Heir of Loudon, Part 3

Disclaimer: this story is darker than later stories.

Pastebin link: https://pastebin.com/r39HYh6F

I woke to the pain in my mouth. It felt sore, like having teeth pulled. Tracing with my tongue I felt them all, no gaps, but a pain along my gums.

I tried to bring my hands to my face, but they didn’t budge. There was rope tied tightly about my hands and feet.

Deena was on her side, facing me. Her eyes were shining in the faint light.

“Deena?” I whispered.

“Keep quiet,” She responded. “You don’t need another crack across the face.”

“Are you okay?”

“They were rough, but I’m fine,” she said. I saw a faint outline of blood on her lip.

“We have to get you away,” I said. “Can you cut your bonds?

She struggled. “No. They were smart enough to tie me high up.”

“Maybe…maybe you can reach mine,” I whispered.

She tried to move, but the area was too tight. “I can’t get over to you.”

“Deena, listen…Albert is…”

“I know,” she said. “A killer.”

“I’ll get you out of here,” I said, as much to myself as to her.

She took a deep breath. “I don’t suppose our families know where we are.”

“Probably not,” I said. “I’d half expect them to be spying on us, but they just as easily could think the other side snatched us.”

Deena shook her head. “I’m…I’m frightened, Freddy.”

“I am too,” I said. “But we’ll…it will…” I stammered for some word of comfort. “We can survive it.”

She smiled bravely, but knew that probably wasn’t true.

I hoped for a time or means to escape, but it never came. The carriage brought us over an arced wooden bridge, and I recognized the noises of the thuds. The Royal Castle drawbridge.

We were dragged through the halls and passageways until we made our way to the King’s chambers.

The lavish bed was laid out with a deep crimson canopy. Albert’s rakes were sitting around on the armchairs which circled the fireplace.

A desk and wooden chair were near the doorway, and we were seated in two plain wooden chairs near them.

We waited there for hours. Albert was away on some task, doubtless involving drugs or girls or booze. When I thought I might go made from the agony of dread, Albert and three of his rakes finally entered from one of the side passages. His nose, or more accurately where his nose had been, was covered by a bandage. His face was still purple and bruised from the wounds inflicted months ago by my mind vines. His eyes were red and running. He looked at me and for a second, I saw pure rage.

“Hello Poss,” he said to me, trying to smile but only baring his teeth. He looked over at Deena, and I felt sick. “…and, finally, at great cost, you bring the Stafford whore to me.”

Deena stared at him, her face a mixture of puzzlement and horror.

“You’ve looked better,” I said dryly.

“Funny you should mention that. The little druid slut panicked and tried to save my life. But she was an idiot and didn’t know what she was doing. Still, I rewarded her…” He patted the wooden chair near his desk, and I recognized the shape of the arm. A femur.

“You are a hideous bastard,” I said.

He laughed. “Less hideous than you. There is a special circle of hell for servants who betray their masters. The deepest circle, they say.”

“You were never my master.”

“I am King,” he said. “I am master of all. My enemies shall go to deepest hell, because I am God’s instrument. I am God…” He traced his finger on the wooden chair. “See how I take life? Mortal men take a tree and make a chair. I did it with a dancer.”

Deena was shaking. “You are a blasphemy!” She exclaimed.

Albert regarded her coldly. “I saw beyond life, cat whore. I saw the lakes of fire, but I was above them, in the sky among the clouds. Angels ministered to me, and brought me virgins to service me.”

Albert crossed the distance to her. Deena grimaced and looked away, bracing herself. “As you shall service me…”

“Albert, listen to me,” I said. A numbness filled me, and a quiet, unfathomable menace. “If you touch her, if you hurt her now, I will do worse to you than the mind vine. You will wish it had bored a hole through your brain. I will see you destroyed beyond what you could even fathom.”

Albert looked over at me and grinned. He reached over and grabbed Deena’s breast and squeezed violently. She grimaced and struggled.

I raged against my bonds, struggling to pull myself free. Albert stared back and forth between us. His rakes laughed. Utley leaned in inches from my face, with a dumb grin plastered on his beetle face.

“A-At least I will have you with me,” Deena said, looking at me. “I’ll be strong for my husband, Your Majesty. I won’t cry out.”

Damn it, Deena, I almost screamed. I struggled with my bonds.

“No, Deena,” I whispered.

Albert glared at her, then at me. “Hmmm…perhaps it is best, to send you away. I had thought to make you watch would be worse, but perhaps imagining it will be better. Perhaps showing you afterward will be more fun. Take him to the dungeon,” he said to Utley.

I struggled, but Utley and two of Albert’s rakes subdued me. I felt a crack across the back if the head, and I went limp.

When I came to, I was being dragged down the halls of the Royal Palace. The stone steps of the dungeon were before me.

“Ahhh, you’re awake,” Utley said. It’s into the cuckold cell with you,” he sneered. He leaned in close to my ear. “I plan to put my dick in her, right after His Majesty,” he whispered.

I struggled and broke free, elbowing Utley in the face before the rakes grabbed me.

“Hold him fast!” Utley shouted, clutching at his nose. He drew his knife.

“His Majesty wants to kill you himself, but I can take that pretty nose of yours off first, can’t I? His Majesty may even reward me…”

He leaned in, twisting the blade in the light just inches from my eyes, when suddenly he was jerked backward. His blade clanged on the ground.

A gray shadow loomed over Utley, and a gray arm clasped him by the top of his head, and pulled his gaze upward. A second arm swiftly traced a dagger across his exposed neck, and blood poured forth as an airless gasp escaped Utley’s lips.

Utley collapsed, grasping at his throat, as the tall grey shadow wiped a knife on his still falling body.

My arms were wrenched free as I saw two Hellhounds with jet black fur give the rakes holding me a similar fate to Utley.

As I surveyed the dead and saw their blood pool around me, I recognized a Bible chained to my savior’s belt.

The Reverend Banehollow stood before me. His face was wizened like an old tree, his sharp teeth clenched beneath his wide brim hat.

“T-thank you, Reverend. Deena…” I said, rubbing at my arms and my sore mouth. “We have to get to Deena.”

“Are you alright, Poss?”

Antonio emerged into my sight, a clean backsword in his hand.

“Antonio!” I exclaimed. We embraced. “How did you find me?”

“I saw them take you at the Inn,” Mercurial said, stepping into view. “I was watching over Deena at Windor. I headed to Auberge as soon as I could to get help.”

“I came as well,” Antonio said. “I know the secret tunnels in the palace, after all.”

“But you…Molly-” I stammered.

“Much has happened,” Reverend Banehollow interjected. “But where is Lady Stafford?”

“I had thought you would both be in the dungeon,” Antonio said.

“No. Albert took us to the Royal chamber,” I said. “He…sent me away. We have to get there. God help us, he’s probably already started…”

“Into the King’s Bedroom then,” Antonio said. “That’s the quickest. This way.”

“I need a sword,” I said.

Mercurial grasped up the saber from Utley’s hand.

“This should suffice,” he said handing it to me by the hilt.

“My youngest, Damina, and my wife, Lilith,” Banehollow said, sweeping his hand at the two hounds. The fierce women growled but said nothing.

We raced through the halls, ducking around corners and hiding from guards, until we reached

The King’s Bedroom was not where he slept; that was the Royal bedchamber. The Bedroom was a peculiar tradition, a place where the monarch would receive morning guests.

The room was ornate, ringed with red tapestries and a deep red carpet. The bed itself was white and flowered, a pattern Victoria enjoyed which Albert had yet to replace.

Normally this late at night it should have been unattended, but Albert doubtless feared a Loudon assault, and had guards posted to secure the secret entrance to his own room.

Six guards in royal crimson – five men and one giant Oni – stood in our path. These were Albert’s best, his most loyal soldiers. Likely they had all partaken in his corruptions.

Seeing us, they drew their swords.

The large Oni brandished a massive Claymore in her hands. Damina stepped forward, readying her backsword, her teeth bared. The Oni narrowed her eyes and began to circle.

The Oni was about to dart in when Lilith sprung from the shadows with a powerful leap and a growl, and buried a dagger in the Oni’s neck. The Oni collapsed to her knees, blood pouring out of her wound, as Lilith raised the dagger and plunged in again and again.

Damina moved in for the kill as well, thrusting her sword through the Oni’s center, and she collapsed unmoving in short order.

In the span of the Oni’s death, the Reverend Banehollow had killed three of the other guards and his son had killed two. Antonio finished off the last with a slice across the face.

I moved aside the red tapestry on the far wall and pulled the lever. The passageway creaked open, revealing the stairs up to the King’s Chamber room.

“Let’s go,” I said, my heart in my throat.

“Steel yourself, young Lord,” Banehollow said. “Keep your head.”

I nodded.

We raced up the stone steps, swords drawn, into the dark unlit tunnels until we reached the outline of light at the top. Banehollows words echoed in my ears. Steel myself. But how could I? Beyond that door, it had been minutes, and Albert eas not a man of deliberation.

I put a foot to the door and kicked it open, my sword ready, and darted into the light, expecting to see the worst.

I did not get what I expected.

A secret passage -one I did not know- was wide open, to a stone pathway lit by flickering torches. Twenty men in Loudon purple were in the room, the slashed and mangled corpses of Albert’s rakes at their feet.

Father was in the corner, looming over Albert. He had pinned him with a saber through the shoulder, and royal blood was gushing onto the floor.

The Loudon troops lifted their weapons as we entered.

“Hold!” My father’s voice shouted, seeing me. “Frederick, Thank God you are alright.”

“I’m okay, Father, where is-“

I saw her. Deena was curled up on the bed, bloodied and naked. I saw her chest shudder.

“Deena!” I yelled, running to her.

She was shaking like a leaf.

“Your cloak, soldier!” I yelled to the nearest Loudon man.

The young lad hastily removed his long purple cloak. I layered it over my wife and hugged her into my arms.

“You’re safe, now,” I whispered. “You’re safe. Oh God, did he…” I asked, putting my hands to the sides of her face and staring into her brown eyes.

She shook her head. “I-I’m fine. He hit me,” she said, taking deep breaths. I saw a bite mark on one of her cat ears, and red blood leaking down. “He hit me really hard. I was so scared. Then your Father came in.”

She hugged me tightly. “F-Freddy…don’t let him near me.”

“Never again,” I said.

Father came and embraced us both. Two Loudon men put their swords at Albert’s throat in his absence.

He took Deena’s chin in his hands gently and looked in her eyes.

“Did he?”

She shook her head. “T-thank you, Lord Loudon,” she said.

“Call me Ferris, or Father,” he said. “You are our blood. We will see justice done for this.”

“How did you find out we were taken?” I asked.

“I sent some of our men to keep an eye on you. They returned immediately, and I took four regiments through the escape passage.”

“I didn’t know there was one,” I said.

“Only Victoria and I knew all the passageways,” he said. “We explored them together in our youth. I reasoned this is where Albert would take you, being a fool with no discretion.”

“This-this is treason against your King,” Albert said to the Loudon guards. “I-I am your King. Your highest loyalty is to me!”

It was a useless plea, of course. Father brought his very best and most loyal troops. My Father clenched his jaw. He took up his sword again and walked over to Albert. The King tried to crawl deeper into the corner.

“I had high hopes for you, Your Grace,” Father said in a calm voice. “I hoped you would have Victoria’s steadiness and your father Albert’s sentimentality. I see now why Victoria sent you abroad. She wanted to hide what a nightmare you were. What dark secrets they must have had in their souls, to birth a demon like you.”

He put the tip of his sword to Albert’s throat. The King started whimpering.

“I shall end you here.”

“Wait, father,” I said. “Send everyone out. Let you and I remain. Then no one will know which of us wielded the sword.”

“Does it matter?”

“It might. Don’t let men see a royal slain. It will set a bad example.”

He stared at me a moment, then nodded. “Leave us.”

“You go too, Deena,” I said. “Leave us. Don’t be party to this business.”

Deena nodded, barely aware of what was going on. Mercurial escorted her out, the cloak tight about her, flanked by the Banehollow hounds.

I took my sword in my hand. Father took his.

We walked to wear Albert lay cowering. Wimpering. As the door shut, Albert screamed.

“The country will be in turmoil for at least a decade,” Father said, wiping his sword as we left the room.

“That is Albert’s fault, not ours.”

“What happens next will be completely on us. The bloodshed has only just begun tonight,” Father added. “We have many enemies, and they won’t accept the King’s murder or our Regency. We need to strike first.”

He casually handed me a list.

“When did you write this?”

“On the way to Loudon,” he said. He took a deep breath. “It helped take my mind off things.”

I read down the list. Some of the names were people I knew to be good, some the opposite. But all were people who had crossed Father at one point in the last thirty years.

“Holy Jesus, father…” I exclaimed.

“I told you war was bad,” Father said. “Try to do this as moral men and we shall all die. You, me, Deena…”

“Shall I have men take the King’s books to Loudon Manor?”

Father nodded. “Have it done quickly. Take a regiment to escort it. Order them to kill anyone who tries to get near it. That cannot fall into the hands of our enemies.”

We began the ‘cleanup’ as it were. The Royal troops were in their barracks. Father had enough friends among the guard to keep them loyal, and those who weren’t were quickly neutralized.

Loudon purple was everywhere in the Palace. Our soldiers were carrying out the corpses in bags. Among them was a bag with Victoria’s crest, destined for the royal crypt. The others were destined for the bog where the hanged men were thrown.

Deena glared at the royal marker. “I’m glad he’s dead,” She said. “How did-?”

“He whimpered and begged us to spare his life. Said he was sorry,” I said.

Deena shook her head. “Like that would make it all okay.”

“What’s that?” Reverend Banehollow asked, pointing at two Loudon soldiers carrying the chest.

“Books,” I said. “Documents. Manifests. We shall need them during the Regency.”

He took a long sniff and narrowed his eyes. “I see. Far be it from me to stand in the way of book-keeping.”

My father walked up, then, and Banehollow’s face froze in a grim look. My father’s was the same.

“Banehollow.”

“Loudon.”

“Thank you for rescuing my son,” Father said.

“Thank you for rescuing my son’s patron,” he responded. “I suspect you would like to know that Nera Stafford is headed here with fifteen thousand Auberge troops. She will be here by first light.”

“You have her trust?”

“I do,” he said.

“Then I entreat you to bring her news of what has happened. Tell her to leave the army by Holde Hill and come no closer with it, and tell her she is invited to Loudon Manor. Let her know that Deena is safe, and with her husband.”

“I will deliver your message,” he said.

Father handled the dark parts of the night, to start at least. I supervised the transport of the King’s chest to Loudon Manor. I had it placed in the Navy Room, which only father and I could access, and I posted three guards outside it.

But I did not shirk my duties. I took some of the names from the list and visited them with soldiers. The less said about it, the better.

When I returned, I spent the few hours of night that remained with Deena. We said little, just cuddled together on my bed, holding each other. Every so often she would feel at my mouth, and ask if it still hurt. I would lie and say it didn’t. I would check the bandage on her ear.

Otherwise we just held each other, and trembled at how close we had come to ruin, and savored the fact that we still were together and safe.

Nera arrived in the city with Lord Banehollow a few hours after dawn, and called on us in Loudon Manor. She was arrayed in a full uniform, her ears poking out from beneath an officer’s hat. She looked much like Deena, but her ears were browner and her eyes blue.

She grasped Deena up in a hug, and lifted her off the ground.

“Oh Dee Dee! Did they hurt you? Are you okay?”

“I’m okay, Mama. I’m okay. Albert was hitting me, and he bit my ear! But then Lord Loudon came in through a secret passage, and Freddy got me a cloak and I’m okay,” Deena babbled excitedly.

“Oh I’m so glad you’re okay! My Dee Dee!” She clutched her again.

“Where is Albert?” She asked, her eyes flashing.

“Dead,” I said. “We slew him in his den like a mad beast.”

Lady Stafford frowned. “I suppose that’s good, though I wanted to see him hanged from a tree like a common murderer.”

My father came down the stairs slowly, warily.

“Lady Stafford,” he said with a bow.

Lady Stafford raced over to him. Our guards jumped in alarm, as did my Father, but she merely grabbed his hand and kissed it repeatedly.

“Thank you for saving my daughter,” she said. “Thank you, thank you.”

Father was caught off-guard, as Stafford catgirls tended to do to him. He smiled as he attempted to gently get his hand free.

“I-It would be a crime to let something happen to so fine a girl. She is my daughter-in-law, now.”

“I heard. I would have been furious with that days ago, but you saved her life,” she said. “I did not trust you or your son. Forgive me.”

“There is nothing to forgive,” Father said. “Our families have long distrusted each other. But by necessity that must all end now.”

Lady Stafford sighed. “In the meantime we are all safe. I’m glad for that.”

“And if Deena is now a Loudon daughter,” Nera said, standing before me. “You are now my Stafford son.”

“I’m honored,” I said.

“Deena thinks the world of you,” Lady Stafford said to me. “She thinks you hung the moon.”

“I’m very lucky in that,” I said. “And she loves her family very much, enough to brave our ancestral house and talk to us.”

She kissed my forehead. “I like you, Frederick Loudon. My daughter was very wise to pick you.”

“Will you send word to Auberge, mother?” Deena asked. “Ask Molly and Jewel to come.”

“Are they safe here?”

“I am. You are. Antonio is,” Deena said. “They will be, too.”

“You have my pledge,” my father said. “We can all read our situation. We must meet.”

Nera nodded. “I will write to your father as well,” she said to Deena. “He rode to muster the rest of our forces. He was so worried, he wanted to come here as well, but Jewel said we might need the full army. We can tell him that is no longer necessary.”

“I would hold off on that last piece, for now,” my father said grimly. “I think we must make ready for war. Hopefully, not against each other.”

In the span of a few days we heard word that the Duchess of Auberge and her daughter were on there way, with four hundred guards and the Banehollows as escort.

The city itself was quiet. Pensive. Father’s (and my) swiftness in dispatching our enemies had secured our hold on Loudon, but had terrified the population. Everyone was afraid to move, and knew a storm was coming.

Even in the House of Lords, men were subdued for fear of us, although we were certain that letters were flying back and forth and soldiers being mustered, deals being made. Half were coming from us.l and begging them to stay in the fold.

Only the rumor of an alliance between Loudon and Auberge gave the rest of the nobility pause, and Jewel and Molly made their way to Loudon Manor for the fateful meeting.

I wished Father hadn’t chosen the study for it. I had suggested the office, but he insisted on doing it in his study, with the wall of our dead watching. With Edward watching.

Deena had wanted to mediate, but Father had refused her. It would just be Auberge and Loudon, and their heirs, to discuss the fates of their families.

If this meeting went poorly – if father decided Edward needed to be avenged – we would all be killed.

Jewel entered the room, her daughter Molly skittering in behind her.

“Ferris,” Jewel said with a bow.

“Hello, Jewel,” he responded icily. He looked at Molly. “And my new granddaughter has come as well, I see.”

Molly sighed. “My Lord-“

“Ferris, I think recent events have pulled us past all that.”

“You would think that. You tell me: if you discovered that your son Titus had been led about naked on a leash in public by his rapist, would you be willing to let the matter drop?”

“We were not in public,” Molly said. “We were on the grounds at Auberge. Alone, or…so we thought. A servant who has since been…retired…happened on us. And Antonio really likes-.”

“That was stupidly done,” Jewel said quickly, cutting off a revelation that would have doubtless enraged my father. “A mistaken game of youth, not to be replicated. I’ll point out that your own son coupled with my niece near Darius’ grave, in the frost.”

I sighed. “Mercurial…”

“We sent him to keep an eye on Deena,” Jewel said. “He saw everything, including your Night Gaunt circle above the mountain.”

Father glared at me. I turned red.

“That explains Mother’s keen interest in you two,” Father said. “Even leaving aside my son’s perversion, he has always treated Deena with kindness.”

“As do I!” Molly shouted. “Everyone’s acting like I’m mean to Antonio. I’m not. He’s very, very happy with me.”

“Oh yes, I have heard that from his own lips,” Father said. “I’m not sure if that makes things worse or better. Lord knows what you did to break him…”

“I have never, and will not ever, hurt your grandson,” Molly said.

“Well, we’ll see what Mother says,” My father said. “You will agree to meet her?”

“I’ll go to Windor, yes,” Molly said.

“There’s no need to go there,” Father said. “Mother is in the city.”

“She’s here?” Jewel asked.

“Indeed. Watching us even now, I suppose.”

Jewel shifted uncomfortably and eyed the bay window. “What happens if Mother doesn’t approve?”

“If you expect me to trust you with my grandson, Jewel, you can trust your daughter with Mother for a few hours,” Father said. “Bring Deena along. Mother likes her, and will be kindly disposed toward you. Unless she detects a lie.”

“There’s no lie,” Molly said. “I’m not afraid of this…Mother. If she doesn’t approve of me, she can explain it to me.”

She wouldn’t explain, she’d eat your mind, I thought to myself. Thank God they were ignorant of the extent of what Mother could do if she was displeased with someone.

“Let it be so, then,” Jewel said. “But remember harming my daughter would be most imprudent. It seems to me that our families are joined through marriage,” Jewel said, looking at me. “Quite thoroughly.”

“We are joined by a closer bond, in murder,” Father replied. “As hideous of a beast as Albert was, he was King. And we all conspired against him, assaulted his palace, and murdered him in it. You marched troops on his city. Unless we present a united front, I shall lose Loudon and the next King will have us all hanged.”

“What do you need?” Jewel asked.

“I need your pledge of support,” Father said. “Pledge your troops to our side, and support my Regency and the tavern girl’s bastard, and the other Lords will fall into line.”

“The Earl of Kroy won’t,” Jewel said. “He has a bastard of his own, a six year old boy that he claims Albert fathered by one of his own daughters. He’s…already contacted us for aid.”

“His claim is better than ours,” I said. “Maddie’s child is not yet born, and she is a commoner.”

“Perhaps we should allow Kroy’s bastard to have the throne,” Molly said. “A noble bastard of six years old is probably the best of all claims. I doubt Albert had one older. And it would forestall a war most surely.”

“It would, but Kroy is the worst of all claimants,” Father responded. “He’d insist on a Regency as the child is his blood. The man will loot everything that isn’t nailed down, retire all the Viceroys and install his own. We’d have civil war inside of three weeks.”

“And the city won’t accept him,” I added. “The Kroy Sack of Loudon was only forty years ago. Half the city lost a relative in it. If he were only smart enough to realize that-“

“He isn’t,” Father said. “Kroy’s wanted power for decades. I won’t have him getting his hands on the city. And he has no proof the bastard is Albert’s. For all we know it’s his. His proclivities in that regard are…disturbing, so I hear.”

“He’s only dangerous if he can get the other Northern lords on his side. What about the Viceroys?” Jewel asked. “Even with our forces combined, the Viceroys have more troops and money than we do. And they are sworn directly to the King we just murdered.”

“They are good men and monsters, for the most part,” father said. “They are all Victoria’s choices, and thus my choices. They will need some consideration though. My plan is to send my son to Idia to speak with Viceroy Marlin. He’s an old friend…”

“And Kroy’s brother in law.” I added.

“That’s the complication. We have to make sure Marlin remains loyal. His wife will doubtless want him to support the Kroys. If we show him Deena and Frederick as a marriage pact, and can convince him that the our houses have allied, he’ll think twice about getting involved.”

“Let Deena talk to him,” father said to me. “She’s good at it. You let him know what will happen to him and his wife if he doesn’t listen to her.”

“I shall. There’s also two bastard twin girls in Rovignon,” I said. “The King of deTerre apparently has taken them in to foster them.”

“He’s just doing it to make sport with us,” Father said. “Doubtless he’ll trot them out whenever he wants to embarrass the country. Damned deTerrans…I’ll have Ambassador Dreyfus ask the King for his price for them.”

“What do we buy with his price? Executions?” I asked.

“The girls themselves,” Father said. “We marry them off into our families and we secure ourselves against rival claims.”

“Do we have any suitable males for them?” I asked.

“We might, very soon,” Jewel said. “There is only one other matter between us,” She looked over at the picture of Edward. “The oldest one.”

“Yes.”

“I am sorry for your grief.”

“I am not. If I felt nothing I’d be convinced I was inhuman. You’re not sorry he’s dead?”

“No,” she said. “He hated me, and he had ample opportunity to withdraw from The Duel…”

“After what you cost him?”

“He could have gone back to her, or tried to…”

“You can’t go back to someone after you leave them for money.”

“I did. I swallowed a lot of pride, I looked like both a fool and a conniver, but I did it.”

“You looked like what you were,” father shot back.

“Fairly said. I won’t deny my mistakes, but you deny your son’s, and it is the source of all our conflict. I have wanted nothing but peace with you all these years. Your son was cruel and mean.”

“As are we, you and I,” my father replied. He waved his hand at me and Molly. “And the people we love are cruel and mean. We still love them.”

“Deena isn’t. Antonio isn’t. They’re just good,” she paused. “So is Horace. So was your own Emilia. For the sake of the future, for their sakes, we must have peace between each other. We cannot ally and then connive to ruin each other as we have done these decades.”

“We shall have peace,” my father said. “I shall accept your family for my son’s sake, and because Deena is an exceptional creature. She is truly the best of you. And I can find it in me to esteem your daughter if Mother does. But don’t expect me to forgive you. I never shall.”

Jewel looked sad. “I suppose that is the best I can hope for.”

As we exited, Deena collapsed into my arms and kissed me furiously.

“How did it go?” She asked in between covering my lips with her own

“Well enough. Father hates your Aunt Jewel, but they have pledged to aid each other.”

“And Molly?”

“You and she are to meet with Mother tonight,” I said.

“Okay, Mother will be fine,” she said. “She’s a sweetheart.”

“A sweetheart who can kill with nightmares,” I said. “Just…be careful.”

“Mother and Molly will get along,” Deena said. “I’m good at judging people.”

I went downstairs and checked on the King’s chest in the Navy Room. I made sure it was not molested and the guards were alert.

I entered Father’s study. He was sitting in his chair, looking at the picture of Edward.

“I hope I’m doing right by him,” Father said. “Would he understand all this?”

I sighed, taking a seat near the fire. “Probably not,” I said. “But then I didn’t know him. I mean, was he actually…”

“Actually what?”

“Well, did he ever ask after Antonio?” I asked. “Have any interest?”

Father stared at the fireplace. “We never talked about it. I knew it happened, of course. D’Orio told me. But Edward never mentioned it.”

“It never came up, when he discussed leaving? Taking his son with him, or seeing him?”

“No. It wouldn’t make sense. He…he had others,” Father said.

“Others?”

“Across the countryside. D’Orio told me about it. They are very relaxed about such things there. I tried to track them down, but…” He shrugged, looking at the portrait. “Edward liked women. It’s not a crime to like them. It’s a crime to like them the way Albert did.”

“But you said he loved the D’Orio girl.”

“He did. Well, he said he did,” he sighed. “Edward was my son. I loved him. But he was a fool. Jewel is right about that.”

He looked at me. “You are a fool too, but a different kind. You rejected Albert. Edward and he would have been thick as thieves…”

“No,” I said. “Edward wouldn’t go for that stuff. I won’t believe that.”

“Maybe not, but he wouldn’t care that Albert did,” my father said. “You cared. For good or for ill, I don’t know yet. You have secured the case?”

I nodded. “It’s in the Navy room.”

“Mother would rather it were done at Windor, at Darius’ grave.”

“How could we leave the city right now?” I asked. “If we did half the guard would bolt to the other side.”

“That’s what I told her. You know her. None of that stuff matters.”

“Molly and Deena will be talking to her now.”

“I hope Molly acquits herself well. If not, this house will be awash in blood by morning, and the country for decades after. All of us will be extinguished.”

When I left Father’s study, his words stayed with me. I waited in my room for word of the meeting. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t.

Deena entered an hour before midnight.

“H-how did it go?” I asked, leaning up in bed.

“Mother and Molly had a very nice chat. Antonio came with us.”

“He did?”

“Yes; that was my idea. She saw he was happy and healthy, and he spoke fiercely for Molly. They had a discussion about who his father was.”

“I see,” I said. “How did he-“

“He knew. He’s always known. He never told Molly because he wasn’t sure how to do it. He was afraid she’d hate him and he’d lose her.”

“I shall miss Mother,” Deena said, cuddling into bed with me. “I hope we see her again.”

“You’ll have your wish. We’re seeing Mother again soon,” I said.

“Oh? Why?”

I cleared my throat. “The contents of the chest from the royal palace need to be addressed. We head down in an hour.”

“I thought she didn’t care about books or manifests or receipts.”

I let her statement hang in the air for a moment.

“She doesn’t,” I replied at last.

Deena and I met Father in the Navy Room, at midnight. The guards were gone; Father had dismissed them. Molly and Antonio arrived a few minutes later.

“What is this about?” Molly asked, yawning. “I was…settling in after that lovely chat with Lady Windor.”

“This room is very nice,” Deena said. “What’s it for?”

“It’s a room for secrets,” I said.

“And the greatest of our secrets is this: we are not Loudons. All of you are Windors now, by blood, or marriage. The frost and mountains are who we are,” Father said. “What happens now goes back to the days of Darius, to the defeat of his first wife Dania. And to the capture of his daughter’s slayer. Ever was it my dream to bring Horace Auberge to this fate, but that time has passed. Instead his daughter stands among us.”

“The Loudons of old hanged their enemies, as we do in the name of the King’s justice. The Banehollows cut their throats. The Windors…we wait until a dark night, with no moon. And we give our enemies to Mother.”

Father opened the case, and tugged out its contents.

Deena gasped and shrieked, grabbing my arm.

“Y-you said he was dead!” She said, beholding the mangled, still-breathing form of Albert before her.

“It’s alright,” I said. “He can’t harm anyone now.”

“This is the one, Mother,” my father said toward the darkness of the room. “The King who tried to kill our Deena and Frederick.”

Mother appeared from the shadows, tall and imposing. Her razor teeth were clenched, and seemed to dance and distort about, as if her whole face was a mouth of jagged teeth. The beauty of her face was gone, and now the world seemed to shift between reality and a cruel distortion in her presence.

Yet even as her teeth gnashed and the world around her flickered in nightmare, she made no noise. She just loomed onward toward her prey.

Albert’s chest rose and fell, he struggled but he was bound. He cried out as Mother neared him.

When she leaned down, it was as if she entered into him through his eyes, as if the darkness and shadow of the room poured in like black poison.

Albert convulsed, shuddering, his face bloating and turning purple, and finally he let out a loud, inhuman cry before his skin blackened, cooked by some unseen flame.

Deena clutched my arm tighter. I buried her head into my chest.

When the screaming and smell of burning human flesh had stopped, Mother was gone, on her soundless wings heading back toward Windor.

“Well,” Molly said, skittering over to the blackened, steaming remnant of Albert. “I’m glad she liked me.”

“Don’t inhale the vapor,” Father said. “It’s nightmare.”

We all found ourselves exhausted by even the witnessing of Mother’s rage, and we retired to our rooms.

We both stripped, and I crawled into bed and Deena rested her head onto my chest. She started purring loudly.

Her cat ear hovered near my mouth, and I blew on it gently, watching it tweak her ear.

The ear went flat. “Stop it,” she said gruffly, a small smile on her face.

I kissed her impishly, reveling in the taste of her lips and her breath.

“How bad is it going to get, Freddy?”

I swallowed. “Bad. Kroy will fight us. You and I shall be off to Idia soon to convince his brother in law not to join him. It will be a tough nut to crack.”

“I always wanted to see Idia,” Deena said a smile of amazement on her lips.

I laughed and kissed her. “That’s why I love you, Deena: you always find the positive in anything.”

“I don’t think it will be as bad as you say,” she replied. “I think things will turn out alright.”

I snuggled up to her. “I hope you are right.”

We kissed again, and kissing turned to petting, and petting turned to a long embrace, and the embraced turned to thrusting and climax, and ecstasy and pleasure.

Whatever else was in store for us, there was peace between the Loudons and the Auberges. We were now both, together, all at once.

Tomorrow would bring challenges with it, but in the night, and this moment, I had Deena. She cuddled up to me, and we slept peacefully.

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