 

She broke off, standing in the doorway, her face a guileless portrait of dismay.  Something deeper than hate let her look at him like that.  Even now. 

Today, he would forgive her shortcomings.  Because someone in this wretched hellhole needed a damn bit of grace. 

"Yes, slave?  You were saying?"

"The sofa," she said pointedly, a shade off resignation. 

He raised his hands from his knees and waved them at the cushions, favouring her with mock confusion.  They were sopping wet and streaked with mud. 

“Couldn’t you have waited for the towels?” she asked him dejectedly.

"Oh, well, snap"—and he snapped his fingers, his face blank.  "That’s going to take you … what, an hour?  I mean, really scrub them.  I don’t want to see one speck of mud tomorrow morning.”  He wiped the back of his hand on the next cushion over.  “… Oh, I’m sorry.  I meant two hours.  You’ll be up till two in the morning.”

He laughed, watching the dead weight settle behind her eyes—an automatic response—as easy to lift as it was to place.

"Unless I decide they can wait till tomorrow."  He stared up at the ceiling, considering nonexistent possibilities.

"Which you won't," she replied matter-off-factly, even lightly, as though her time meant nothing to her—but she watched him with hungry eyes. 

Pain never lost its potency—and neither did hope.  But false hope was the province of priests and politicians.

He certainly wasn’t the former, and he did his best to rise above the latter. 

"The door," he reminded her.

She closed it.

Rising heavily, he strode over to his desk.

"Anything here I haven't seen yet?"   

"Just a few—those ones.  Sorted by time."

He riffled through the papers, pushing aside a clutter of ink pots and pens, his eyes burning.  The words blurred and ran together, illegible. 

"You're dripping on it," she supplied.  "You're making the ink run all over."

"I’m tired."  He ignored her impudence.  "They can write me another." 

Furrowing her brow, she pushed oily hair from her eyes, and stepped cautiously toward him.

"Reports?" he stated abruptly, his voice cutting the air between them.

"What?" she asked, halting on cue.

"Did you bother to ask what they say?" he barked.  “Or are you just going to stand there?  Should I replace you with somebody literate?  Are you going to make me read them?”

"One of them is about this skirmish—"

"Brawl."

"Was it a brawl?"  Her wide eyes held no knowledge.

"You tell me.  Who was involved?  Surely you know ... something?  The fuck do I keep you for?"

"Lieutenant Gulthor was looking for you.”

"Good.  What’s this stack?"

"A research compilation from the library.  Something about a ‘cult.’  Umm, something about … Shadow—and Fire.  Shadowfire?"

He waited, flipping through it disinterestedly.

"A page told me they want an audience with you."

"Uh-huh."  He clumped the documents together, stood them on end, and used the desk to even the edges.  "I'll be needing Gulthor.”

“He’s already on his way.”

“... And dinner.”

"Oh!"  Panic flitted across her face.  "I can't believe I forgot.  It’s just, it got so late, and I thought—"

"Slave!" he called sharply, curtailing her excuses.

Freezing, she turned to look back.

"Master?”

He smiled—not unkindly.  "Ask the kitchen to give you two portions.  And thanks for the fire, Julia.  Stop staring at me and go make yourself useful."

"Yes Master," she mouthed, and left the room.

He fingered the dossier, trying to force his brain in gear.  But he felt like nothing more than slumping forward, pressing his forehead against the desk, and going to sleep.  And if he couldn’t, there was always the drink.

Shadowfire.  Between Talystasia East and West, there were probably a dozen religious orders amid a prevailing atmosphere of careless agnosticism.  He couldn’t recall the name of this one.

“... little to nothing is known of the god to whom these crusaders pray.  This is not a god of polytheistic ancient lore, handed down from Elder tales, but neither is it the monotheistic god of the Holy Star—a god of the future, a god of hope.  No stories are told of this deity, no legends or moral tales of divinity.  This is a god of the present, without a face and without a name, granted no gender, form or character.

“Why did this end up on my desk?”  

"My Lord?"

Starting at the unsolicited reply, he sat up, then smiled warmly.  "Ahh, Gulthor.  How are you this damnable evening?  Come in, come in."

"I am fine, Milord," Gulthor responded, stepping into the room fully, the firelight saturating the ruddiness of his face.  Scratching his bushy beard, he peered curiously at the papers. 

Andreas frowned. Was his face more florid than usual? Had he been running to get here? 

Maybe it was only the cold of the night.  Why look for doom in every sign?

Gulthor cleared his throat. "We need to talk about the skirmish.”

"Please Gulthor—brawl.  We aren't at war with anyone."

He snorted.  "The war has never really stopped, Andreas.  You know that better than I.  And we both know it’s only a matter of time before everything blows back out into the open.  Two of our men and two of theirs … and two civilians.  It could be construed as a military incident.  A man is dead, Andreas.  One of Loren’s—a young officer.  Warrant Officer Charles Danson."

"Civilians?"

"Both fine—perhaps a black eye or two."

"And you witnessed this when and where?"

Gulthor coughed a couple times.  Andreas waited patiently. 

“Do you have a cold, Gulthor?”

Clearing his throat, flushed and bleary-eyed, he shook his head and continued.  "… Outside the south wall on the hillside, on enemy ground.  It was four o’clock—right around when you headed out for the evening.  Our men were off-duty, not even in uniform.  They met Loren's soldiers on the road, in uniform, with two civilians—but also off-duty, so I gather.”

“By the stream, the one that joins the Ganea River?”

He blinked.  “… Yes.  By the source.  Why?”

“Nevermind—Continue.”

“They paused, spoke a while—I didn't realize anything was amiss until one of them pulled a dirk and another threw a punch.  They told me later the matter was political."

"Really," Andreas said.

"Aye sir; apparently … well, you have to understand, they thought it was a joke.  At first.  Then they changed their minds—or lost their tempers, more like.”

What was a joke?”

“Loren’s soldiers.  Said they was planning to jump you in the woods.  Argument happened, fight ensued—"

"… Frivolous debate?  Over my life …?  Your men are the people I depend on, Gulthor.  Don't try to reassure me by telling me it wasn’t serious.  If it wasn’t, then what are you doing here?  Wouldn’t you rather be home enjoying whatever Drucill’s concocted for supper?  You're only clouding a confusing matter."

"They thought it was a joke,” Gulthor repeated adamantly.  “Didn’t you hear me?  And it probably was, to begin with.  Altercations like this—they happen all the time.  This time things got … heated.  There’s some indication that two of the men knew each other—there was some history there.  Personal.  That probably had nothing to do with you whatsoever.  If they’d all been out of uniform …”

“You know as well as I do that wouldn’t have spared us.  How was Loren’s man killed?”

“Accident, from what I could tell.  He tripped, hit his head on a rock.  If we’d just seal our borders …”

"Dock their pay."

"What?  Why ...?  For protecting you?"

"For failing me.” 

"But they didn't fail.  Assuming there was ever a threat to your life.”

"They complicated my life.  There’s a man who’s dead who shouldn’t be.  There could be consequences—and should be.  I just hope they are consequences of our choosing.  You’re too sympathetic toward the men.  Even if you did want more responsibility, it’d be reason enough not to promote you.  I know you mean well … but it’s no way to run things.”

“You know how I feel about the open borders.  It’s not the first close call.  Things like this wouldn’t happen at all if—”

“Can you fault me for trying to make this a civilized area of the world?”

“I don’t fault you for trying.  But Loren might.”

“Has he responded?”

“Garret Delvorak sent word.”

“And?”

“He didn’t seem inclined to make anything of it.  Loren’s men reported the same thing ours did—accident.  We lucked out there.  But that was him—not Malek.  Malek hasn’t said a damn thing.  You see, that’s where I’m anxious … he should have replied by now—if he’s going to.  The fact that he hasn’t … it could signify it’s unimportant to him, but …”

“Loren would be stupid to try to assassinate me, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

“… Two low-ranking officers and a couple of civilians?  Probably not choice assassins.  I’m inclined to agree.  But that doesn’t mean … Joke or not, it doesn’t matter how it started.  It matters how it ended.  The death can be construed as—”

“Gulthor!  He’d be mad to break truce.  I've given him the most prosperity he's seen in decades.  With my peace.  I bet more of his citizens are eating now than have in centuries."

“Wars have been started over far lesser things than a dead soldier.”

That much was certainly true.  The conflict at the root of this one, that had claimed his life, chained him to this inherited sentence?  Lost to the mists of time.  Speaking of the mists of time …

“… I saw a dryad, Gulthor.  She held me up, on my way home.”

Gulthor’s pale eyes widened.  “Was she hostile?”

“No.”

“How long has it been?”

“Five or six years?  The Elders told me about this ‘skirmish,’ and they called it what you did.  They told me the blood was poison.  That there was power intrinsically linked to the event—power neither human nor Elder, and that it may be linked to the circlets as well.  I’m inclined to believe them."

No matter how near the incident had occurred to the place where he’d paused on his way home tonight, there was no way the blood from a fractured skull wouldn’t have been diluted by the stream, instead of pooling against the rocks like tar.  Blood might be thicker than water, but it wasn’t that thick.

Gulthor blinked.  "Are they going to become a problem?"

"I think they were trying to warn me of the one I already have."  He shrugged.  “Gulthor, I’m at a loss.  I’m so tired.  I know you have nothing to say about what I just said.  But the rest of it … please make this go away.  The part you can do something about.  The human part.”

"I see, sir."  He looked as frazzled—and now puzzled—as ever. 

"Very well," Andreas said.  "You may go.  Wait … Gulthor—?”

“Yessir?”

“Does the name ‘Shadowfire’ have any meaning to you?”

He shrugged laconically.

"… Huh.  Don't forget; cut those men’s pay—but don’t starve their families."

Gulthor curled his lip, narrowing his eyes.  For a moment, Andreas expected a rare confrontation, but he turned and left without another word.

The fire burned merrily, and he wasn't so sopping wet anymore, nor half as cold.  Perhaps Gulthor’s first theory was right.  Maybe Malek Loren’s silence signified nothing but unconcern.  Grabbing one of the neglected towels Julia had left him, he wrapped it over his shoulders.  The kitchen—or that dim-witted girl—had better hurry up, or he'd punch someone.

Eventually the door creaked open, and Julia shuffled in awkwardly balancing a wooden tray.  Cottage pie—it smelled like pure vitality. And wine.

"Where do you want it?" she asked. 

Amused, he smiled, but said nothing.  Shrugging, she deposited it on the corner of his desk and scurried back to the window.  Kneeling down, she picked up her rag.  Within moments she was absorbed in her task, or appeared to be.

"Slave?" he interrupted.

Julia looked up at him uncertainly. 

"Is it all right?" she asked.

"The second portion was for you."  Picking up the tray, he transferred it to the coffee table in front of the couch, gesturing to the floor opposite.

She sat, the table uncomfortably high for her, but painfully low for him.  She couldn’t see it of course, but the old scar in his back was twinging.  Funny he should suffer just to keep her in her place, and that she would never know or appreciate it. 

He nodded toward the food.  She didn’t make the slightest motion.

"Go ahead,” he said, pleased at her discretion. 

He ate slowly, content to let her eat more than her share—yet another thankless benevolence.  Colour flooded back into her cheeks, dispelling the unhealthy pallor.  She ate with her eyes closed, deep in her concentration, as if eating were her whole world. 

It shook him, despite his frame of mind, as it always did.  Out of everything he had done—and continued to do—this was perhaps the most vile of it.  He knew it was he who inflicted this misery of malnutrition on her, simply by not putting the kitchen staff in their place.  He should have charged in there long ago and threatened each and every one of their jobs, if not their lives, if they dared deny her sustenance.

But her gratitude was a sham.  If another had thrown her this feast, she'd have gorged as happily.  It was the food, and not him, that gave her pleasure. 

Damn her.  And let her starve.

"You hardly ate!" she exclaimed a moment later, scraping the last of it from the platter with her knife.

… What a beautifully absurd thing to say. 

Whether her concern was mere habit, affectation—or foolish blindness—he savoured it.  Scraps of her sentiment in exchange for the crumbs from his table.  It was all he’d ever get.

She closed her lips over the sharp edge of the knife.  He looked away quickly. 

"What do you want to do?  If you don’t want to do anything, that’s fine.” 

Slowly, she slid her lips off of the knife.  "Don't you have work to do?"

"I don't want to work.  I’ve had enough."

"Chess rematch?" she suggested, leaning on the table with her chin in her hands.  “I owe you for the other night.”

He glanced from her mouth to her eyes and back.  “You've ... some blood on your mouth.  You cut yourself.”

Flinching, she raised her fingers to wipe it off, shifting backwards on the thin carpet. 

“Didn’t you notice?”

Such a small pain, the tiniest pang in a cruel life. 

With alluring carelessness, she shrugged. 

He downed the rest of his wine, and remained silent.

"How was the kitchen?" he asked after a moment.

"The usual."

"They're just jealous," he remarked, with a smug little smile.

"Nobody’s jealous of the lord’s punching bag,” she answered with muted coldness.

"Would you prefer that pit of hell to the simplicity of my needs?—because that can be arranged."

She looked at him disparagingly, clutching at the brass collar around her neck.  You’re not serious, her look seemed to say, so don’t even say it.

"If something happened to you, would I go back there?  Who would inherit me?"

"No one, idiot."

"But who would run the castle?  Who would own me?  Don't you have a will or something?"

"The castle—” He broke off.  "No one."

"It has to go to someone.”

"Not really ..."  He wasn't sure if it could go to anyone. 

“Malek Loren.  He’d take over.”

"The property goes with the title, title goes with the circlet.  It has to pass through blood."

“No it doesn’t.  That thing does.  Not the rest—not me.” 

And then she was beside him, squirming around the table to the edge of the couch, her hand reaching up toward the circlet, touching the evil thing lightly with her fingertips. 

For him, a curse—to her, an object of curiosity.

Tonight it seemed particularly malignant, an infection that could spread.

"Don't," he hissed, and pushed her hand away.  "Don't touch it."

"You've let me bef—"

"I’ll kill you.” 

"If you killed me I'd be free.  Are you ever gonna let me go, if I please you?”

"The more you please me, the more resolutely I will possess you," he retorted, sneering.

"And if I displease you?"

He threw back his head and laughed mirthlessly, and abruptly silenced himself. 

There was a time he could’ve told himself this kind of thing was a sport, a goad—that she wanted to feel the back of his hand. 

But she was serious.  It was at moments like this that she revealed herself completely, and he wanted to stamp out the last dying embers between them with black finality.  Once upon a time, she’d believed she could crawl through his heart to the door, that he’d pity her and hand her the keys.  Tired of amusing him, she’d artlessly spoiled the game. 

"Haven't you learned that lesson, or do you need me to teach it again?  Why would you want to displease me?—You'll never be free, Julia."

Folding her knees up against her chest, she looked down at the floor.  Andreas stared past her through the window.  The pattering of rain was the only sound in the room.

“What happened to you today?” she entreated.  “—You’re in a foul mood.”

That’s right … put this all on me.  You always do.

He answered her anyway.  “The Elders sent an emissary to see me.  A dryad.”

"You saw a dryad!  What was she like?"

Her juvenile curiosity was so inappropriate given the gravity of the situation that it was almost ludicrous.  Then again, her ignorance was on him.  There was no way he was going to tell her what he and the Elder had talked about in the forest shadows.  Just as he was never going to tell her everything he suspected about the fetter clenched around his head.

"Her skin was green, like the flesh inside a tree,” he said, settling for a physical description.  “And her eyes."  He looked down into her brown ones.  "Large and dark. She looked a bit like you, actually."

"Really?" she asked excitedly.

"She was also naked."

Her face flushed, and she turned her head toward the window.

Andreas roared with laughter.  Why turn away if she felt nothing?    

Brushing her hair aside, he wrapped his fingers around her collar.  She breathed slowly and shallowly, her pulse racing. 

In times past it seemed like he’d been able to balance things.  He could have shaken the weight of the day off, pushed the apprehension to the back of his mind, and closed the door on it. 

The tension hung over them like a hammer—but all he could feel was sadness.

Her eyes closed, and she leaned on his knee.

"… Is this affection?” he asked, warmth leaking into his voice.  “Or have you forgotten?  You’re my punching bag.”

"Read to me?" Sitting up, her hands pressed on his knees, she gazed up at him with demur adulation.  This too was an act, but there was no malice in it. 

Once upon a time … I could balance my anger. 

"Pick something," he smiled down at her, running his hand through her hair, but his voice was bleak.

Rising, she strolled over to the bookshelf and thumbed through the volumes.

A cracking sound tore through the air. 

He caught his breath. Julia turned, a slender hardback trembling in her hands.  The sound wasn’t thunder; it was a knock at the door. 

It was late—far too late.

“Did I send for something?  Did you—?” he asked, his voice hushed.

“No,” she whispered.

The knocker pounded again.    

"Who is it?"

"Messenger, Milord!" came the muffled shout. 

"Tell it to go away,” he snarled.  “I'm busy."

"No."

For a moment, he almost didn’t comprehend. 

No …?  A direct contradiction?

"Let him in,” he called, his stomach sinking.

The door banged open, and Thomas rushed in, visibly perspiring.

The man who followed was sopping wet, dressed in Loren regimentals, a suit of scale mail beneath a scarlet surcoat.  His helmet was nestled under one arm, and he was panting like he'd covered the entire distance from Loren’s gaudy palace at a dead run.  In his other hand, he extended an envelope, fastened with Malek Loren’s own seal.

His words brought all the premonitions of the day crashing down.

"Warrant Officer Danson was betrothed to Lord Loren’s first cousin twice removed, Baroness Augusta Loren.  His death is on your heads.  This is a breach of truce.  Consider yourselves at war."

Andreas leapt to his feet, grabbed his sword from the couch, and left the room.

 

~~*~~