Disclaimer: this story is darker than later stories.
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The pill tasted no different than any other I had ever taken. I swallowed it, a flutter in my stomach as I prepared for the unknown. In a daze I wandered back out to the dining room.
The tables were set for a feast which wouldn’t come, now that Aggie had challenged Livia. A row of knives and forks rested alongside each plate with unlit candles in a column down the center of white tablecloth.
The door opened and a figure entered. Livia. I eyed the closest knife on the table, a steak knife. Briefly I considered grabbing it, making a lunge. But there was no need to do that now. It was over.
I felt a heaviness in my temple, a drowsiness and cloudy feeling. Numbness.
Was this what dying felt like? I felt much like I had felt before. But was the drowsiness stronger? I blinked my eyes a few times, trying to feel for a new sensation, watching as Livia drew closer. I felt nausea, but knew it as the nausea I always felt when she was near.
I regretted that the last thing I’d see would be the hideous manticore before me. I hadn’t realized how ugly she was: her nose was too big, her eyes too far apart, her smile crooked.
“Well, I guess you will get a few days away,” Livia said. “Don’t think you won’t wind up right back where you were, do you understand? You are coming with me eventually.”
“We’ll see about that,” I said calmly, taking in deep breaths. Waiting.
“Why? You think your goblin whore can kill me?”
I shook my head. “Sadly, no. No one can kill you. You’ll survive us all.”
“And you’ll be right alongside me,” Livia said with a smirk.
“I wouldn’t count on that.”
“But I do,” Livia said. “There’s no escape. No one can kill you. Not even you.”
I blinked. I said nothing. If only you knew, I thought.
Livia laughed, her eyes glinting with cruelty. “I know all about your silly pills,” she answered, running a finger on my torn sleeve. “I even know where the other two are hidden. I thought you’d use that one on the wedding night, after I ‘found’ the other two and punished you. I’m disappointed you used it now.”
What she said didn’t really register for a moment. Then I realized to my horror I wasn’t going to die. The combat…In my mind’s eye I saw an image of a manticore standing over my tiny goblin. And her sword glinting…
“I’ll make sure Loudon keeps you alive…” Livia said, smiling. “You have to see the ‘fight’, after all, and then there is our wedding night. I have big plans…”
“No!” I repeated.
I panted, my heart pounding in my chest. I had to stop her. I had to save Aggie. I picked up the knife from the table and lunged for her.
She caught my arm, the blade a hair’s breadth from her face. I struggled, putting all my strength into the knife, but it was not enough.
Livia’s tail connected to my leg, tripping me, and I fell. My back slammed into the ground and the air left my lungs, and I gasped pitifully as Livia held her foot near my face, ready to kick me in the teeth.
“What is the meaning of this?!Valkyrie Hauden, are you alright?” Loudon asked
“I’m fine, just a bit of foreplay,” she said with a smile, but her eyes were furious as she flared down at me. “See you later, lover…”
She walked away as I took deep breaths. In my center I felt a deep chill. Aggie was going to die. I couldn’t save her.
Loudon stood over me with a sigh. He reached down and offered me his hand. I rose with a grimace. The back of my head ached.
“You are fortunate you didn’t kill her,” Loudon said, helping me up. “It would have gone badly for you.”
“It can’t get any worse,” I said.
Loudon laughed mirthlessly. “It can always get worse. I thought you’d seen enough to know that by now.”
He helped me sit, and looked at a chipped glass with a sigh.
“There was a time when I might have relished this,” Loudon said, straightening the tablecloth as servants cleaned the shattered plates. “Your mother knowing the anguish of a lost son…but God has a sense of humor. We are bound together. This business with Livia has soured. We shall have to address it.”
“Can you stop the fight?” I asked.
“The fight is the least of my worries,” he said. “On what grounds could I stop it?”
“The same grounds we used to kill two Kings,” I said.
“Given what that meant, I’m reluctant to do it any more,” Duke Loudon said. “Would you risk chaos? Warfare?”
“Well, I suppose you would. Sadly I don’t have the same fondness for your goblin tavern owner that you do. My main goal is peace at this point, Titus. You saw the war. You know how bad things got. Bastards though we may be, I want no more of it.”
“I’ll do my part to fix it. If that means going back quietly, I’ll do it. But Agatha…” I said. “Keeping her alive won’t cause a war. Please. Send her out of the city, or lock her up…”
“She would need to be locked up forever. If I banished her then Livia would hunt her, and Agatha would make herself known. This happens legally or illegally, I’m afraid, unless one of them dies.”
“I wish I had killed Livia, then,” I said.
“I would never entirely rule a goblin out,” Loudon said. “You know it’s the danuke that truly can’t stand the goblins, and insisted on all the laws to keep them out of banking. I’ve always guessed it was because they marked them as their biggest threat.”
“If that were true, why are they in gutters?”
“Well you could probably answer that better than me, but my impression is that they like them. I’ve dealt with goblin gangsters in my time. They are always formidable but never strive too far beyond a simple goal.”
Loudon’s study was a room that in general was better to stay out of. Deena had met with Aggie and I what felt like ages ago.
The past few days had, in spite of myself, been restful. Deena was with me constantly, never letting me out of her sight. Livia had let them know of my attempt at suicide, and they were keeping a close eye on me. Duke Loudon did not need me to die; he knew the ramifications of that.
Despite the watch, I wouldn’t try again. I accepted my life. Agatha was committed to her purpose, and I realized that perhaps her death was a punishment I was to bear, the final and worst of all.
And yet, my head had little hope of her victory, but in my heart – deep in it, in the place where the impossible is nothing compared to love- some part of me told me that Aggie would not let me suffer this fate. That I was hers, she was mine, and she would win, because some force above us all willed it.
But there was no reason for me to believe in this. I had seen war, and seen bad men win enough times to know no such force existed, or at least acted in our affairs in this life. God judged us in death, not in life.
I sat in the study, at Loudon’s left hand as Deena sat at his right.
The place I sat was where Viceroy Hauden would normally sit according to protocol, and he was clearly irritated that he was not there and that I was. He should have been frightened. My mother and Molly may not have been in the meeting, but they were
Livia and her mother were there as well, both the same ugly face and thin, athletic bodies. Livia was in her service uniform, her medals glinting proudly. They were here at Loudon’s insistence, the first phase of the reconciliation between our families.
Deena stared at Livia with disgust. She had, sadly despite my best efforts, seen my body, and had spent a few hours with Duke Loudon demanding Livia be arrested. He had managed to talk her down.
“What was supposed to be an easy alliance has become a crisis, all because of your carelessness,” Loudon said to the Viceroy. “How could you let your daughter do this?”
“I am in the room, my Lord,” Livia said. “You may address me.”
“I choose not to,” Loudon said, raising a hand. “I wish to talk to an adult, or to be more correct, the older dumb child. Why did you allow this, Hauden?”
Hauden’s nostrils flared. “The boy is hers; what was I to say?” He protested.
“That mistreating him would mean war.”
“What has happened to him is shameful,” Deena said.
“Are we to review the details of every relationship here?” Hauden asked. “I hear your Antonio has been made a horse on occasion by his wife.”
Loudon stared at the Viceroy for a moment, then shook his head. “I took you for a wiser man, Hauden.”
Hauden shrugged. “Not all relationships work out. Perhaps had our initial suggestion been accepted…”
“Is that what this is about?” Loudon said. “You think this makes it more likely?”
“My daughter would be hard pressed-“
“No,” Loudon said. “Never. Especially not now.”
Loudon leaned in to the Viceroy. “After this challenge de coeur, we shall have the wedding, and you shall return to the Far Isles,” he said.
“My deputy is currently governing in my stead,” Hauden replied. “I plan to return next year.”
“If you wish me to name your deputy as Viceroy, I shall,” Loudon said. “Otherwise your place is there, especially with this talk of a sphinx revolutionary. Your new Son-in-Law shall have the running of Hauden Manor.”
“And what of my daughter?” the Viceroy said. “Do you plan to send her to the Far Isles?”
“None,” Loudon said. He turned to my future wife. “Livia, you are to be named as envoy to the Crusade.”
Livia’s eye twitched.
“But I have served my term.”
“Indeed. And you serve still. The people will be pleased that our greatest hero in an age is fighting alongside Paladins and Angels.”
Livia’s nostril’s flared. “This is exile.”
“It is an honor,” Loudon replied. “Valkyries have always jumped at the chance to serve as envoys,” Loudon responded.
“And if I refuse?”
“I suppose that is your choice. But I would not be surprised if there are some who…question…your bravery.”
Livia laughed. “No one would believe such foolishness”
“The King would,” Loudon said. “I can assure you of that.”
At the Duke’s mention of the King, Livia looked like she might rise from her chair and attack him. I wondered how that might go: Livia was deadly, but she had to realize she would be cut to shreds in minutes. And then there was Mother beyond that. Fearsome as Livia could be, Mother would obliterate her.
“And I suppose my husband shall remain behind?” Livia asked, looking over at me.
“By all means, if you wish to bring him, he can visit his Aunt and Uncle.”
Deena laughed. “Please, say you’ll take him.”
“And what guarantee do I have that they will not move against me when I arrive? The Auberge dislike me because of…recent events.”
“Because I mean to keep the peace, Abbadon shall behave,” Loudon said, stressing the last syllable. “Your first tour shall be six months. We shall review your service then.”
“Based on what?”
“What the Realm needs, of course,” he said.
“Will I ever be returning home?”
She asked, her jaw clenched.
“I suspect a term away will encourage some…marital harmony,” Loudon said. “It can always occur again if it needs to.”
Livia stared at her parents for a moment.
“I shall…think on it.”
Loudon nodded. “Fair enough.”
She stood, and her parents stood with her.
“Is there anything else?” Livia asked.
“Yes,” Deena said. She pointed at Livia’s neck. “The key.”
Livia smiled bitterly, clutching “Have no fear. It is safe.”
I shrank into my chair, horrified by the conversation.
Duke Loudon saw me shrink backward. He cleared his throat and waved with his hand. “Fine. Go,” he said mercifully.
“But that’s-” Deena began.
“Nothing,” I said. “Just the reality of things.”
Livia smiled at me, and having won this small victory she exited the room with the same superior aura she always had.
“You should have let me get the key. Titus is-“
“Let us not go into detail,” Loudon said. “Naturally he will be…unrestrained…soon enough, when she is gone. For now let us save on any public mention of this.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I said.
I went back to my room and stared at the ceiling. My mother and sister arrived after a few hours.
“We didn’t know, Titus,” Mother said sadly. “If we did I’d never have allowed it.”
I sighed. “I know. I’m…I’m not mad at you. Anymore.”
The last word cut her, worse than had I raged at her in curses, and her eyes reddened.
“At least she’ll be gone,” Molly said. “It’s been arranged. Abbadon will post her to the front lines, then have the troops withdraw while she moves forward. Beasts will eat off her skin and what’s left will get a state funeral. You’ll get a golden sword and her pension.”
“And you’ll be free,” my mother said, holding my hand. “With Hauden Manor to come to you. After we arrange for a few bouts of ‘sickness’ for that cunt Viceroy and his wife…”
“We’ll crush them,” Molly said. “Everyone will know of it but none will say it.”
“Does Loudon know of all this?” I asked.
“He knows they signed their death warrant at that betrothal ceremony,” Mother said. “He’s not as stupid as the Viceroy is. He just expects us to do it quietly.”
“The Haudens miscalculated,” Molly said. “Most noble houses see second children as chattel or bargaining chips. They assumed we didn’t care about you enough to wage war, and doubtless Hauden feels he is protected against us.”
I nodded. This was best I could hope for given the circumstances. “The worst is yet to come, though.”
Molly and my mother shot each other looks. They knew what I meant.
“Your father went to talk to her,” my mother said.
“Father?” I asked, incredulous. The thoughts of him limping on his cane through a monster-heavy neighborhood seemed unlikely.
“He wanted to try to get her to withdraw. He wasn’t able to convince her to stop it.”
“There’s not much anybody can do,” Molly said. “She…she really loves you, and she won’t back down an inch.”
I sighed. “I wish I had never met her. She’d be safe, then.”
Aggie came to stay at Loudon manor the night before the battle. Strictly speaking by the customs of the challenge I was not allowed to see her – she was the challenger. Duke Loudon, however, was merciful, and allowed me the chance to talk her out of it.
She sat on the corner of the giant bed in the guest room, the tiny goblin girl who might be half my strength.
“Hey sweetie,” she said. She lifted her arms up when she saw me, beckoning me in.
I went to her and wrapped my arms around her waist. Her arms closed around my neck, and for a moment I felt strong and alive again. Complete.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
“I couldn’t do any different,” she said, kissing my cheek.
“You don’t need to do this, Aggie,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
“You won’t be fine,” Agatha said. “These Haudens aren’t morons. They wouldn’t treat you like this unless they wanted your mom to go crazy. They wanted the crown, not you, and they are still angling for it.”
I laughed for the first time in weeks. “The crown? That’s impossible,” I said.
Agatha shrugged. “You think that. They obviously don’t. You don’t realize how popular that bitch Livia is. Word on the street was she asked for the King first.”
“So? Loudon would never go for that. Besides, there is a marriage pact in place for the King.”
“Yeah, and everybody thinks it’s disgusting. The two are half siblings, and while people understand the whole two halves of the Royal family stuff, they hate the idea like poison. People love Livia. For like a thousand years, Kings have wed Human women only. Livia is so popular that lots of people didn’t care. You were a runner-up prize. They still want the main prize.”
“How do you know their plans?” I asked.
“A friend,” Aggie said. “A very good friend who would know these things. All Livia has to do is say she’s been treated unfairly and the city will riot for her.”
“If this were true, Loudon would know all this,” I said.
“Of course he knows,” Aggie said. “He knows the city as well as anybody. He’s doubtless keeping your mom and sister pacified. The Haudens need you alive until after the marriage. Then they’ll…eliminate you.”
“Then why did she give me fake poison…” I started.
“What?” Aggie asked, leaning in closer.
“Why did she give me fake poison pills?”
Aggie blinked at me. “How do you know they were…”
“I didn’t want you to fight,” I whispered. “I wanted to protect you.”
She stared at me a moment, her mouth slightly open and her brow furrowed. “Dammit Titus!” She said at last.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But…you have to realize she’s better than you.”
Aggie stared at me, and her eyes welled. “You still don’t believe in me…” She stared at the floor.
“Aggie, I love you. But she’s taller than you. Faster. A trained warrior. She can beat me. Not many people can do that, and she can do it easily. I want you to win, but you can’t.”
“I have a plan,” Aggie said at last. “It will work. You are mine. And I’m getting you back. Please, have faith in me. Trust me. If you love me…believe in me. I will win tomorrow. I have to. But only if you believe in me, or I won’t be able to.”
“I’ll believe,” I said after a long pause.
“Thank you for doing this,” I said. “Though you shouldn’t have to. I should be strong enough…”
“That’s not the point,” she whispered.
We kissed. Her lips were soft and full as always.
I sought out Loudon after I met with her. He was in his study, as I guessed he would be.
“Aggie claims that Livia will try to kill me. That she wants the King,” I said.
“She does,” Loudon said. “For very obvious reasons I am against it.”
“So you knew, then? About her?”
Loudon sighed. He walked to his liquor cabinet. I heard the trickle of liquid into cups. “I knew she would control him, and through him, the throne. How could she not? She’s a formidable woman. Of course, I didn’t realize just how…militant she was.”
“But he’s only a boy. Surely they would have waited…”
“I would think you would know the possible depravity of a monster’s mind, particularly Livia,” Loudon said. “You have fought for your King; we all have. You protected him again from another threat.”
“They are planning to kill me, she says,” I said.
“I think that will no longer be necessary,” Loudon said. “Your goblin girl played into their hands. When she dies, and you weep – and you shall, I have no doubt – Livia will spurn you and reiterate her claim, before the nobles, to ask for the King’s hand in marriage.”
“And what happens then?”
“Then…” Loudon sighed. “Then you profess your love for her, and veto it. As her betrothed you have that right. Livia will not expect that.”
“No,” I said. “I can’t-“
“If I refuse her the King – and I will- it will mean rioting. Mobs. A second war, possibly. Yes, she will die. But so will many others. But if you do this, it will become a game of assassins, with your Mother and me against Livia and her father. We will win. Easily.”
“And all that has to happen is I have to say I love the person who killed the love of my life,” I said.
“You’re a tough man, Titus,” Loudon said. “You held that hill against the nastiest shit the Kroy threw at us. I know we are asking much of you, again, but…” he took a deep breath. “It’s you or the King.”
The morning came, and I woke to see the dark canopy above the bed.
“Good morning, Titus…” Deena said. She looked tired, sitting in the old black rocking chair in the corner of the room.
“You didn’t need to stay there,” I said. “I’m done with all that.”
She smiled, but her eyes were glassy. “You’ve said that before.”
I sighed. “I’m sorry about all this Deena. I’ve been horrid.”
“It’s alright. It’s been a rough couple of months,” Deena said. “It’ll…be over soon. How are you doing?”
“I’m alive. And I will be tomorrow. And the day after,” I said. I paused. “She asked me to believe in her, last night.”
Deena blinked her big brown eyes. “And do you?” She asked
I took a deep breath, aware I was more nervous than I should have been for such a question.
“I want to,” I said at last.