Heir of Loudon, Part 2

Disclaimer: this story is darker than later stories.

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Auberge was much smaller than Loudon manor. Of that I took great pride, although the countryside and gardens surrounding the old mansion were breathtaking. Trees in long columns, statues, fountains, grottoes. Ordered, no doubt, by the daemon lord himself, Horace Auberge.

I took a deep breath. The idea of revenge, of pleasing my father, should have felt satisfying, but it didn’t. It felt like discovering Maddie in the room, and I grew to loathe the journey.

I felt a dread which had nothing to do with the danger of entering Auberge, or the closeness to our enemies. I told myself over and over that Deena was an Auberge, or close enough to one, and that made it okay. I told myself she would be the last girl, with any luck, and being Duke was about making hard choices. I would prevent more Maddies by giving Albert one Deena.

And I told myself, over and over, that I felt nothing for her. And why should I have? All we had exchanged were glances, and a blown kiss that made my heart stop for a moment. But that had been teasing, an attempt to humiliate me, and it worked. The Prince thought she was innocent, but she was an Auberge.

And besides that, love at first sight wasn’t real. It was simply lust and physical attraction.

The moon was full and shimmered off the water of the three fountains in front of the mansion. The waters flowed

For his part, Antonio was a wreck, his eyes darting back and forth furtively as we neared the glowing yellow light of the house.

“Calm down, old friend,” I said. “You were the one who said I should talk to her.”

“Not for this,” he whispered. “They are going to kill us. Who knows what truth divining methods that old Sorceror Auberge has.”

“I’d worry less about him than his wife or that daughter of his,” I said. “They’re as apt to kill us for food as anything else.”

Antonio shuddered.

“Frederick, heir of Loudon and attendant,” the caller said.

A gasp went through the crowd. People stared, mouths open. Many had been at the party at Loudon Manor earlier, but it was unheard of to see a Loudon here, at Auberge.

“Hi Frederick!” A cheery voice called out. I saw her sparkling brown eyes first, and then the rest of her. My heart raced.

Why did she affect me so?

Deena ran up to me as if we were old friends. “I’m so glad you came! I’ll have to introduce you to everyone…do you want drinks first?”

“Ah…sure. Cider is fine,” I said.

“I could do for a cider as well,” Antonio said.

“Okay! Let me go flag a
server down. Don’t move, I’ll be right back.”

Deena’s full-throated greeting had restored the party, and the guests went back to enjoying themselves.

“So far, so good,” I said.

As I waited, I scanned the ballroom. It was an addition to the house, larger than the main rotunda which used to entertain smaller number of guests. Mostly people stood, but there were several tables for the family.

Molly Auberge sat at the head table, her violet eyes scanning everything. She was a striking beauty, but to touch her would be to touch poison itself.

Behind her was a short man, stocky, with red eyes and a grim countenance. I had not taken note of him at Loudon Manor, but now he was unmistakable – Mercurial Banehollow, the youngest son of the notorious “Reverend” Banehollow himself.

Molly glared at me, but then she looked at Antonio, and her eyes narrowed. She tilted her head upward, studying him.

“W-why is she staring at me?” Antonio whispered.

“Because Deena brought an escort to Loudon Manor. Mercurial Banehollow. Doubtless she thinks that you are my killer.”

Antonio stared back at her, wide eyed, and she seemed to smile with amusement at his bewilderment. She slowly focused her gaze elsewhere.

“Good job, Antonio,” I whispered. “Way to put the fear of God in her.”

“Shut up. I told you this was a bad idea.”

And then I saw him.

Horace Auberge walked with a cane and a grimace of discomfort. Horace was not an old man, but a horse-riding accident had crushed his knee two years previous, on top of the other maladies God had punished him with. The result was a hobbled man, an emaciated Hephaestus in black who rarely emerged in public.

As he moved to sit near his daughter, she grabbed his elbow and helped him to his seat, motioning for Banehollow to help. They guided him down and he pulled in the chair, and began coughing. His daughter rubbed his back until he stopped.

Jewel was crawling her way along the floor with her son Titus on her arm, after a dance. She was as striking as her daughter, though older, and less hungry. She appeared sated.

Her son Titus was fifteen but a big lad already, with a square jaw and his father’s pointed nose. He looked at me with eyes narrowed, and I returned the glare until he looked away.

They returned to the main table and Jewel sat at her husband’s side. Horace wrapped his arm around her and she tucked her head into his shoulder.

On the second table was a Catgirl and her husband: Deena’s parents, Lord and Lady Stafford. Another catgirl sat with them, who looked much like Deena, but her eyes were thinner and bluer.

At a table by themselves sat Devin Stafford, Deena’s brother. He was a fit, tall man in the crimson uniform of the Royal Expeditionary Force, with his own thin copy of his father’s own mustache and his sister’s blue eyes. A Conspicuous Merit medal hung from his left chest.

On his right arm hung a tigergirl, fiercely eying everything in this strange and unknown world. Tigergirls of Idia were half-savage, and this one was no exception.

One might have thought the marriage occurred through rape, but in fact the tigergirl, Kiavara, had been pledged to service to the Crown and had made claim on Devin Stafford through Eowynning. It was the first such marriage in several decades.

Deena returned with our drinks. The drink was smooth but heavier in alcohol than I expected.

The music changed to one of the new works by Kopochev. Kopochev was known for his heavy use of piano and flute, and the tune was the Opening of the Flower.

“Oh, I love this one,” Deena whispered.

A young Dryad girl, Mirella, found herself overcome by the music. She and began to move and sway, like a fusion of a tree in the wind and a woman, swift and graceful all at once. So captivating was the sight that all stopped to watch her in amazement, and when the song stopped, everyone applauded, and the Dryad turned a shade of red I would have thought her barked skin unable to reach.

Her father, Major Dwyehill, embraced her. His crimson uniform was resplendent, and decorated with service medals from half the islands in the Far Ocean.

Despite the Major’s obvious pride, he was unsteady on his feet, and his eyes were filled with worry that belied his current mood. He loved horses, I knew, but didn’t know them well, and it had cost him dearly.

“What did you think?” Deena asked.

“She was quite the dancer,” I said. “A fitting performer for a song about nature.”

“I love that song,” she said. “Kopochev is my favorite.”

“He’s short,” I said. “I think his mother was a goblin.”

“Y-you met him?” She asked.

“Yeah, a few years’ back. He played during Siegmeyer of Catarina at the Royal Opera. He came to Loudon manner afterward.”

“That must have been amazing, to hear him play,” she said.

“It was impressive. Such grandeur. He’s a quiet man.”

“I see Huntington here,” Antonio whispered. “Should I…”

“Yes. Get it set up,” I said.

With the monsoon wiping out two of our Galleons, Huntington and his ships were critical to Father’s latest venture.

“I’ll attend to it, then. Will you be alright, Poss?” He asked.

“He’ll be fine,” Deena said. “I’ll protect him.”

Antonio laughed, and looked at me with uncertainty in his eyes. He hated the plan, but then so did I.

“The Royal Opera…” She said whistfully. “I’d love to see it. To see a play by the Bard at the Groundhouse.”

I laughed. “Funny. I was just there last week. I saw Beolinde and the Hydra.”

She jumped up and down, excitedly. “Oh, I love that one! We had a troop perform it at Stafford over the summer.”

A wizened old man approached us.

“Oh hi Krohn,” Deena said. “What’s up?”

“Excuse me, young master. Lord Auberge sends his compliments and asks if you will meet him at his table.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Deena said. She looked at me. “Don’t feel-“

“It’s alright,” I said. “I would like to meet him.”

I approached the table with my heart in my throat. The derringer at my side seemed to burn like fire, the overwhelming urge to draw it and make my father proud. But nothing would please the old wizard more than for an excuse to kill me.

His wife, Duchess Auberge, watched me with violet eyes. They were narrowed, and she slowly out a flute of sparkling wine to her lips.

“Duke and Duchess Auberge, an honor,” I said with a bow.

“The honor is ours, young Heir to Loudon. We are pleased that you have come,” Horace said in a disarmingly normal voice. I had always pictured his voice as booming and imperial.

I nodded. “Deena invited me at Loudon Manor,” I said, stupidly. But what else could I say to evil incarnate?

Horace smiled. “Yes…we heard all about Loudon Manor.”

I found myself blushing. “T-the Prince was there. His first party in country in a decade,” I said.

“Funny, she didn’t talk about the Prince,” Jewel said with a smirk.

“How is your father?” Horace asked.

I weighed my answers. Do I insult them, or say simply say he’s well to deprive them of their gloating?

“Father is father,” I said. “His position keeps him busy. Victoria’s ill health puts us all on greater duty.”

“A formidable woman,” Horace said. “God save her. I hope her illness is not fatal.”

I nodded. “With that I wholeheartedly agree.”

Jewel smiled, but her eyes were sad. “I always liked your father,” she said. “I hope he is well.”

I cleared my throat. “Well, but busy. You would understand that he has strong feelings on the past.”

“Yes, I could not expect anything else…”

“At any rate,” Horace said. “we are glad you attended.”

“And carrying a derringer I see,” Molly said.

“I carry it everywhere,” I responded, unsure how she knew I had it. “I am an unmarried male. I must have a deterrent for a thief, or a monster.”

“And only on those things should it be used,” she said. “You would be cut down-“

“Molly, stop,” Jewel said. “He isn’t going to shoot anyone.”

“I see it in his eyes. He hates us all. Why did you come here?” Molly asked. “What evil have you planned?”

A chill went through my heart, and for a moment I almost believed the scheme I hated would be revealed, but Horace waved off his daughter’s concern.

“Forgive her, my Lord,” Horace said. “She has learned much of her mother’s caution but little of her propriety.”

“I consider it proper to keep you from being killed,” Molly snapped back. “Or anyone else here.”

“Once upon a time, guest right was sacred, daughter.”

“This is not two hundred years ago. The last time our families were guests of each other, there was a duel,” she said.

“Not true!” Deena chimed in. She stared at me sideways with a little smirk. “Though a kiss was blown.”

I turned red. “I assure you, I came only as I was invited, to reciprocate to Miss Stafford.”

“You’re going to blow me a kiss??” She teased.

Titus laughed.

“No!” I said, my face hot. “I mean, I…I came to reciprocate your attendance,” I locked my eyes with Horace’s, “I take umbrage at the idea that I would march into someone’s house and challenge them to a duel.”

Molly laughed. “Very cute. Insult my father.”

“Did I? How? By stating that I will not duel?”

“Would you cavort with another man’s wife and be too pigheaded to let it drop? Try to fight a sick man with poison daggers…”

My nostrils flared. I knew I should smile and say something subtle. But my blood was hot.

“You set him up!” I snarled. “You paid your hellhound chew toy to find fault in the daggers!”

Mercurial’s eyes narrowed. His hands went to his belt, where his sword hung.

My body tingled. I realized what Molly had planned. She had goaded me into insulting the Banehollows, and I had taken the bait.

The Spider girl smirked a little. But Horace looked at her with a stern countenance and I saw her smirk fade away, replaced by the somber stare of a chastised child.

“Relax, Mercurial,” Jewel said. “Posthumous Loudon is under my roof and my protection.”

Mercurial bowed. “It is best to find other subjects to discuss than my father, My Lord of Loudon.”

“Perhaps it is best for me to go one better and take my leave,” I said, taking a step back. “If I am here to listen to why my brother deserved to be shot, or be goaded into fighting a duel…”

“No, no, no, no,” Deena said. “That’s not what this evening is supposed to be about.”

“Accept our apologies, lord,” Horace said. “The topic is…sensitive, no doubt. For my part I do not revel in what happened. My daughter worries after my health and safety almost as obsessively as her mother, and it makes her behave inappropriately at times. But you must admit you exercised a similar prudence when my great-niece visited.”

“Your great-niece was never insulted,” I said.

“Well I was, but you weren’t around to see it,” Deena said. “Several of your cousins were most unkind in their comments.”

“I apologize for their behavior. You should not have been ill-treated. Affairs kept me busy that night,” I responded.

“I flustered you, just say it,” Deena said.

“Enough teasing, Deena,” Horace said. “We are being serious.”

“Uncle Horry, you are all too, too serious. I said it was bad to ambush him with everyone, and I was vindicated by my cousin and her omnipresent scheming…”

Molly clenched her teeth, and glared at Deena with folded arms.

“I think a dance is in order,” she said, looking at me.

I blinked. “I…”

“Will you ask me?” She asked.

“Why not just ask him?” Horace asked.

“Uncle Horry,” she said. “Woman or monster, both need to be asked to dance, or it doesn’t count. So…?”

I exhaled. “Would you like to dance?” I asked.

She smiled, and grasped my hand in her paw. The touch energized me. “Let’s go.”

We worked our way to the dance floor, where a space cleared around us. People were watching, doubtless curious what this meant for the two largest families in the country.

As we began to move, the novelty died out, and people resumed their dance. The tune was a straightforward one, a slow number.

“I’m sorry about all that,” Deena said.

She held up her paw with my hand in it. I put my arm around her waist.

“I had wanted them to leave you alone, but Uncle Horry wanted to try to clear the air.”

“It can’t be cleared like that,” I said. “You can’t undo a murder.”

I tried to dwell on that, to see if it would make her less captivating and my task easier.

She obliterated it. She blinked her eyes and sighed sadly. “Yes…all of that. Do you miss your brother?”

The question rattled me. “I guess I never really thought about it,”
I confessed. “He’s always been gone. His life ended when mine began.”

“I guess I wish the hole he left behind didn’t exist,” I continued. “Father…I think my father always felt guilty about having me. Like I was a replacement,” I laughed. “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.”

“Yes, you do,” she said, putting her arms on my shoulders as we waltzed.

“You can’t change the past,” I said.

“We can’t undo what has happened, no. But we can make amends. Communicate. Heal.”

“Why do you want peace between us so badly?” I asked.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? I’m not much for numbers, or tonnes of wheat, or whatever it is that you men scribble about, but it seems all of that is misused. My family are good people. You and your family are good people. We shouldn’t be at each other’s throats. It’s a waste of all our time, and worse, someone else could get hurt.”

“How can you be sure that the Loudons are good?” I asked, since I had no idea myself if we were or not.

“I have my mother’s gift of assessing people. I saw you and I saw your father. I suspect you’ve both done some rather unpleasant things, but then so has my Aunt, and my Uncle, and Father, and my sister and brother. Hell, Mother…well, I can’t get into all that. Mother has some things she did that she absolutely hates. But she’s a total sweetheart.”

“You must agree to some extent,” she added. “After all, you chose to come.”

“I was surprised by your offer,” I said. “You did not exactly get a warm reception at Loudon Manor.”

“I got a nice reception from you,” she said with a knowing smile.

My legs nearly went out. She knew. She had seen the way I’d looked at her.

I cleared my throat. “I, um…you just looked so captivating…ted…captivated…”

“You don’t need to be so uncomfortable; I felt the same thing,” she said.

The dance ended, and all applauded. The next dance was hip to hip. I kept trying to calm myself, tell myself I was here on a mission, but I felt myself grow hard on contact with her.

After a fee agonizing seconds of holding my breath, she giggled. “I’m getting poked,” she whispered.

“I-I’m so sorry,” I said, humiliated.

“Don’t be! It’s your body. You can’t control what it does,” she said. “Our bodies, our hearts…often we like to pretend the mind is all that matters. We forget there is more to us than our waking thoughts.”

She ground her hip up against me subtlely, keeping her eyes locked on mine. I grew harder.

“See? Your body and your heart want something. Your mind isn’t always right.”

I stammered, totally flustered.

“Do you want to sit down?” She asked. “If you want to-“

My head was spinning. My plan was in ruins. She was right. I hadn’t come to hurt her. I had come to see her again. My mind didn’t realize that, but the rest of me did, and it worked me here solely to put me under her spell.

“N-no,” I said as we twirled.

“Good, me neither,” she said, and she rewarded me with another grind of her hip. She brought her lips tantalizingly close to my ear. “I feel what you feel now. There isn’t the same outward sign of arousal on my part, but it’s there. If you pressed close enough, you might feel it through the fabric of my dress and your pants.”

That just made it worse, and made me harder still.

I laughed nervously as my hand gripped her waist tighter. “I’m not sure what I did to warrant such a response,” I said.

“What did I do to warrant yours?”

“You are beautiful,” I said, staring in her brown eyes.

For once, her face instead of mine turned beet red.

“Well, it’s-you didn’t meet my family yet. I mean, you did, partly,” she laughed. “See? Anyone can sound stupid when they are flustered. You don’t sound that though.”

“How does your brother feel about being Eowynned?”

“Good enough. Any male officer who is unmarried knows it can happen. High command felt Kiavara deserved to be rewarded for her bravery. She rallied the army as it was in rout, charged back into the enemy bearing the standard. They offered her her pick of any of the captains. She named Devin without a second’s hesitation.”

“Besides, he always liked cats, and Kiavara is pretty kittenish.”

I looked at the powerful tigress as she surveyed the dance floor, her hand firmly clutching her husband’s as if the Auberge was some mud hut where monsters stole each other’s mates.

“I fail to see how that’s possible.”

“Oh don’t let her fool you – she’s a big orange pillow, that one. Devin just has to speak and she scrambles.”

“Funny. She’s even scarier than Mercurial,” I said. “And he just threatened to kill me.”

“Mercurial can be grumpy, but then we tend to live up to our names. Why did they announce you as Frederick, by the way? I thought your name was Posthumous.”

“Everyone just always called me Posthumous. I’ve…never liked it, myself,” I confessed. “But then no one likes their nicknames.”

“Everyone called me Deedee when I was really little. I didn’t mind. Not sure it made any sense, since it and Deena take the same time to say. Antonio calls you Poss. I can call you that…”

“No,” I said. “Call me Frederick.”

“Okay…Freddy,” she said. “Freddy’s okay, right?”

I laughed. “I guess so, DeeDee.”

She giggled.

We danced until the song ended, the motion and music and her form in my hands taking me away from all my concerns. I lost myself in the moment, and when the music stopped, it was as though I was roused from a deep dream.

I applauded absently, as did Deena.

“Would you like a tour of the gardens?” Deena asked.

I smiled. “Can I trust you not to take my virtue?”

She laughed. “Oh please. I’m not Molly. I don’t tend toward that way of things.”

We passed out of the ballroom onto the back deck, and down the stone stairs. The early autumn air was nice, and a warm breeze greeted us. We toured the dark green hedges and white statues, the flowing fountains and gently swaying pear trees.

She put her arm through mine, and I felt my heart quicken.

“This is nice,” I said. “Auberge is an amazing gardener.”

“I helped,” Deena said. “I picked the sculptures and laid out the fountains.”

I stopped at a sculpture of a naked Oni and a man wrestling. The man was outmatched, yet giving his all, while the Oni was slowly overpowering him and forcing him to the ground. It was a scene from mythology, of Theus, the first man taken by a monster.

“You did amazing work,” I said, “This is amazing.”

“Nothing compared to some of he pieces at the Royal Palace. Loudon is amazing,” Deena said. “I loved the city. I’d love to see it again.”

“Deena…” I began.

I paused. I could ask her to Loudon, to have a meeting with Prince Albert to discuss art. Have her go to Dreia’s. It would all be so simple. The innocent creature before me, trusting as she was, would do it.

And the thought horrified me. I would not hurt her. I would never see her hurt. Perhaps I was a fool for liking her after one dance, but I did. Deena was too pure and wonderful to be in the same city as Albert, let alone be demeaned by him.

I knew I wanted to protect her. And more than that…

“What is it?” She asked, her big cat eyes full.

I leaned in then, and grasped her in my arms. Hugged her tight and close to me, and put her chest against mine. She squealed happily.

What happened next came organically. I lowered my mouth to hers, and found her welcoming. As our lips made contact the energy overtook us, and she wrapped her arms around my neck.

The world disappeared. There was only her and I, our lips, our bodies, the feel of her against me, and the rhythm of our hearts.

She rested her head on my shoulder, and my chest reverberated with her intense, loud purring.

I laughed, and ran my fingers through her hair, and scratched her ears. She tilted her head towards my hand as she purred. Silly catgirls.

We returned arm in arm from the garden.

“Would you like to dance some more?” I asked as we passed into the ballroom.

She smiled. “I’d love that.”

“Everyone,” Jewel announced. “I have sad news. Our beloved Queen, Victoria, has died after her long illness. I would ask that we take a moment of silence.”

The revelers stood with heads bowed. One woman was sobbing quietly, but most people were just waiting politely to begin partying again. Victoria had lived too long and been too staid. Many were looking forward to a new monarch.

I exchanged a look with Antonio, and caught his wide gray eyes. Only he and I understood. Only we felt dread.

“What’s wrong?” Deena whispered to me. “Did you know the Queen well?”

“Not particularly. But if Victoria is dead, that means Albert is now King,” I whispered.

“What’s wrong with that?”

“Albert is evil,” I whispered to her, watching her eyes widen. I seized her arms, and she shrank back, or would have if I did not hold her fast.

“Never go to Loudon,” I whispered. “Never agree to meet with him. Do you understand?”

“Why?”

“Promise me!”

“Of-Of course,” She said, confused. “I won’t go near him.”

“I shall have to leave tonight,” I said.

Her eyes softened and filled with sadness. “Oh, but you just arrived! Why?”

“I wish I could stay,” I said, clasping her hand in mine. “But I need to…pay homage to the new monarch.”

“You said he was evil,” she said.

“He is also the King now,” I said with a shudder. “Let me find Antonio.”

“I’m not doing it,” I said when I saw him. “I can’t. Not to her.”

Antonio smiled. “Good. I think. Of course now I’m not sure how you handle the new King.”

“I talk him out of it. If I’m to be Duke of Loudon, I’ll need to learn how to get him to change his mind.”

“And if you can’t?”

“I don’t know. I run away to DeTerre with the royal treasury,” I said.

“And your catgirl?” He asked.

I stared back at her and smiled. “With my catgirl. Father will never accept her, will he?”

“I’d worry about keeping her out of the King’s hands to start,” Antonio said. “Should I come back to with you?”

“No; go on to Huntington’s estate,” I said. “We need his ships. Fourteen millions is tied up in this tobacco scheme of Father’s. We must have the freight to get it here when the harvest occurs.”

“Money is money, but you might need a man to have your back,” Antonio said.

“There’s little you could do to stop him, Antonio, and I’d rather not risk your life as well as mine. Go to Huntington’s. Secure his merchant fleet.”

“How much do I have to work with?”

“Two millions, but get as low as you can,” I said.

Antonio nodded. “I’ll get lower. Huntington likes me. We’ll race horses and go falconing. I’ll get him drinking before we start negotiating.”

I smiled. “We can always count on you.”

“I owe your family very much,” he said. “You had no reason to give me half the kindness you have.”

I felt a pang of guilt. I wondered how much of Antonio’s nature was from Edward, and how much was from his mother. Was he the closest to the brother I lost? Was my brother like this kind-eyed young man?

I embraced him. “Godspeed Antonio.”

“I will not send you on these roads alone,” he said. “I asked Major Dwyehill to accompany you back. He and his Dryad daughter will keep you safe from molestation.”

“I’ll collect him and leave at once.”

I found my way back to my hostess, who looked up at me sadly.

She curtsied at me. “I hope you return soon, Freddy,” she said.

“I intend to,” I said. “Goodbye, Deena.”

“Goodbye…Frederick.”

Passion overtook me at hearing my name, and I leaned down and kissed her.

She blinked at me, shocked, but she smiled.

The ballroom was filled with stunned silence. To my horror I realized word of this would reach the King. And my father.

I left quickly, making my way to the carriage and slamming the door shut. My travel companions came out shortly after.

Dwyehill was a chatty companion. His daughter said little, as did I, dwelling as I was on what to say or do about the moronic kiss I had given. I simply assented to Dwyehill’s musings as the carriage rocked along.

After a few hours we arrived at the Royal Castle in Loudon, crossing over the drawbridge and beneath the thick stone walls. Royal Castle had never been taken by siege or assault, which had given it a fearsome reputation that was somewhat unearned.

In the Royal Hall, I did not find the King, but two of his lackey. Lord Utley, the beetle-looking man, grimaced at me. And smirking stupidly was Reynault, a noble bastard from DeTerre with a haughty attitude and a rapier at his side.

Seeing two of Albert’s carousers, their presence chilled me.

“Ah, here hee comez,” Reynault said. “The Heir of Loudonne.”

“Perhaps you can tell us why we have no ale yet,” Utley said.

I frowned. “Why would I know that?”

“You are the steward of the Castle, aren’t you?”

“As it happens, we are guardians of the city and charged with the defense of the King,” I said. “We are not servants who run about giving wine to his…friends.”

Utley scrunched his nose and swished his mustache. “Then who gets us wine?”

“I would ask one of the servants,” I said. “Not me.”

“You think you are better than me, do you?” Utley said. “I’m going to be Loudon soon. Just you wait.”

“Well,” I said, saluting. “I’ll be sure to look forward to that.”

I arrived in one of the Royal chambers. The room was cavernous, ringed with mahogany and giant tomes. A massive glass dome in the center showed the black sky above, as everywhere lamps lit it to tremendous brightness.

“Ah. Young Loudon,” the King said, entering through one of the many hidden passageways in the castle. This one was through a bookcase that led to the Royal quarters. He glanced behind me. “And where is my cat prize? Is she with your Demon whore?”

“I returned as soon as I heard about Victoria, Your Grace, to offer my condolences.”

Albert laughed, a deep, cutting sound. “Your condolences…you should be offering congratulations. And gifts: namely, the Stafford girl. Where is she?”

God help me, he’s gotten worse, I thought. In mere hours he had gotten worse, grown into the office like a tumor into an expanse.

I might have lied to him, but my foolish, impulsive kiss in the ballroom had ruined that. If I lied he would discover it.

“I met her at Auberge. She seems to have developed an affection for me, Your Grace, and I-“

“I don’t care. I want her and that fine cat tail of hers,” he said, cutting me off. “Go get her.”

My heart sank like a stone. “That may be difficult,” I said. “She…”

“Work on it,” he said. “For tonight, I’ll take another.”

“Another?”

“Yes. That fetching Dryad will do. Get her cleaned up and at your demon’s shack in an hour.”

“M-Mirella?”

“I want to hear ‘yes, Your Grace’, not more one-word questions,” Albert said, cracking a walnut in his hand noisily. “Go.”

As I walked out of the room and down the empty Great Hall, I realized that he could not be controlled or marginalized. His appetites would only grow, and worst of all, he would hurt Deena.

I had to end this.

Mirella sat in the corner of my gray carriage, lithe and athletic, but petite, vulnerable like a spring sapling before a late blizzard. Her long dancer’s legs were crossed, and her feet were wiggling with nervous energy.

It had taken little prompting to convince her father. Doubtless he saw this as meaning cash one way or another.

“What’s he like?” Mirella asked. Her eyes were green like leaves.

I stared out the window, unsure of what to say, watching the blur of gas lamps and empty dusty streets.

The home of my succubus accomplice looked the same, but somehow became a dark place, a place of pain where before it was a mere flophouse.

I entered. The King was alone, sitting in his chair. His retinue had been sent away, as was normal when his headaches came on. It was fortunate.

“Dreia,” The King said, rubbing his forehead. “I-I need…”

“Your Grace, use this..” I said, handing him the special packet I had prepared. “It’s fresh from my source.”

Dreia’s eyes locked with mine, and there was a question in them. I nodded. Her face betrayed nothing but she was shaking, her chest rising and falling. Her bat wings folded inward.

Albert didn’t notice this, however, or mucb of anything else. “Thank you,” he said, grabbing the packet.

“What is that?” Mirella asked.

“Headache medicine,” I said.

Albert laughed, or tried to, but grimaced. “In a manner of speaking…”

“Shall you want some alone time, Your Grace?” Dreia asked.

“Y-yes…” He said, heading to the small sitting room on the first floor. He looked at Mirella, “Actually…Come with me,” he said. “Massage my temples.”

“O-okay, Your Majesty,” she said, uncertainly.

They disappeared into the tiny room and the door latched shut.

“Will she be okay?” Dreia asked.

“Distressed by what happens to him,” I whispered. “But he’ll be quite incapable of anything.”

“I hope so,” she whispered. “He brought an axe.”

I shuddered.

“What if he makes her take the drug?” Dreia asked.

“I doubt a mind vine would work on a Dryad,” I said. “We were lucky with his pick tonight.”

“Let’s hope our luck holds. You should go,” she said.

“What about you?”

“I’ll stay. Someone needs to get Mirella out of here.”

“And his rakes?”

I left by carriage. I watched as the house was still lit, unaware if my plan worked or not.

It would not be unheard of for Mind Vine to find its way into opiates. Even if I was caught, I could claim it came that way from the dealers. I would benefit from the fact that my Father would be in charge of the investigation.

Only Albert’s coven of dregs knew about his desires, and they were so widely hated that no one would believe them, and smart enough to realize saying he was a drug user and a sex criminal would be bad for them.

Word came that night, as I rested in Loudon Manor – the King was ill. He had been found near the occult section, by a Dryad name Mirella. He had taken ill on a jaunt among the commoners, trying to learn about his new subjects.

Father departed for the palace on hearing the news. I elected to stay behind, hoping to hear soon that he was dead.

“He’s in a coma,” father said on his return. “The drugs contained a mind vine. Apparently the dryad with him was able to do something to the vine to extract it. A quick thinking girl, that one, though I’m sure the King would not thank her for what she did to his face. It is unlikely he shall awaken, they say.”

I sighed in relief.

“That dumb cockroach Utley is declaring it to be an assassination attempt,” he continued. “Of course, he is so widely reviled that no one believes him.”

The fireplace in the office cracked. Father stopped a moment to watch the coals.

He poured me a brandy. “An…interesting approach you took. And reckless.”

“How did you know?” I asked.

“How could mind vine make it into only one packet, and only for the King? If it was in the opiates, hundreds of junkies would be lining the streets with hollowed out skulls, and the gutters would be a forest of spindly trees poking toward the sunlight through their eye sockets.”

I waited until father sat back down in his chair to speak.

“He would have ruined the realm,” I said at last.

“For true. Most unreasonable man. I was planning to be retired to Windor, I confess, owing to his distaste for me. That will now no longer be necessary. We…have his heir?”

I nodded. “We will soon enough: Maddie is five months along.”

“One bastard of his many,” Father said. “They shall come forward in the years to come, saying they were his rightful heirs. It will mean war, of course.”

“And…does this mean war against the Auberge?”

Father studied me. “Perhaps. I’ve heard disquieting rumors about you and the Stafford girl,” father said. “I heard mention of a kiss goodbye. In public. On the dance floor.”

I took a long gulp of brandy as I weighed my words. “She is a kind girl. And she is joyful…”

“Did the King covet her? Is that why he died?”

“He did, but that was only part of it,” I said. I shook my head and took another large gulp. “I’m sorry father. I’m not strong the way you are strong. I can’t serve such a man. It’s not in me.”

He sighed. “I know. I’ve made peace with that. Do his rakes know of his desire for Stafford?”

“Utley and Reynault do, doubtless.” I said. “We shall have to deal with them.”

“I intend to buy them,” my father said. “Deaths draw questions. Utley wants lands and Reynault wants a command in the army. If I give them those, they’ll shut up.”

“I’m sorry, father.”

“What’s done is done,” he said. “Except for one last piece: the Stafford girl…do you love her?”

I stared down at the remnants of my drink. I took a deep breath.

“Yes,” I said at last.

I didn’t feel the hit precisely, but I was out of my chair and my ear was ringing, the rugged carpet up against my face. Father was almost superhumanly strong, and when roused could move like a most ferocious hellhound. And he was roused.

He stared down at me, and momentarily bent down as if to help me up, but he stopped and straightened.

“Don’t you see it’s what they want?!” He raged, looking down at me. “The Stafford girl could rape you, and they would have Loudon! They would get your inheritance when I die!”

“She-she’s not like that…” I said, embarrassed that I hadn’t considered such an obvious plan.

“She’s a monstergirl, son. They all are like that. they are creatures of impluse.”

“And so what?” I said. “I had my derringer and knife if she tried anything.”

“And would you use them on her?” He asked.

I didn’t even need to answer. The vision in my mind’s eye of drawing a pistol on Deena twisted my face to horror, and he continued.

“If you see her again, it will happen. No doubt Jewel is hoping for that. Fulfill her old Sunderland ambitions and defeat me. Kill one son and rape another.”

“Deena wants peace, father,” I said. “She’s not like that.”

“I don’t care what you think she wants, or what she actually wants. We’re going to Windor,” he continued. “And you are not to see this girl again. I forbid it.”

“Forbid?” I laughed, dangerous as it was to do so before my father. “I am a grown man! You can’t-“

“Yes, I can. You just tried to kill the King,” he said. “And I have proof of it.”

A pit filled my stomach.

“Y-you wouldn’t…”

“I will not let Jewel Auberge take our lands,” He said evenly. “I will burn my house to ashes first. Turn you over and then end my life in this very study. I have total power over you. Do not forget that. We leave for Windor at once. I shall arrange a marriage with a girl from a respectable family, and get this matter put to bed quickly. It can even be a monster if that’s what you have your heart set on.”

Tears came to my eyes, which I batted away. “Father, please…”

“Pack your things,” he said, turning and leaving me in his study.

We left Loudon in the darkness of night, and made our way to Windor. Father said nothing, and neither did I.

We arrived at Windor when first light came. The sun was rising through the hills, peaking through the tall pines, and the sky was colored pink and white.

In spite of my distemper, I couldn’t help but be happy to see Windor, the mountains looming large behind it on its high hill. The snows came earliest to Windor of all the kingdom, and an early frost had come in the Autumn. The air was crisp and cold, biting at my lungs.

The green of the mighty pines and spruces were whitened, and Windor itself sparkled with tiny frozen crystals on its white surface.

When we came here we were not Loudons anymore. We were not servants to the King, or anyone. We were the frozen lords of the high manor. We were Windors again.

Even so, I did not enjoy myself for long. For weeks I did little else but sulk in my room. Father did the same in his office. I heard only the news from Loudon from messengers – Albert’s sickness was beginning to draw questions about succession. Utley had made such a drunken ass of himself that he was exiled from society, and now was rambling that Horace and my father had bewitched Albert. Reynault was on his way to Idia to command an expedition into the untamed north.

Marriage offers came. Two kobold girls from DeTerre and a Human from Kroy. I refused them all, and Father oddly did not push the issue.

It was a quiet Sunday morning when a tiny visitor came to the door, wrapped in a white cloak trimmed with dim red roses. As she walked the frost about her colored pink, giving her almost an aura. A cat tail hung low behind her, drifting in short, quick motions.

My heart stopped. Deena had come to call on us.

“Father, please, don’t hurt her,” I begged as we raced to the receiving room, the first I had spoken to him in days.

He said nothing, just eyed the door with a narrow stare.

She entered the room and lowered her hood, a few flakes of snow melting on her long cat ears. She was radiant as ever, but she had no smile. She looked dour.

She curtsied and bowed her head. “Duke Loudon,” she said stiffly. “Thank you for receiving me.”

“Lady Stafford…” My Father said. “To what do we owe this pleasure?”

“I came to see your son,” Deena said. She looked at me and smiled faintly. My heart skipped.

I moved to speak, but Father glared at me.

His face betrayed little emotion, but I knew he was perplexed. A creature like Deena -honest and brave- was something my father had little experience with. “And why should I let you?”

“Because Frederick and I are fond of each other, and you want your son to be happy,” she said.

“I want him to be safe,” my father said. “Letting you near him could risk everything. He would lose his inheritance if you forced yourself on him.”

“I’m not going to hurt him. Here…”

She handed him a folded paper -or rather, thrust it at him – and retreated quickly, folding her hands and standing perfectly straight.

“This…this is a betrothal document,” he said as he squinted through the paper. He stared up at her, amazed at her brazenness. “Is this a joke?”

“This says that I forego any right to your son through rape. I had Uncle Horr- well, never mind who wrote it. It’s legal. And you have final approval of the marriage date, which could be never.”

“And if I do say never, right now?”

“Then I won’t ever be happy, I guess, and if I may venture another, neither will your son.”

I felt my heart pounding in my chest. I hade been afraid Father might harm her, but I had underestimated how formidable she was.

Father laughed. “You…really are like this, aren’t you? You’d have to be; no one with even an ounce of guile would think of coming here and presenting me with this. Your great Aunt charmed me once, God help me…”

Deena stared at him with her big eyes, hopeful.

Father sighed. “You are welcome at Windor for the weekend, if it will compel my son speak to me again…”

I nodded.

“But just the weekend. I have your pledge of good behavior?”

She nodded vigorously.

“Very well,” he said. “Poss…show her to a room.”

I took her paw in my hand, and led her up to one of the guest rooms.

When we were within, I embraced her.

“I can’t believe you came,” I said.

“I heard about Albert and guessed it was you,” she said. “I reasoned your father withdrew you due to that, to get you out of the city.”

“He didn’t. He was more angry about our kiss. Does anyone else in your family know?”

She shook her head. “They are afraid your father will march on them soon.”

I sighed. “He might. Victoria is dead. Nothing can stop him.”

“A marriage could,” she said.

“Good luck convincing him of that,” I said.

“Convincing him doesn’t concern me,” she said.

“Well, what does?”

“…you. Do you…do you want to marry me?”

I laughed. “Shouldn’t I be asking you?”

She laughed as well, but she looked afraid.

“I love you, Deena,” I said. “Let me ask you. I want to do it in a certain way.”

She smiled. “Okay.”

“Let’s go for a walk outside,” I said. “A secluded spot. The family’s grotto.”

The grotto was all white with frost, layered on yellow grass and dead, once-soggy plants. Still, it was impressive to behold. I took two thick blankets with us for warmth.

The Obelisk of Darius, hewn and standing just as Mother had placed it, stood in the center of the grotto, with Darius’ name carved into it and runes along its smooth sides.

Stone benches and archways filled the grotto. There were no plants save grass and stubborn weeds: the grotto was intended for winter and the snow.

“Is this a tombstone?” Deena asked, running her fingers on the Obelisk.

I nodded. “That’s the grave of my ancestor Darius Windor. The first of the house, Mother’s husband.”

Deena frowned. “Mother? Oh right, the Night Gaunt…she seized him and raped him in the mountains.”

I laughed. “That would be the Auberge version, I suppose. He was a soldier home from the Crusade, a lone survivor of four brothers, home late after years of brutal degradation at the hands of a cruel Manticore warlord. He came here to toss himself off the mountain and onto the rocks below, but Mother caught him. Bandaged him. Soothed him. Released him, though he desired to be taken by her. He was the husband of the cruel Manticore by rape, and Mother held fast to the ancient ways.”

“Such was his desire for Mother that he returned to Eridia, to the sands and high stone tombs. He challenged the Manticore to divorce according to the ancient rite, but he was near crippled by the war, and after a grueling battle she overcame him. She prepared to put him back in demeaning servitude, but Mother had come. She descended on the warlord, and Manticore and Mother fought in the sky. And Mother was stronger. She tore the Manticore to shreds and carried Darius off in her claws.”

“Then she raped him,” Deena said.

I laughed. “I suppose so. She bore him three sons, and remained by his side as Lady of Windor. And when he died, she buried him in this spot, kissed her sons and their wives goodbye, and departed back to the mountain.”

She stared where I pointed, at the high white peak, still as a painting. “Is she still out there?”

“As far we we know. I saw her once, flying her lonely circle around the mountain. Every few years, she comes back to the grave to lay hemlock on it. Father says he even spoke to her a few times.”

“Well,” she said. “I just need to get in good with her, then.”

I laughed. “You can’t get in good with her. She doesn’t interact with us unless something’s wrong.”

“What does she do up there?” Deena asked.

“I asked Father that once,” I said. “He said, ‘she mourns.'”

“That’s so sad. Why don’t you go see her?”

“We can’t find her, God knows we’ve tried. Her cave is up there in some place we can’t find. It has to be hidden by some enchantment; we’ve searched every square inch.”

“I wonder why she doesn’t come down to visit,” she said.

“Honestly, I think her sons told her to go,” I said.

“Why would they do something so cruel?”

“Because they wanted to lead their own lives. Because as long as she was there, they were her children, not Lords.”

She stared out at he mountain. “It’s so quiet here,” she said.

Sure enough, the world here was still.

“You don’t like it?” I asked.

“I’m not used to it,” she said. “My life was always pianos playing, dancing, my brother and sister yelling, mother yelling at them, father snoring or laughing.”

“Uncle Horry would like this place,” she pronounced after a long pause. “Maybe it’s terrible to say, but he likes the quiet.”

“You said you desired peace,” I said. “This is peace.”

“I wonder why your family chose to go to Loudon if this is what they treasure.”

I shrugged. “The business with Albert had me asking the same question.”

She stared forward. “You said…he wanted me. To hurt me.”

I nodded.

“And you came to Auberge to get me for him, didn’t you?”

I sighed. “Not really. I told myself I did at first, but I came to see you. I never in a million years could have done it. And I poisoned him when I could not dissuade him from you.”

She looked back at me.

“I know people think I’m fearless,” she said. “But I do have one fear; you. I can only trust you, Frederick. I can’t see anything but goodness in you. I love you. I need to know…will you take care of me? Treat me right?”

“I killed a King, or damn near tried to, to keep you safe. I will treat you as if you were a part of me, because you are,” I whispered.

I got down on one knee. “Deena Stafford, will you marry me?”

“Of course I will,” she said. She leapt into my arms and kissed me.

Our kisses grew more intense. Our mouths opened. Our tongues mingled. She bit down on my lip a little, which made me grasp her tightly. We began to grow heated in the tasting of each other.

“I want you,” she said, breaking away.

“Okay…right here, right now,” I whispered, undoing my jacket.

“I-In the cold?”

“I sure as hell don’t want to do it in the house with Father there. We have the blankets,” I said. “And each other.”

“Okay then…” She said. She took off her jacket. I tossed her one of the blankets.

Inside of a minute Deena stood naked, covered only by her large shaggy blanket. She looked at me with her brown eyes, wide with anxiety. Her skin was covered in goosebumps.

“Oh, God…” I said. “You are so perfect. I put my hand to her cold hip, and my other to her perfectly round, small breast. She leaned in to it.

“You’re warm…” She said. “You need to get naked, too. I want to see you.”

I took off my clothes, and she saw the proof of my lust for her. She smiled and bit her lip.

She laid her blanket out flat on the cold grass, and got on all fours, her head low and her rear raised. My heart thumped in my chest, my manhood so hard I felt numb.

I entered her from behind, pushing into her mound of wet, damp hair and beyond into her welcoming silk womanhood, thrusting until my hips were up against the cheeks of her perfect ass. Her tail wrapped around me, warm and wriggling, snaking around my waist.

As I pushed in deeper, she forced her hips up further and buried her head in the blanket.

“Ohhhhh…” She said.

“Does it hurt? Do you want me to stop?” I asked.

“No!” She cried out. “It feels so good…do it. Fuck me.”

I started pumping. She moaned and cried out with each thrust, bouncing back onto me with force. We worked on each other, pushing and slapping, me thrusting and her enveloping. The frost around us began to melt. The cold of the air became hot, and sweat poured down our bodies.

I could see mist rising from us.

I pumped harder and more furiously, and Deena buckled harder and harder.

“Freddy!” She called out. My name – my real name – excited me, and I grabbed at her hair and pumped harder, and she cried out louder.

As I grasped her hair she began to shudder.

“Oh God…” She moaned. “It’s happening…Oh God!”

She shuddered and cried out. Her pussy pulsed on my thrusting cock, until I felt it rising up from my balls and I cried out as well.

My heart pounded in my chest as I released inside her, pulsing as she moaned. I collapsed onto her smooth back, slick with swear.

As I panted on top of her, the cold air gently biting at me I saw a large black shape circle the high peak on gently gliding wings.

I laughed.

“What is it?” Deena asked, wrapping a blanket around us as she cuddled to me.

“Mother is stirred,” I said. “I guess we made a lot of noise.”

We dressed (and kissed), and walked inside with our arms around each other.

We happened upon Father in the drawing room. He closed his boom as we approached.

“Ah, let me give you some privacy,” he said.

“Don’t leave on our accounts, my Lord,” Deena said.

“No, no…I must answer dispatches now. Much must be decided. Always there is work.”

“Eat with us, my Lord,” Deena said.

He squinted at her a moment. “I am far too busy, I’m afraid.”

“You should make time. Forgive me,” she said. “But you should not eat alone in your own house. When is the last time you ate with your son?”

“It has been some time,” he said. “Very well. I will see you then.”

When the dinner hour came, Deena and I sat with Father in the family dining room. It was smaller and more intimate, and I was surprised father agreed to it. Deena must have charmed him.

We ate pheasants and stewed onions. The meal was delicious, and the cider good, as always.

“Tell me,” my father asked. “What does your family think of your adventure here?”

“They don’t, um, know about it,” Deena said with a little laugh. “My mother would scream at me until she lost her voice.”

“And your Aunt Jewel?”

“She…” Deena swallowed. “She wants peace. She is afraid that with Victoria dead that you are going to attack us. She is hopeful that I can convince you to let me marry your son. She doesn’t think I can, though.”

Duke Loudon laughed mirthlessly. “Another marriage pact between our houses? Have you married anyone else in the last few days?”

“Absolutely not,” she said. “I love your son.”

“Your honesty makes you formidable,” he said. “But I cannot help but see history repeating.”

“I would never break your son’s heart,” Deena said. “My Aunt-“

“Heartbreak? Edward was against the marriage. Always was,” My father said. “He had wanted to marry Don D’Orio’s daughter ever since he was a lad. But our funds were exhausted, and Jewel made her offer, with a hearty dowry. It was a godsend.”

Father stared at the fireplace a moment. “I was still reluctant. I knew my son to be in love with a Human girl, and not drawn to Monstergirls in that way. But Jewel was persuasive, much like yourself, and the losses from overseas were even more persuasive than either of you.”

“Edward and I raged at each other for hours, until I told Edward if he refused we would be destitute. We did not speak for months. But when his allowance stopped coming – when I couldn’t send it anymore – he came around. We made peace, and he broke it off with D’orio’s daughter. I wrote to Jewel accepting her terms. She wrote back her agreement. But by then, Jewel had already married the Sorceror Derceto on a whim of lust.”

“She admits it was horrible mistake to ever leave my Uncle after their marriage,” Deena said. “It is the great regret of her life.”

“Magnanimous of her. My son spurned his lover for her. Jewel and he hated each other from the first, but that didn’t help. That’s why he fought the duel. He was furious. He hated Jewel for taking his love from him, and for refusing to make the same sacrifice.”

Deena listened intently.

“And then Jewel paid the Banehollows to threaten my son into choosing a pistol duel…” He took a drink. “Of course, Horace was a deadly shot. He killed him dead.”

“Uncle Horry almost died himself,” Deena added quietly.

“Yes, almost,” Father said. He sighed. “Victoria called us both together. Jewel agreed to pay the dowry in restitution. It was the last time I saw her. It was the price of peace. Money for my dead son, the continuation of my house. I hated to take it, but I did. We recovered and prospered. I have a son again. Now he is of age, and Auberges come back to harvest him…”

“You are a sweet girl, Deena Stafford,” he continued. “I could accept you as a daughter. But can you truly ask me to accept my son’s killers as my in-laws?”

She thought for a moment. “By your leave, I don’t think you want to make the same mistake twice, my Lord.”

“Odd counsel to give me. It is appreciated, but it does you little good to counsel me against trusting the Auberges-“

She shook her head. “No. That wasn’t your mistake. Your mistake was not letting your son marry the woman he loves.”

My father stared at her a moment. “I wish I had ten of you, Deena Stafford. I could negotiate my way to be Emperor of the Continent.”

He stared at me, “Is this what you want, Posthumous?”

I nodded and clutched Deena’s hand. “More than anything, father.”

“Well, then I guess I need to plan on a date…”

The rest of the evening passed with Deena continuing to charm my father, and me as well. It was nice to have her in the house – a ball of warmth and lovely energy.

We retired to the evening room, and Deena even got us laughing – a rare sound in our household.

“Sire,” Standish said, entering the room in his long coat. “A messenger has arrived from Loudon. It’s urgent, from your cousin Darius.”

“Well, send him in,” father said.

He took the letter and read, and as he did, the smile faded from his face, replaced by clenched teeth. He crumpled the letter and stared up into space.

My father’s nostrils flared.

“Jewel’s daughter has seized Antonio at Huntington lodge. It was a trap.”

“What?!” I asked. “They want a ransom?”

“Worse. She has taken him and declared him to be her husband,” Father’s eyes were red. The paper shook in his hands.

“Oh no…” I said. My heart sank. I saw the kind words that had melted my father’s heart slag away, and white hot rage fill him.

“She said she was fond of him,” Deena said, quietly. “They don’t know that-“

“Enough, little one,” my father said in a gruff tone. “The weekend is over. Return to your estate. Tell Duchess Auberge that I shall have back my grandson, and I shall have her daughter Molly’s head on a spike. Or I shall kill you all.

Deena swallowed. “I-I thank you for a pleasant stay, but the weekend is not yet over. I have another day-“

“No,” he said. “You leave now.”

“But-“

The front door burst open.

The chill wind of the late autumn filled the house. The candles extinguished. Deena grasped onto me, her ears flat. I felt my heart racing.

“She is coming,” My father said, standing from his chair.

The tall black shape that landed in the doorway was feminine, lit in the faint light of the moon off the snow through the windows.

Deena and I stood, and I bowed my head. Deena copied my lead.

She walked in among us, in the darkness. Deena was trembling next to me. I clasped her hand.

Mother took an ember from the dim fireplace and held it to one of the spent candles. The room glowed with light.

In the flicker of the lone candle she was still a shadow, but her skin reflected light, smooth as fine leather. Her face was proud and aristocratic, even beautiful, but she had no eyes. Where they should have been instead was a smooth patch, as though an artisan made a sculpture and left the face unfinished.

Despite lacking eyes, she moved as if she could see. She grasped the candle and held it in her long, shiny black fingers.

“Have you been listening, Mother?”
My father asked.

She nodded.

She walked to me first, and put a hand to my cheek. It was chilled at first touch, but a warmth came through. She smiled a row of sharp teeth, and kissed my forehead.

She came to Deena next.

She stood before Deena, her face inches from hers, seemingly studying her though she had no eyes.

Deena offered her hand and smiled.

Mother seemed shocked, and regarded it quizzically. Finally, she put her hand into Deena’s.

Deena bowed and kissed it.

Mother smiled. She kissed Deena’s forehead.

“Mother accepts her,” I said aloud, my heart leaping. “C-can we marry, Mother?”

She took my hand. Despite the claws and hard skin, it was tender and warm. She placed my hand into Deena’s pale paw.

Father looked livid. Mother came to him last, and kissed him. She embraced him and put his head to her chest, as though he were a child. He exhaled, and closed his eyes. The rage seemed to leave him.

“I thought you said you were listening,” He said calmly when she released him. “What would you have me do?”

She brought the candle to the large mirror over the fireplace. It fogged.

She began to trace her finger. It moaned and squeaked on the mirror.

“make peace” it said, flickering in the candle light.

“Just like that? What about Antonio?”

The mirror refogged. Her fingers wrote.

“you should have ackno”

“Yes, yes, I should have acknowledged him,” my father said, even as she was writing. “Ever do you second guess your descendants from your mountain perch.”

“sadly you are often foolish children with your silly honor and your castles and crusades and”

“Leaving that aside,” he said. “What about Antonio? Is he to be thrall to some-some spoiled Auberge brat?”

“what kind of girl is this spider woman”

“She’s cunning and a bit more aggressive than she should be,” Deena said. “But she has never mistreated a boy. She is good to men, always kind to her father and brother and her cousins. She’d never in a million years hurt her husband.”

“Except she took Antonio by deception and the old way,” Father said. “There is no reason to seize him. He’s innocent. He has no inheritance to speak of. She clearly intends him to be a thrall. I won’t have that life for him, not at the hands of the daughter of his father’s killers.”

“It is just the opposite,” Deena said. “If she took him without any material gain, it means she has feelings for him. And she didn’t know that he was a Loudon. If she knew, she’d feel awful doing it this way. She’d have done it with care. I know Molly. She’s not doing this to hurt anyone.”

Mother stared back and forth between them, and began to write.

“bring the spider girl here”
“let me judge her”
“if she refuses make your war”
“spare this one”
“if she marries Frederick now”

Deena’s eyes widened. “I-I wanted a big wedding, with Mama there and-“

“you must become one of us little one”
“now”
“by the ancient way you must aid your mate in war”
“it is the only way we can trust you”

“I have your betrothal contract,” Father said. “I set the date. The date is now: this moment, or never.”

Deena swallowed. She looked at me. “I-I guess we do it now.”

I nodded, my heart racing.

Mother took soot from the fireplace, and traced it on Deena’s forehead. She then put the soot to my own head. It felt rugged, and some fell into my eyes.

Deena’s eyes met my own. She smiled in the light, though there was worry in her eyes. She wanted her family there, and a big wedding, but we did not always get what we wanted in life.

Mother looked back at my father.

“I shall gain a fine daughter out of this, at least,” he said.

He grasped Deena by the paw, and put it into my hand. I clasped it tightly. Deena smiled.

“you are sworn to us”
“you are Windor now”
“do you accept?”

“Of course,” she said. “It won’t come to war. I can fix all of this. I have to.”

I kissed her.

“I will go with you,” I said.

“Absolutely not. If the Auberges get you they can hold you as captive,” father said.

“your father is correct”
“Deena must go alone”

“No,” I said, clasping Deena’s hand. “Deena just left her family for us. For me. It’s a poor showing if we can’t return her sacrifice. We don’t deserve her unless I go.”

Father looked at Mother for a moment. He nodded.

“Very well,” he said. “But Molly and Antonio must come here and be presented to Mother. And we shall see what her judgement is.”

We stopped off on the way to Auberge in the town of Anor Yharys. The town was a bustling one, the nearest to Loudon. To the north and west was the road to Auberge.

Deena and I traveled openly. I had my pistol and dagger, and the roads were safe.

We decided to step into the inn to eat. It was a quiet place, although it was somewhat packed on that day. We got a few plates of lamb and sat down to a small meal.

Deena was going over what she would say to Jewel when a messenger approached, by his dress, from Loudon.

“Posthumous Loudon?” The red-coated man said. “A message for you from the capital.”

He handed me a covered bag and a letter, a letter with a plain wax seal. I opened the letter first and read:

“Loudon,
I woke up. I wanted to keep that quiet until I could talk to you.

You cheeky bastard.

She was a little old, but still surprisingly supple. She tried to keep from screaming, but eventually she was whimpering like a little girl. They always wind up that way. I showed her her own horns before she died. That makes them freak out, did you know that? I know it now. She told me everything, of course. I know about the mind vine, and Utley told me all about your little kiss.

Come dine with me at the palace. We have much to discuss. We’ll be collecting little Deena too. I think you need to see what I do. I know I’m curious about it myself

-A”

Swallowing, I folded the letter and opened the box. Inside were two bloodied yellow horns and a pair of hooves.

“Dreia!” I exclaimed. I felt nauseous.

I looked around the room in horror, and saw, peering beneath a cloak, the beetle face of Lord Utley.

He smiled.

Men all around us stood. Swords were drawn. Hammers cocked. Locals scrambled out the doors.

“What-” Deena began.

The messenger drew his sword and put it to my throat.

“The King desires your presence,” the soldier said. “And your…companion as well. Most fortunate, it saves us a trip.”

I opened my mouth to speak, but I felt a hilt across my head, and everything went black.

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