Chapter I

The snow bit through his gloves, burning his trembling knuckles as they ground into the white expanse. His breath came in gusts, puffing clouds around his beloved’s face as she lay trembling beneath him. He kept his head low, below the fray, his body covering hers as best he could as arrow after arrow whizzed over them. The last one had been too close for comfort, the dribble of blood on her cheek already drying on her skin.

“Through the trees!”

“Don’t let them get away!”

The Haravellian soldiers shouted their commands as the king and queen of Navah lay sprawled in the snow, hiding from the sudden attack. Ferryl could feel Adelaide’s heart pounding in time with his, not in the embrace of lovers but rather the desperate grip of two people dodging the arrows of the enemy.

The icy ground was taking its toll on Ferryl’s hands as he pinned his wife beneath him, the skin of his palms freezing though sweat beaded his brow. He dared to lift his head just enough to see exactly what was happening.

“Rebels,” he spat, catching sight of the attackers as they jumped from one tree to the next, hiding behind the fat, snow-covered trunks, firing their arrows with dizzying perfection.

Beside him, a Haravellian soldier fell with a thud, his eyes frozen in shock, his blood staining the snow, a crimson pool slowly growing beneath his throat. And around him in a pillar of black…those were…

Moths.

Black moths.

By the hundreds.

His eyes grew wide as he took in the sight of the minuscule beasts that had once plagued and tormented him. The sunlight glinted off their wings, which were iridescent despite their sheer blackness. So similar to the moths he had seen that morning not so long ago on the mountain in Haravelle, despite their darkness. More than moths. More than insects, they were…

I don’t think they’re really moths, he heard his wife say in his mind. He turned his attention back to her, only to narrowly dodge another arrow as it whizzed just above his head.

Ferryl gritted his teeth, took the risk, and grabbed the fallen soldier’s bow before jumping to his feet, pulling Adelaide into a sprint with him.

This way, he said for only her benefit. She followed without hesitation, letting him shield her with his body as they sped through the icy forest.

She landed by a fat sycamore, her breast rising and falling rapidly, her back to the fat trunk. Ferryl covered her body with his own, peering around the tree as her hot breaths caressed his neck. Just one shot…if he could just get in one shot…

Ferryl, she said, her words breathless even in her mind. There were ten rebels that he could see, their black arrows meeting their targets much too easily. Perhaps these were Midvarish wraith beasts. Or perhaps they were just boys. They moved too rapidly to tell. Either way, Ferryl and Derwin had met one of them in Ramleh only a few months ago. Met and killed him. Today would be no different.

Ferryl, he heard again, turning to meet her eyes. But Adelaide was not looking at her husband. And when he realized her gaze was fixed behind him, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

He whirled, facing his enemy whilst simultaneously pressing Adelaide against the sycamore. For as long as he could, Providence save him, he would protect her. Because the world did not yet know that she lived. It did not yet know that the lost princess Adelaide of Haravelle had been found.

And Providence help them all when that fact was no longer a secret.

No, this was just a random rebel attack as they journeyed south to Navah. It had to be.

“Hiding something, Princeling?” said the man. No, not a man. A beast. A wraith. A devil incarnate. A demon made flesh with teeth as black as obsidian and skin as rough as boot hide. He grinned—if you could call it a grin––and his eyes glittered with the promise of a swift death.

“How rude of me,” the man went on, and Ferryl used the moment to press Adelaide more closely behind him. He dropped the soldier’s bow, inching his hand toward his side for the hilt of his sword. Adelaide’s breath was steady at his neck.

“I suppose you’re not a princeling anymore. Daddy’s dead.”

Ferryl bared his teeth, unsheathing his blade, the metal singing as it extended before him, the steel glinting off of the sun-kissed snow, momentarily blinding them both.

“What is that you’re hiding so fiercely?” the beast asked, cocking his black head to one side, unfazed by Ferryl’s sword. Blood dripped from his thick hands, a shock of crimson against his charred skin. The blood of Haravellian soldiers, no doubt. Ferryl took a moment to thank Providence that King Aaron and Queen Avigail’s carriage was far down the road towards Benalle—hopefully out of danger.

The beast-man bore no weapons. At least not any that Ferryl could see. He was not sure whether to be relieved or terrified. But he let the bastard speak. Let the beast buy him some time while he made a plan and figured out how in Sheol to keep Adelaide safe while he killed a nearly invincible foe.

“What a pity that you should lose your whore so soon after losing your dear father,” the man purred.

Ferryl lunged. Whether it was prompted by blind instinct or vengeful rage, he couldn’t be sure, but he would be damned if he let this beast get the better of him. And he sure as Sheol wasn’t about to let him take his wife.

So Ferryl lunged. And parried. He whirled and spun. He called on every skill which had been trained into him and every ounce of the strength in his bones.

But it was not enough. Not against a man who was more than a man. Not against a demon.

Ferryl cried out as the beast whipped a sword from his back, slicing through the air with deadly accuracy, aiming right for his heart. It missed, but only just. And when Ferryl whirled to parry, that’s when he realized—

“Adelaide!” he called out, panicking that she was not there at the tree. He realized his mistake the moment the beast started laughing.

“Not doing a very good job of hiding your precious princess,” he said. And then he lunged. The beast moved so fast Ferryl hardly had a split-second to react. He lifted his sword but it was too late.

No, it should have been too late.

The beast should have killed him. Skewered him like a stuck pig.

Instead the beast fell, toppling to the ground like a sack of potatoes. And from behind his gargantuan form, Ferryl saw the reason for his foe’s sudden demise.

“I am not a princess,” Adelaide growled, ripping a dagger from the beast’s back. “I am the queen of Navah.”

The beast groaned, clutching his side from where the black blood pumped in thick rivers across the snow. Ferryl wasted no time lifting his sword, and the beast’s head was severed with one fatal blow.

Black, oily blood sprayed her face, neck, and hands, yet Adelaide stood resolute, eye to eye with the king of Navah. Her breaths came heavily but steadily, the tremble of the dagger in her hand the only glimmer of any fear in her veins.

A moth—no, a butterfly landed on her shoulder, its wings glowing fiercely and radiantly ruby against the backdrop of fallen snow. And Ferryl could have sworn it bowed. Bowed. But he couldn’t be sure before it flitted away.

“Where did you learn—”

“Your Majesties!” cried a soldier, cutting Ferryl off. “Here, John! They’re over here!”

Though she surely knew what question he’d started to ask, Adelaide said nothing as she let the soldiers guide her back to the road and the carriage that awaited them.

~

Steam billowed around her bare shoulders, curling the rogue midnight locks that spilled from the pile of hair atop her head. She poured a basin of water over her arm as Ferryl made his way into the tiny inn privy somewhere inside of Navah’s northern borders.

Wordlessly, he took the cloth from the side of her small tub and set about washing her. Adelaide let out a soft moan as he began working a handful of lavender oil into her shoulders.

“Are you going to tell me where in the world you got that dagger, or are you going to leave me guessing?” he asked.

She breathed a laugh, her black lashes resting on her cheeks as she relaxed into his touch. Sixteen years. Sixteen years he had known her, and yet Adelaide of Haravelle never ceased to surprise him. And terrify him.

“Mother gave it to me when we were in Chesedelle. She said it was no good for a queen to be unarmed. Or unskilled.”

“You learned to brandish a blade in our time in Haravelle?” he chuckled, unable to resist pressing a kiss to her bare, oil-slicked shoulder.

“No. But I did learn a few tricks on exactly where to stick it should the need arise.”

“I see,” he said. “And you never thought to tell me?”

She cocked her head to one side, meeting his eyes. “Would you have approved?”

“Absolutely not,” he said.

She kissed him soundly and with so much passion that Ferryl’s interest in his wife’s weapon-wielding soon began to wane.

“Which is why I didn’t tell you,” she said when at last she took her lips from his.

“Adelaide, I will protect you.”

“I know, Ferryl. But you may not always be able to.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “You’re not allowed to leave my side.”

“If you think that now that I’m your wife you’re going to put me in a cage and pull me out to pet me now and then, you married the wrong woman.”

He laughed, pulling her hair down and running his fingers through it. “There is no cage that could hold you, my love. Or I would have already tried.”

She turned, resting her chin on her arms where they perched on the side of the tub.

“Ferryl, I know you’re joking. But I also know that if you could, you would hide me away from the world until all this business with Midvar is over.”

He looked down, fiddling with the thread of her washcloth, knowing it was true, knowing she was right. The woman saw straight through him. She always had.

She drew his attention back to her, running her fingers through his hair. “We face war, my love. You cannot protect me from everything.”

“I can try, can’t I?”

“Providence has brought us both this far. Do not take the credit from him so soon.”

He pressed his brow to hers, the steam from her bath billowing around them both. “Are you always right about everything?”

“Yes,” she said.

He kissed her once, swiftly, reaching so that he might lift her out of the tub. The water sloshed around her, dousing his gauzy white shirt and breeches. But he did not care. Holding his wife to his chest like a newborn babe, he carried her out of the privy and into their tiny attached bedchamber, laying her down on the paltry excuse for a bed.

He climbed over her, devouring the sight of her beneath him as he said, “Well, you were certainly right about one thing.”

“And what is that?” she asked, a smile threatening her mouth as he moved to remove his sodden clothes.

“It is good for a queen to be armed,” he said, settling himself over her once more. He bent and pressed a kiss to her neck, still slick from her bath. “It gives her people peace of mind,” he said as he let his lips make their way down, down, down… “It gives her husband peace of mind,” he went on. When she let out a little breath of delight, he smiled against her skin and continued his exploration. “And it is certainly a turn on.”

“You, husband, are hopeless,” she said, and he could hear the smile in her voice as he moved to worship the queen of Navah.

###

© 2019 The Parallax by Morgan G Farris. All rights reserved. If you paste any part of this somewhere on the internet, please tag/credit me.

Chapter III

Duchess Delaney Dupree stood before the edge of the gardens at Benalle Palace—before the edge of the world, it seemed—letting the ocean winds whip her hair around her face, letting the endless waters, the pounding waves soothe as the dawn approached. The cliff-side garden nestled in the heart of the bow-shaped castle had become a favorite retreat. To escape. To think. No one really visited it much either, which she didn’t understand, considering the breathtaking views and lush flora. But while she would never understand the ignorance of such beauty by the court at Benalle, nor did she complain as she stood alone on the cliff’s edge, watching the sky brighten from gray to purple, from purple to the palest pink. She closed her eyes, willing herself to breathe deeply, the briny tang of the air like a tonic to her churning stomach.

But whatever relief it offered from the insufferable nausea she had had for weeks, it did nothing to ease the twist in her gut from the conversation she had just had with her father.

“Get yourself together,” he had snapped, barging into her chambers this morning without so much as a preamble. “You’re acting aloof and disinterested. Your little performance last night was abominable. Leaving early from your wedding feast? You had better thank the gods that the prince left early too or else you would be hanging from the gallows this morning.”

“Father, I don’t feel well,” she tried to protest. For it was true. She had been sick to her stomach for almost two weeks. “I do apologize. I—”

“I don’t want to hear excuses. You’re marrying the crown prince of Navah. It’s about time you stop acting like a selfish, spoiled cow.”

Her father had turned on his heel and marched off without so much as a good day, and Delaney stood alone in the foyer of her chambers, wishing she had a different life. Wishing she had a different father, anyway. She hadn’t asked for this. It wasn’t in her plans to be shipped to this gods-forsaken kingdom to be married off like chattel.

But she had been shipped off anyway, forced to leave behind her life in Midvar and her beloved little sisters—the only piece of her mother she had left—without a second thought. It didn’t matter what she had wanted. It didn’t matter what she had thought. All that mattered was that she was of marrying age, eligible, and a prosperous match for both her kingdom and Navah.

Prosperous, indeed.

Never mind their kingdoms had been sworn enemies for a millennium. Never mind there was no chance in Sheol that this marriage would be anything more than a sham, if they even married at all.

For indeed, today was her wedding day. And while Ferryl had surprised her—no, shocked her, really—when he visited her chambers last night, when he poured himself onto her, touching, kissing, holding her with a need that had set her blood to boiling, the shock had been nothing compared to the moment he suddenly pulled away, a look in his eyes of devastation, of complete loss. For one moment she had thought he wanted her as much as she was beginning to think she wanted him.

And then he had just left.

No explanation, no apologies. The crown prince of Navah had just kissed her and disappeared. And she wasn’t sure if she could face him today.

Their wedding day.

She wrapped her arms around her waist and squeezed tightly, breathing deeply again, willing away the tears that were threatening to fall.

What about her life? What about what she wanted?

Apparently, it didn’t matter. Not only did it not matter to her father, or her uncle—His Insufferable Majesty King Derrick of Midvar—it apparently didn’t matter to Ferryl, either. Or Ravid.

Ravid, who had followed her here to Navah, who had schemed with her, made promises to her. Ravid who had loved her. Yes, for a little while, she would have sworn he loved her. But he had apparently forgotten all of that.

Like a phantom, Ravid came and went through her life as he pleased these days, visiting her chambers little, speaking with her even less. For every bit of fun and laughter they shared in their years in Midvar, they shared equal silence and avoidance now.

Maybe there was a time when she would have said she loved him. But now—now, she wasn’t so sure. While Ravid had always showered her with affection, he hadn’t exactly been a friend. But Ferryl had. Ferryl had been her friend, had been unexpectedly kind and warm. And the way he kissed her…

But she had been wrong. Terribly, terribly wrong. Wrong about Ferryl. Wrong about Ravid. Wrong about too many things.

Despite herself, a tear slipped down her cheek. She quickly wiped it away, staring across the quiet waters, the endless void before her.

The sound of footsteps crunching in the gravel tore her from her thoughts, and she peered over her shoulder, the winds whipping her hair wildly about her face, to see Michael—the palace guard—strolling towards her with a careful grace, which could only mean one thing.

Of course.

She wondered what bad news the guard was harboring.

“Your Grace,” said Michael with a smile. And not an apologetic one, either. Despite the caution with which he had approached her, it was…it was delight in his eyes. “What are you doing up so early?”

The rising sun glinted on the pommel of his sword, his black and white uniform crisp and perfectly-tailored to what was surely a beautifully-sculpted form, if the broadness of his shoulders, the strong column of his neck, and girth of his arms were any indication. She tore her eyes from his body only to be transfixed by the shock of silver in his eyes, illuminated all the more by the piercing rays of the early morning sun…and the kindness she found there.

“Are you all right?” he smiled, and she realized with no small amount of horror that she had forgotten to answer his previous question. Whatever it had been.

“I’m fine,” she said, lying for the sake of sparing him the gory details of the stomach issues that wouldn’t end. Another wave of nausea swept over her, and she turned back towards those glorious ocean breezes.

Michael stepped closer—close enough that their shoulders almost brushed. Almost. She cut her eyes to him as he stood beside her, staring at the ocean before them. His glossy chestnut brown hair—like sunshine and earth and honey—tossed wildly in the winds. He looked much like the crown prince in many ways—that signature Navarian tan, those high cheekbones. But Michael had a ruggedness about him that no prince or nobleman she had ever known possessed. Forged. Like a blade. Like the steel silver of his piercing eyes.

Nausea ebbed at her again, waves lapping at her feet. She bit back a grimace.

“Are you sure?” he asked, and she wondered about his keen observation of her health and wellbeing. Then again, he was a palace guard. Paying attention to every detail was his job, not a kindness. She merely nodded.

Michael stood wordlessly by her side, his hands clasped behind his back as he, too took in the sunrise as it spilled over the ocean, staining the waters with violent shades of gold and pink, silver and red.

Why was he here?

“Are you on duty?” she asked, shattering the blessed silence.

“Hmm?” he asked, as if robbed from a daze. “Oh, no. I’m off rotation until tonight’s festivities.”

Until the wedding, he meant. She stifled the urge to make some baiting comment about the likelihood of said festivities—not after the way Ferryl had fled from her last night. “Do you ever not wear your uniform, then?”

He faced her, a grin threatening his mouth. “Do I offend, my lady?”

“My lady. Your Grace. Such formalities. I thought I asked you to call me by my name.” Gods, she was snappy this morning. And she didn’t mean to be, but—

He chuckled. “I’m sorry, Delaney. Old habits, and all of that.”

She wasn’t sure whether to laugh or roll her eyes. She opted to look back at the ocean instead. “You haven’t answered my question.”

“What question?” She could hear the mirth in his voice. Was something funny? She resisted the urge to bare her teeth at him for being so stupidly chipper at such an ungodly hour.

“I never see you in anything but that old thing,” she said, gesturing to his uniform. “You said you’re off duty. Don’t you have regular clothes?”

She felt more than saw his grin. “I do. I suppose I prefer to stay in uniform. Just in case.”

“In case of what?”

“In case I am needed.” Needed for his sword, he meant. Because if nothing else, Michael was loyal to his kingdom, even to a fault. She had observed his friendship with the crown prince in her time here—their quiet conversations in the corridors, their card-playing and wine-drinking into the wee hours of the morning. But she had also observed that Michael, perhaps above all other guards in the palace, was loyal. Dedicated. A servant to Crown and country. And he thrived on such loyalty.

Which begged the question… “What are you doing here?”

She immediately regretted the question, the way it sounded. She hadn’t meant to be so abrupt, but if the prince had sent the guard here to spy…

“I can leave if you want. I didn’t realize my presence would bother you.”

She might have told him good riddance, might have let him walk away if it weren’t for the hint of hurt she could have sworn she heard in his voice. As if…as if he had chosen to be here, to come stand by her. It was that thought alone that had her recklessly grabbing him by the elbow as he moved to walk away.

“It doesn’t bother me,” she said when he turned to face her. “I’m… I’m glad you’re here.” And she realized she was. In some strange way, Michael, of all people, had become something of a friend. Perhaps it was the fact that he had held her hair back as she had vomited her guts up a few weeks ago. Perhaps it was the fact that he always spoke to her with such kindness. Perhaps it was that wherever she was, he always seemed to be there, too.

Maybe…maybe the crown prince was having Michael keep an eye on her.

Or maybe Michael just wanted a friend, too.

He returned to her side, and she didn’t fail to notice that it was a little closer this time, their shoulders brushing. And her skin—gods, it was as if her skin came alive at that whisper of a touch. So she leaned slightly away, just because she was a stupid fool. Everything that had happened thus far only proved it. No need to drag another man into the idiocy that was her life. And certainly not Michael, even if it seemed like his offer of friendship might actually be genuine. No, she would not stand close enough to let her shoulder brush his, to let her stupid, foolish mind wander down paths it had no business going.

“Any word about tonight?” he asked. The question suddenly reminded her of last night. Of emerging into the ballroom for First Feast, observing the waiting crowd…and being taken aback by the look on Michael’s face as she stood on Ferryl’s arm.

Had it been disappointment?

And why?

Despite herself, she turned to see his face, to see if it held any of the same disappointment. But it was cool disinterest she found instead. She quickly faced the ocean when she sensed him turning to meet her stare. But then she registered the question he had asked. And the strangeness of it.

“What do you mean any word?”

“The prince. Has he said anything?”

Gods. Oh gods. Had Ferryl told Michael about their kiss? Or his disgust with it? Heat flooded her cheeks. And nausea. Oh gods, the nausea.

“Delaney,” Michael said, his hand suddenly at the small of her back. Warm. Steady. Calming. “Let me take you to Mary.”

“No. It’s fine, it’s…”

“I beg your pardon, but you’re not fine. You’ve been ill for a while. You should see the healer. Let her help you.”

She shook her head as she covered her mouth with her hand. “No, no. It’s fine. What did you mean about tonight? Has Ferryl told you something? Does he not wish to marry me?”

“He hasn’t spoken to you? I thought maybe that’s why you were out here so early,” Michael said, his hand still at her back. She resisted the urge to lean into his steady touch, instead shaking her head as she met his eyes once more. There it was again. Disappointment.

“Delaney, I—” His other hand found the back of his neck, and he looked to the ground as he fussed with his hair. She got the distinct sense that he wanted to tell her something. Something he had no right to tell her.

To her eternal shock, he told her anyway.

“It’s Elizabeth, Delaney. She…”

“Elizabeth? What about her?” she asked, her heart pounding in her throat.

He met her eyes again, and oh gods, that kindness. It was mixed with regret. And worry. She would have had half a mind to console him if she hadn’t suspected that he was about to deliver news that would require her own consolation.

“She’s back, Delaney. She returned in the middle of the night.”

Elizabeth. The woman Ferryl loved. The woman he had searched for, that he only stopped searching for once he thought she was dead. She apparently wasn’t dead. She was apparently very much alive. And back.

Which meant that the wedding—

“Are you all right, Delaney?”

“I’m fine,” she managed, holding her hands to her stomach as if somehow she could coax the nausea, the stupid, childish panic to subside. Breathe. It was becoming hard to breathe.

“Please, let me help you to Mary,” he said, turning her, resting his arm at her waist as he took her other elbow that he might guide her back through the gardens.

She attempted a lighthearted laugh, firmly planting herself in place. “I’m fine, Michael, truly.”

“Forgive me, but it is obvious you are not. You have been ill for some weeks now, haven’t you?”

She nodded despite herself, a cold sweat beading on her brow.

“Delaney,” he said, and she met his eyes at the way her name sounded coming from his mouth, taken aback by the concern in his voice. “I shouldn’t have told you. I—I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you. Please…please just go and see her. I should like to take you to her now, if you will.”

“I’m fine, Michael. It’s just a bit of a stomach malady. Nothing to worry about.” Delaney tried to turn and walk away, for if she didn’t leave soon, she wasn’t sure if she could contain herself. Vomit. She was going to vomit. Was she nauseous because she was ill? Or because she was broken-hearted? And why should she be broken-hearted about a man who never loved her anyway? Another wave of nausea rose, this one burning her throat with bile. Michael caught her by the elbow, his grip firm but gentle as he stepped in front of her. He caught her by the chin and tilted her face to meet his.

“You’re going, Delaney. I won’t take no for an answer.”

Maybe it was the look on his face—the sweet concern, the kindness. Maybe it was the air of authority with which he spoke, the firm but gentle reprimand for daring to ignore his wishes. Or maybe it was just those silver eyes she couldn’t avoid. Whatever it was, she found herself nodding her head and letting him walk her to the infirmary, reminding herself that there was nothing wrong with leaning into his embrace. He was simply doing his duty, after all.

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Chapter II

It was by a feather-light touch that he had awoken. Like a flutter of wings against his cheek, the intoxicating scent of lavender whirling about him as he opened his eyes and understood it hadn’t been a dream.

She was alive. Elizabeth was alive. And she had kissed him good morning from the place where she had slept beside him. His back barked in protest as he shifted from his seated position on the floor of her cottage, feeling as if he had been thoroughly beaten from where the settee had apparently dug in all night. Prince Ferryl hadn’t even remembered falling asleep. He had only remembered that kiss of hers—the one that had shifted the entirety of the firmament, had changed his whole world—and the ensuing conversation. Of dreams forgotten and remembered once more, of a purloined past that had been mercifully restored. He couldn’t recall when that conversation had drifted into dreamless sleep as they sat arm in arm against the settee on the floor of her small sitting room. The fire that had burned brightly in the hearth only a few hours ago had died to nothing more than embers.

But he didn’t really care when they had fallen asleep, exactly. For she was beside him, waking as she stretched her lithe limbs, the feel of her curves in his arms a welcome, beautiful distraction. He buried his face in her neck in response.

“Good morning to you, too,” she said as she tilted her head back, giving him better access. He obliged her by peppering kisses along her honeyed skin.

Providence, this woman, this love of his life.

She was alive. And she was back.

He would never let her go again.

His lips found their way to her mouth, and he claimed her with a savagery that could only come from loving and missing one person for so long. She ran her hands through his hair and he took no small amount of satisfaction from the little groan that escaped her as he pulled her onto his lap.

“I wonder if you have any idea how much I love you, my Lizybet,” he said onto her skin, his lips migrating down her cheek and neck to that inviting place where it met her shoulder.

“An inkling,” she said, with a smile in her voice.

Lavender encircled him once more, threatening to intoxicate him into oblivion. Heavens above, that scent. He had loved it for years. He knew it, because he remembered it, thanks to the magic that found him with her kiss last night. But while he knew the scent, he had never thought to ask why she seemed to wear it so often.

“Why is it that you always smell of lavender, my love?” he asked as he dared to pull aside the shoulder of her dress to kiss the alabaster skin he found there.

She didn’t immediately answer. And while he might have remained distracted by the velvet softness of her shoulder, he found himself slightly curious as to her silence.

“My love?” he asked, lifting his head to meet her eyes. It was heat that kissed her cheeks. A grin threatened his mouth.

She fussed with a toggle on his jerkin, not daring to meet his eyes. “It’s embarrassing, Ferryl.”

“Embarrassing?” he asked, lifting her chin.

She bit her lip, likely knowing the effect such a thing had on him. But he was as stubborn as she was. Perhaps more. So he merely draped his arms around her waist and waited.

She sighed in resignation, pursing a smile. “For my sixteenth birthday, Mary gave me a vial of lavender water, but I thought it was too fine a gift for a servant, so I wouldn’t wear it. I put it away, thinking such things should only belong to someone important.”

Her cheeks heated once more, and he didn’t resist the urge to kiss them as she continued. “But then one day I decided…I wanted to know, you see, what it might be like…” She finally dared to meet his eyes as she said, “I knew I was falling in love with you, Ferryl. And I wanted to pretend—just for one moment—I wanted to know what it might be like…to be your princess.”

Rose colored not only her cheeks but her neck and her décolletage, but Ferryl did not laugh at her, did not poke fun.

“So I washed my hair with the lavender water and put on my best dress that day. And you…”
Oh, he remembered. He remembered that day, indeed. She had walked to the stables, her hair falling in soft, humid curls about her shoulders, her dress so simple and yet so invitingly fitted to her slender waist…

“If I recall, I think I told you that you smelled like an angel,” he said, laughing at his adolescent attempt at flirtation. He had wanted to tell her that she was the most beautiful creature he had ever beheld, too. But even knowing the closeness they shared—had always shared—the thought of revealing his feelings for her had terrified him then. So he had opted to flirt instead.

Apparently it had worked.

Elizabeth bit her lip again, and so he tilted her chin and claimed her lips once more.

“That was the first time I knew that I wanted you. Not just that I loved being with you—I had known that for years,” he said. “But that was the first time I knew that I wanted to taste those lips of yours.”

“You didn’t, though.”

No, he hadn’t kissed her that day. It had taken him nearly a year to get the courage to kiss her. But by the time he had, he understood that he had been falling for her—slowly, surely, steadily, roots to a mighty oak—for all of that time. And all the years they had known each other.

“I kissed you, my love, when I knew for certain that I would never kiss another.”

For a blinding moment, guilt flashed down his spine. For he had kissed another: Delaney—the Midvarish duchess to whom he was currently, inconveniently betrothed. He had kissed her only last night.

But not because he had loved her—not the way he loved Elizabeth. He had kissed Delaney because he had needed her. Needed her to help him feel something again instead of the numbness that had plagued him from the moment he had thought Elizabeth to be dead.

But she wasn’t dead. Elizabeth was alive. Alive and in his arms, looking at him for all the world as if she too had known she would never—could never—love another.

Providence above, should he tell her that he had kissed another?

“Ferryl?” she asked, her hand on his cheek, looking at him with that way she had of knowing him down to very marrow of his bones. Guilt nipped at his soul once more as he opted to press his brow to hers.

“You’ve always been my princess, Lizybet,” he said, stroking a hand down her hair. “And soon, the world shall know it.”

“Today is your wedding day, Ferryl,” she said with a hint of reprimand.

“Yes, and that is as good a reminder as any that I should get back to the castle and inform my parents of my change in bride.”

She chuckled a bit sardonically. “If only it were that simple.”

“It will be,” he said, making to stand, offering her his hand that he might help her stand as well. “I will settle for nothing less.” Easy words. Such easy words when he knew that when it came to his mother, nothing was ever simple.

There was skepticism in her eyes, which he knew he would find. His Lizybet was nothing if not practical. But behind that skepticism, a whisper of longing. It was the sight of that longing that had him pulling her to him once more.

“Trust me, Lizybet. Nothing will stand in our way this time.”

A coughing fit momentarily stole her attention from him, and when she looked back, that longing had melted into worry and dread.

Because her father was ill. Irrevocably ill. And she had arrived last night only to discover a damning truth—Bedell was dying.

Another cough, this one deeper, more strained, and Elizabeth didn’t hesitate to tear across the small space to the adjoining bedchamber where her father had been sleeping.

Ferryl followed her, thinking he could delay the dreaded conversation with his parents—a conversation that would likely change much more than just the person he would marry. Yes, he could delay that conversation just a little while, if only to comfort the woman he loved at her dying father’s bedside.

###

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Chapter I

Present Day

Something like a tidal wave of relief washed over General Titus Melamed, retired Commander of the Navarian armies, as he crested the rolling hills that surrounded his land. His home. It had been a grueling journey across the plains that separated Navah from the north of Midvar. A month of dingy inns and sleepless nights. A month of bread too dry and wine too sour. A month of nothing on his mind but starting over.

His horse crested the last hill that separated the wilderness from his land—the land he had inherited at the too-young age of eighteen. His parents had died of the sickness that had spread too quickly through the land, leaving him with nothing but responsibilities. No wonder he had sold his soul to King Derrick. To fight. To win. He had nothing else and wanted nothing else.

The moment his foot hit the earth beneath him upon dismounting his trusted steed, he fell to his knees, breathing deeply, releasing a solemn tear.

He picked up a fistful of dirt, the grit and pebbles grinding against his hand as he let it escape, floating on the breeze like a phantom. The familiar air smelled of summer and sun, cypress and mountain cedar, persimmon and pomegranate. The Midvarish skies shone with lazy vanilla light, the dusk slowly showing her splendor, dancing in a riot of pinks and coppers like a fire waiting to consume the day with one glorious final stand.

Home.

The manor was just as he remembered. Moderately-sized. Nothing too ostentatious, but certainly no shack or cottage. “Just right,” Penelope had always called it. The gray stones were covered in moss and lichens, with vines climbing up the walls like spindly green arms reaching for the realm of the gods.
Inviting, that’s what it was. Like a long-lost friend.

She must have caught sight of him before he saw her, for after his eyes had finished surveying the house, the land, he spotted his wife, standing in the front door, looking directly at him. He was too far away to read her expression, but she stood stock-still—a monument to bygone times.

No matter how glad he was to be back, he would never know if she shared in his gladness until he faced her. Would she forgive all those years of neglect? Of pushing her aside for the king’s duties? Would she ever trust him?

Perhaps the most worrisome question of all—would all of his sins come back to haunt him? How would the gods make him pay for his treachery?

The questions weighed heavier and heavier with each step he took to the house, to her, to his future. The future that he had clung to like a rock in storm. The future that had gotten him through the last few months—a light in the darkness. The future that suddenly seemed full of shadows and doubt.

She, too, began to walk to him. Slowly, tentatively. Every step closer tore at him in a way he hadn’t expected.
Penelope. Wife or enemy?

Yes, she had stayed. But why? Out of hope? Or spite?

It might have been an eternity before they reached each other. An eternity of steps crunching across the expanse of summer grasses between them. Fitting, he thought, that his final steps toward her should feel like dragging an anvil behind him, the weight of nearly twenty years of regret and stupidity a vice that would surely determine his fate.

He froze, taking her in. Her long auburn hair pulled into an intricate chignon at the nape of her neck. Her gown falling around her like a field of poppies. There was a little more silver at her temples than he had remembered. Then again, there was a lot more silver in his hair these days.

Beautiful, that’s what she was. Stunning. A shooting star streaking a dusky summer sky.

“You’re really here,” she said so quietly he almost missed it.

Her smile was tentative but true. And it was hope—hope that coursed through his veins like a summer wildfire. So he reached for her hand. “I missed you.”

She didn’t quite return the eagerness of his grip, her hand hardly clasping his. But he held on anyway.

“You look tired,” she said.

He touched the beard that had grown on his face since leaving Navah and looked down to his dirty clothes and mud-caked boots. He chuckled. “I think you’re being generous.”

She breathed a soft laugh, looking down to their clasped hands. When she finally met his eyes again, there was silver lining hers. So Titus threw caution to the wind and took his wife in his arms, holding her close. To his surprise, she returned the embrace, her breath warm on his neck.

“I missed you, too,” she whispered.

He breathed deeply, relaxing at the feel of her in his arms, taking in her sweet scent, the way her stray auburn tendrils tickled his neck in the breeze. “It’s been too long.”

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Prologue

Fifteen Years Ago

Myron was late. Damned late. And these godsforsaken mountains were freezing, even though it was spring. The snow had melted for the most part, but patches of it remained scattered across the mountain, leaving the loamy forest floor a patchwork of soggy grass, crumbling dirt, and dirty snow.

Titus rubbed his hands together, clinging to the paltry heat that the friction caused, the kidskin gloves a pathetic ward against this icy wintry air. Dark. It was so dark that it was hard to see much more than the hands in front of his face. And he did not dare risk a fire as he waited. And waited. And waited for Captain Myron to return to their designated, clandestine meeting place.

The Navarian Commander looked up to the inky skies through the ceiling of conifers and aspens, marveling at just how bright the stars were here on the side of the mountain. Brighter than normal, somehow. Like he was closer to the gods.

But Titus knew that the gods paid no attention to him. They never had. And judging by the fact that Myron was at least an hour late, the gods very well might be smiting him, just for the Sheol of it.
Not that he didn’t deserve it.

The distant clomp of horses’ hooves tore his attention from the glittering skies, and he squinted to make out any sign of whoever was approaching.
Please let it be Myron.

A bronze Midvarish medallion glinted in the starlight—Myron’s horse. Thank the gods. Titus nearly cried out in relief, but silence was key tonight. Silence and secrecy, the two currencies of Titus’s whole godsdamned life.

“Where have you been?” Titus growled as Myron dismounted his dapple mare.

“We were delayed,” he said, carrying a limp bundle in his meaty arms.

“I take it you got one,” Titus said, stepping across the space between them, reaching out for the cadaver sprawled in the captain’s arms.

“The boys found several for you to choose from,” Myron said, making to hand over the child. “But they took such a damned long time about it, I just chose one for you and brought her as quickly as I could.”

Titus took hold of the bundle of ebony hair and dirty nightgown, taking just a moment to steal a glimpse of the child. A little girl.

A breathing little girl.

“What in Sheol is this?” Titus barked. Stirring. Godsdamnit, she was stirring!

“The tincture is wearing off,” said Myron casually. “You’ll want to find some more of it if you want to keep her quiet. She was the quietest of them, but gods, Titus, little girls? What in Sheol are you planning to do with them?”

“Not them. One. I said I needed one,” Titus barked, the weight of the child in his arms suddenly unbearable. “A dead one!” he added.

“What?” asked Myron, furrowing his brow. “You never said that.”

“Yes, I did!” Titus barked.

“You damn well did not! You just said to bring a little girl. You never specified that she needed to be dead!”

The girl stirred in his arms, her eyes fluttering. Tiny. She was so godsdamned tiny. He hadn’t expected that.

“Shit, Myron! What am I supposed to do with her?” Titus asked, the panic welling.
Myron reached to his belt, pulling out a dagger.

And in the matter of a heartbeat—one single heartbeat—Captain Myron slit the throat of the little girl in Titus’s arms. Blood, warm and thick, glistening in the moonlight, poured down her neck, across Titus’s arms. Bile burned in his throat as he watched the light leave her heavy eyes, as he felt her go even more limp in his arms.

He looked up to Myron, reeling from the shock. “What. In. Sheol. Is. Wrong. With. You,” he growled.
Myron snorted a laugh. “You’ve gone soft, Titus. You’ve been working for that damned Navarian king too long. Grow some balls and finish your job—whatever the Sheol it is.”

Rage. Rage and disgust and downright nausea roiled within him. It took a considerable amount of effort not to lunge for his sword and gut the haughty bastard. But that would require putting down the girl, and it just didn’t feel…right.

Myron turned his back, slinging a foot into the stirrup of his horse, a useless smirk on his drawn mouth. “Good luck, commander,” he purred. “The gods know you’ll need it.”

And then Myron was off, flinging himself onto his trusted horse and turning back toward the direction he had come in one fluid movement, leaving Titus standing dumbfounded in the mountain forest, holding a dead little girl in his arms.

It took him a moment to gather his thoughts and figure out what in Sheol to do. Her warm blood still dribbled down his arm, and blinding guilt nearly crushed him. He had meant for them to bring a dead child. A dead one. The whole point had been to avoid this very situation. Not that Myron needed to know that.

Titus knelt on the ground, setting down the tiny little girl as carefully and gingerly as if she were his own. He took off his cloak, the black wool merging with the midnight and darkness, the Navarian seal expertly embroidered on the collar catching starlight. He laid it across the girl, wrapping her still-warm, blood-soaked body in it before scooping her into his arms again. The only warmth he could offer her. The last warmth she would ever know.

He flung her over his shoulder, grunting as he mounted his own horse, setting off down the mountain, into the foggy mist below, knowing damn well that he just added murder to a very long list of the reasons why Titus Melamed would burn in Sheol.

###

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The Promised One :: Chapter I

It had been love—deep, abiding, earth-shattering love—the kind about which færytales are written and wars are fought.

So she could think of no logical reason why he could not remember it. Or her. In fact, she could only gape as she watched him ride, the morning sun casting buttery shafts of light across his back and through his unruly golden locks as he galloped away, growing smaller and smaller with each clomp of the horse’s hooves.

She could think of no logical reason why the crown prince did not remember her, at all.

It had been a strange morning, to be sure. Had anyone told Elizabeth that she would wake up and tend to her duties in the stables, only to find that her dearest friend in all the world—a boy she had grown up with on the grounds at Benalle Palace, the man she had fallen in love with over the course of those years—suddenly had no earthly idea who she was, she might have scoffed and said such things only happen in stories. Færytales. Fables.

Not reality.

But here she was, staring off into the golden plains of the Navarian countryside, watching her beloved ride away like a stranger.

A strange morning, indeed.

Unsettling, really. No, not unsettling. Crushing. It was crushing dread that bloomed in the pit of her stomach.

What had happened to him?

Crown Prince Ferryl, heir of Navah, had arrived at the stables like he always had every morning from the time they were children. And he had headed straight for his blood bay stallion, Erel, just as he always had. To ride. To greet the morning with a race, with a trek to the forest, to start his morning off with his Lizybet. Just as he always had. Every morning from the time they were children.

But unlike every other morning in her memory, this morning, Ferryl had not greeted his Lizybet with a cheerful salutation. Or a warm embrace. Or by pulling her into his arms and kissing her soundly—as had become his habit of late.

No, this morning, Ferryl had merely spoken to her as if he had never met her before.

“What’s this, then?” Elizabeth had asked, her back to the prince as she fussed with a bucket of oats in the shadows of the stables, surprised that Ferryl hadn’t already snaked his arms around her, planted his lips at her neck, whispered little sonnets of love and need and desire. A flirt, that’s what he was. He had always been a shameless flirt. “You make me meet you out here at the crack of dawn and don’t even have the decency to greet me with a good morning?”

Yes, Elizabeth had always spoken to the crown prince with a healthy measure nonchalance. And cheek. Such is the nature of the relationship between a prince and a servant who had known each other since they were young children.

“I beg your pardon?” Ferryl had asked.

A puffed laugh and then, “You’re in a silly mood this morning, Ferryl. Addled from lack of sleep, is it?” She grinned, biting back a smile as she kept her back to him. The heavens knew she certainly hadn’t slept much last night, for yesterday had been…like a dream. So she waited…waited for the quip, the punch line that would not come.

“My lady, I’m afraid you must have me confused with someone else. As it is though, I must get my steed saddled. I am expected in the city this morning.”

“The city?” she asked, whirling to finally face him. “But I thought—” It was only then that she had begun to understand. At least as far as she could understand. Something…something was fundamentally different about Ferryl.

His eyes, usually so violently blue as to make a sapphire pale in comparison, were hazy, cloudy. Like a foggy autumn dawn, like the mists settling over the ocean. And in his countenance she did not find the familiarity that a decade and a half of friendship could afford. No, in his countenance she found a stranger.

She swallowed back the barrage of retorts she had thought up and heard herself instead say, “The city. Of course, Ferryl.”

It was then that a grin found his sensuous mouth. And in a gesture so familiar, he pushed his hand through the messy thatch of blonde hair spilling on his brow. For a blessed moment, relief tapped on her soul. Relief at the sight of that effortless smile, that familiar gesture. But that fledgling little bud of relief was short-lived, dying a sudden death when he said, “Do you always address your superiors in such a manner, then?”

She found she had no retort and instead stared with mouth agape as he continued. “Indeed, it would not bother me, but seeing as you are new here, ah, what did you say your name was?”

“Lizy—I mean, Elizabeth,” she stammered. “My name is Elizabeth.”

A smile. A smile that could melt chocolate, damn him. He slipped his hands in his pockets.

“Well then, Mistress Elizabeth, seeing as you are new here, I feel that I should inform you that while it might not bother me to be called by my given name, were you to make such a mistake around my mother, I’m afraid the consequences might not be so pleasant.”

“Of course, Your Highness,” she managed, the title strange, foreign on her tongue. She could not ever remember a time when Ferryl had insisted she use such a formality.

With a tremble in her hands, she made her way to the wall of saddles that she might retrieve Ferryl’s. Never mind that she had never once had to saddle his horse for him considering he had always insisted on doing it himself. Never mind that she couldn’t have lifted said saddle with her scrawny arms if her life depended on it. She made her way to the saddle wall anyway, acting on instinct like…well, like a stable hand. For while she might have been a stable hand in name, she knew no more about the beasts than Ferryl apparently knew about her at the moment.

Ferryl, still a gentleman even when a stranger, noticed her ineptitude and quickly came to her aid.

His nearness was simultaneously unsettling and so achingly familiar that she had to close her eyes for a moment just to breathe. She had loved him for so long, so many years, that now, this unfamiliarity was…well, it was gut-wrenching, to say the least. She had half a mind to just grab him by his jerkin and kiss the sense back into—

“Are you alright, Mistress Elizabeth?” he asked. It was only then that she realized she was standing before the saddles. Eyes closed. Just…breathing. Awkward behavior for a stable hand, to be sure.

“Uh, yes. I’m fine. I—”

“Here,” he said, making to retrieve his own saddle, his solid arms pulling taut his gauzy white shirtsleeve. She found she could not tear her eyes from him, not even as his deft hands strapped the heavy leather onto the back of the sleek stallion, not even when he finally met her eyes again.

“I’ll be off, then. It was a pleasure to meet you, Elizabeth.”

She couldn’t remember what a proper response should be. Couldn’t think past the desire to yell, to cry What in all the realms of Sheol is wrong with you?

Oblivious to her inner turmoil, Ferryl mounted Erel and turned that he might ride out of the stables and into the sunrise with nothing more than a nod of his head and a lingering chuckle on his mouth.

And then he was gone, leaving nothing but a thousand screaming questions in his wake.