“The Unforgiven”, Chapter Two

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The Kings Summons

Chapter 2

“Your Highness.”

With an effort, I dragged my eyes from the scantily clad women dancing in the smoky tavern’s great room. Wearing little save silken scarves over their lower faces, their lengths of heavy hair cascaded over their slender shoulders and covered their naked breasts. Gold chains slung about their tiny waists jingled in time to the music from the bells in their hands and the sultry music from the invisible lute player in a dark corner. Around bared, slender hips, silver links held up a single strip of silk covering their loins, their bucking hips and asses bared to the room’s scrutiny or lust.

Seductive and tempting, a dancer’s dark eyes held mine and spoke to me across the tables of sweating, swearing men. She danced for me alone, her hips and arms swaying to the music, her naked bosom half-hidden from me. Ah, but her eyes. Those huge sloe eyes spoke of such sweet promise that I shifted in my chair and eased the painful bulge in my britches. Within the hour, she’d be mine. She’d cry aloud in lust as I sucked her neck, her fingers raking my back, my body taking hers in swift, bruising savagery. Her loving cry would evolve into a sharp scream of pain when I bit deep –

“Prince Flynn.”

Sergi’s nasal voice intruded upon my fantasy. I broke from it, sweat trickling from my hair and down my cheek. Gods, but it was hot in this dank, smelly inn. My dancer pouted, seeing my attention shift from her, and danced for the hulking mercenary at a table to my left. He pounded his fist on the wood, sending ale, food, plates and utensils flying. For a moment, I saw myself lunging from my chair, my sword stabbing deep into the gorilla’s thick, hairy neck. His blood fountained high, coating me, the dancer and his fellows in thick red spatters. Then my girl would turn her smile on me, her hips swaying in time to the music, her fingers beckoning –

I gripped my sword hilt hard enough to hurt, and scowled at my father’s errand boy. “What?”

Sergei bowed low. “Forgive me, my prince, but your father has commanded your presence.”

Past the heads of my fellow inn-folk, I glanced at the dark windows. “It’s past bloody midnight.”

“I know, Your Highness.” Sergei groveled in such a cringing manner I wanted to kick him. “Your father –“

“Go on, Flynn,” mocked Jarvik, one of my inn cronies. “Daddy calls.”

Snickers abounded. I glared at them, but they ignored me and cat-called one another, shoving one another’s shoulders, laughing. Amid the male horse-play and rough-housing, I heard ‘daddy’s boy’, ‘prince pussy’, and ‘the royal sissy’ as I rose from my table. My hand itched to put an end to the torment, but I was but one among many who could outdraw and outfight me. Their worst day could defeat my best.

My father called them my friends, but they hardly qualified. When sober, the four of them: Jarvik, Tann, Evsham and Ivard were pleasant enough companions. But when drunk, like a pack of feral dogs, their vicious natures emerged and they banded together to attack the hand that fed.

“Go on.” I shoved Sergei in front of me, marching him toward the tavern doors.

The bouncer, a huge man with a bald head and frightful scars on his neck and face, bowed me though with the only respect I ever got in that wretched place. I slapped his meaty shoulder in passing, and flipped him a gold crown.

Sergi waited with barely stifled impatience at my horse’s head in the lamplight outside the noisy tavern. Bayonne greeted me with a nicker and extended muzzle, ignoring Sergi’s hands on his reins. I took a moment to caress his grey head and stroke his ears, my affection for the dappled stallion overriding my anger. One of the few who loved me, Bayonne accepted me at face value. My first and only horse, I picked the dark grey colt out of my father’s milling herd of royal mares and their offspring. My illustrious sire scoffed at my choice, but fell silent later when Bayonne grew into a stunning stallion who won every race I rode him in. Calm, sensible, highly intelligent, Bayonne obeyed my every command with courage and alacrity.

I vaulted into my saddle under Sergi’s withering glare and turned Bayonne about. Leaving Sergi to scramble for his own mount, I loped Bayonne through the darkened streets. Most folks had gone to bed, their hearths banked, shutters closed. Only thieves, vagabonds and whores wandered the hot summer night. I heard the Nigh Watch chase a miscreant down an alley, and passed under countless street lamps lit to ward off the evil in the darkness.

If I received scant respect at the tavern, the palace, Castle Salagh, wasn’t much better. I handed Bayonne to a stable lad to care for, just as Sergi clattered into the courtyard on his skinny bay. The boy took my reins from me without a glance, a bow or even a yawn. The guards in their stiff military tunics and high leather boots, hands gripping halberds and eyes scornful, nodded as I passed. My father, King Finian, the Fair as he was often called, ruled the kingdom of Atholia with an iron fist. Yet, his people loved him. I still hadn’t figured that one out. He hanged or beheaded any man, woman, child or farm animal that spoke against his rule or his taxes or his policies. And the folks beat one another for a glimpse of him, or my mother, Queen Enya. They crowded the streets, shouting their names, crying their adoration. Quick to weep at the slightest recognition, they hailed my royal parents as saviors just beneath the gods themselves.

Yet, they scorned me, the King’s heir apparent.

They hated me on sight and I hated them back in equal measure.

I don’t even know what’d I’d done or how I’d earned their animosity. I hadn’t won any battles, yet there hadn’t been any wars to fight. I spoke the nobles and barons with fairness, yet ever their eyes watched me with derision and laughter. Learning from the best masters money can purchase, I wielded a sword, shot a bow, rode a horse – yet, I wasn’t good enough. I stood at my father’s right hand, yet to him they looked for leadership. My mother loved me, yet her people didn’t.

Panting, Sergei led me through the twining corridors, past drowsing guards, dashing servants, a few late courtiers returning from liaisons with the opposite gender they shouldn’t have been seen with. Past kings and queens of Atholia glared down at me as I passed, their disapproval skipping across my very thick skin. I didn’t care what my ancestors thought. I didn’t much care what my father thought. Hell, I didn’t care much what anyone thought save – perhaps one.

Sergei led me to the upper chambers of the palace where only the royal family and their closest relatives were housed. I followed, yet I knew every inch of those dank stone walls. I’d lived there since birth, fled my sire’s anger down their hollow corridors, hid within their shadows when he or his henchmen tried to catch me. Within their granite grasp, I learned that princes didn’t always get the best of everything.

Down the slick hallways, past the closed doorways guarded by family retainers, I strode rapidly, following Sergi’s quick shadow. My hand ever hovered over my sword, for I never knew who or what may pop out of nowhere to swing a fist at my face.

“Flynn?”

Her voice, soft and fluid like the dulcimer chimes of an angel, called to me from the darkness of a doorway. I halted at the sound, pausing mid-step and turned toward her like a puppet dangling on his master’s strings. To hear that voice, to see her face, to hold her hand for even a moment – I’d surrender my rotten life.

Her tiny frame hugged the shadows as if borne from them, her huge blue eyes uptilted toward mine as she stepped forward to intercept me. I had no need to say her name, yet I spoke it, for it resounded in my own ears like sweet music.

“Fainche.”

My nerves jangling, plucked like a musician’s lute, I reached out my hand. A tiny slip of warm skin rested in it as I drew it toward me. My twelve year old sister emerged from the darkness like the devil’s nymph, her eyes oddly shining in the torch’s light. For her I withstood my father’s beatings, the nobles’ scorn, the commons’ spit. I’d endure it all at the gates of hell if she offered me that once single, loving, glance.

Only two people in the entire kingdom kept me sane in this demented world. Without them, I’d long have succumbed to insanity and fled into the wilds to live life as a hermit in a cave. Only they kept me rooted, enduring, hopeful. For them alone I endured the naked hate and scorn on every face. Because of them, I felt hopeful that one day I might live a life as a normal man.

My sweet sister – and my mother.

Her wild mane of hair, blonde like mine, trailed down her shoulders. Her fetching azure gown trimmed with gold and mink matched her eyes, the same exact shade of blue as mine own. She stepped toward me, her hand quivering within my fingers.  Tugging from my grip, Fainche smiled and snuggled close, her arms wrapped tight around my waist.

“What are you doing up so late?” I asked, bowing over her small shoulder to hold her within my arms. I worked it so her ear rested against my heartbeat.

“I wanted to see you.”

I found a grin and a semblance of real humor. “Lurking in the shadows will do that.”

Fainche giggled. “I heard Father call for you. So I waited. I knew you’d come.”

“And to think I might ignore such a beautiful maiden.”

“Flynn!” Her shocked laughter brought a grin and a lightning to my heart. “You scoundrel.”

I brushed my lips over her sweet-scented hair. “What does that old boor want?”

My lack of respect sparked yet another surprised giggle from her. “Father will beat you.”

“And if he dares, I’ll dream of you tending my injuries.”

She snickered. “Drama queen.”

I laughed, taking her by the arms and holding her away from me. “Come on, tell me. I know you’re always lurking in corners, hearing things you shouldn’t.”

Sergei sighed and waited with ill-concealed impatience, just out of earshot. I waved my hand at him, yet without my previous animosity. Wait and chill. Sergi pouted and folded his arms across his meager chest.

I held my sister at arm’s length, grinning. “Come on, sis. Out with it.”

Trying to scowl, Fainche’s sweet face dissolved into a grin. She never could feign anger with any success. Her sweet and passive nature prevented it. She seized my bristled cheeks within her small hands. “Father has a mission for you.”

“A what?”

“You know. A special errand. You’re to fetch someone for him.”

My humor dropped by several notches, instantly and coldly. Dread dropped its icy load into my belly and spread its fingers into my blood. “Who am I to fetch, exactly?”

“I can’t remember her name.” Fainche’s brow furrowed as she tried hard to think.

Many palace folk called her thick-witted and slow. Certainly our parents shielded her from the public view, and overly protected her from the coarseness of the world at large. I’d heard the gossip: her Royal Highness Princess Fainche was cute, but an idiot entirely without any substance upstairs. No, Fainche wasn’t stupid, nor had she inherited the family gifts of high intelligence.

Yet, what she lacked in brains, she more than made up for in sheer sweetness and purity. I knew the gods dropped her on this earth as a gift, as we humans lacked for angels in our midst. Evil could never touch or, but if it tried – well, evil should look to its own self should it eye her sideways.

“The Bryn’Cairdha princess, you know? Princess I – um, Iyum, maybe? Iyumi!”

Fainche danced in place, her pale, wheaten locks bouncing, her blue eyes eager. “Did I get it right? Oh, please tell me.”

I stroked her pale silky tresses. “Yes, dear heart. You got it right.”

“Oh, good.”

Her small arms crept around my waist again, like cold and homeless kittens. Only she loved me unconditionally. Only she coaxed from me the warmth, the kindness, the I-never-want-to-be nasty-to-anyone-ever-again attitude. In her presence, I felt I might one day accomplish something good. I reached for the Flynn that someone might actually like. My soul cried aloud for that rare soul in this crazy world who liked me for me.

Once I left her side, reality descended with the thunk of a hammer to the skull. Like Prince Flynn? Are you nuts? He’s a rabid mongrel with a title. The day a stranger cared for me would arrive when hell vomited up its vile inmates and the world collapsed in upon itself.

I felt her triumph against my chest, her smile under the hollow of my throat. Fainche’s blonde mane spilled across my arms, its rich scent tickling my nose and threatening a sneeze. Sniffling, regaining control of my wayward sinuses, I gently pushed her away and negligently swiped her hair from her tiny face.

Sergei scowled and gestured imperiously. Get on with it and let’s go.

“Do shut up,” I muttered, cross.

“What did you say?”

Fainche brushed her hair back, peering up at me, concerned. “Don’t be angry, brother. He but does his job.”

I sighed as I gazed on her sweet innocence. Fainche’s naturally sunny disposition made meadowlarks appear grouchy. She lived within the earthly bounds of the angel’s purity of spirit, seeing naught save the world’s goodness. I’d give up everything if it meant I could dwell in such a place, free from cares and men’s evil, happily caught within them in a long span of years. I’d count myself free and blessed.

Her face nestled into my chest at the same instant she sighed. Her arms tightened about me; those small slender and as delicate limbs anchored themselves to my body as tightly as a steel cable. She lifted her pale face and blue eyes up, her chin digging into my breastbone.

“You’d come,” she murmured, peeping up at me. “I knew it. I saw it in the fire.”

In the fire? Gods, she didn’t own magic – did she?

Over her shoulder, I glowered, trying to appear the ruthless, ill-begotten bastard I was. Sergei rolled his eyes and folded his arms, hardly impressed with the danger I presented. Under my father’s hand, he certainly knew I dared not touch him. One day, Sergei, I thought. One day.

“They’re waiting for you, brother.”

Fainche drew away from me, her angel’s cheeks rounded in all the right places, smiling. Mine, in contrast, was all hard angles and granite planes, as hard as oak and twice as thick. I knew folk named me dumber than a brick wall, as sensitive as a randy goat and more pathetic than any loser in the gutter. I heard their voices time and again, read it in their contemptuous eyes, felt their scorn on my skin.

Yet as long as their slurs didn’t touch this daughter of heaven, I didn’t care.

“They?”

Her fingers entwined mine. Those delightful dimples at the corners of her mouth dug in deep. Her blue eyes sparkled. “Mother waits for you, too. Will you say good-night for me?”

I bent at the waist and kissed her knuckles. “For you, my love, I’d die a thousand deaths.”

Fainche giggled as though I were a true courtier and withdrew into the shadows. Her hand snagged mine, trapping it until the very last when the darkness swallowed her whole. My hand, my treacherous sword-hand, held onto hers like a drowning beast. Until she vanished utterly, the shadows swallowing her whole. My soul wept at her departure.

Stiffening, I snapped my fingers at a nearby guard. Half-asleep at his post, he eyed me with no little distaste as he straightened from his indolent lean against the wall. Lovely, I thought, too worried for annoyance, I found yet another fan of the father but not the son.

That bloody bastard took his sweet time to approach via my summons, his thumbs hooked in his swordbelt with that exact mercenary touch of arrogance. My father’s men, I thought, my eyes flattening. Ill-trained, haughty, full of their own testosterone, they jumped when my sire spoke. Yet, with me they discovered the merits of questioning authority.

Despising his arrogant sauntering answer to my command, I hoped his incompetency didn’t include getting Fainche hurt. Eyeing him from head to toe, I knew a slouch when it irritated me. I may not be my father, but I sure as shit kept records. One day, this ass will wish he’d been a fraction more respectful.

“Escort my sister to her rooms.”

The palace folk adored Fainche as they revered my mother. She was my direct opposite, and everything I wasn’t: lovely, sweet, caring, good – the adjectives go on. I knew they hoped and prayed I’d die young, childless, and leave the throne to her.

The guard brightened at his new duty, and deftly retrieved her from the shadows. Ushering her before him like a dog and his sheep, his bulk didn’t quite hide her face peering over her shoulder. In the near dark, Fainche’s teeth gleamed, her eyes alight with mischief. My stony heart softened as it always did when she used that special I-love-you-Flynn smile.

Together, guard and sister vanished into the shadows beyond the torchlight. The darkness returned with a sharp thump. I swallowed my bitterness and stifled my curses. Her absence, even for a short while, left a gaping hole in my soul.

“Your Highness, please.”

Sergei’s voice, nasal and annoying, raised new hackles on my neck. I eyed him with open hatred, wishing for the guts to finally cut his obnoxious throat, as he gestured impatiently, pointing down the half-lit corridor. Sighing, I gestured for him to lead on, absently wishing for – I don’t know – anything. That’d never been born? That’ll do for starters.

At the far end of the long marble passageway, a twin set of huge doors lay silent and closed. Palace guard in their purple, white and gold uniforms lined the walls. My father’s – my ancestors’ – emblem, the royal eagle flying above crossed swords, brooded in embroidered silk on their breasts. Black cloaks hung from throat to heel, their deadly pikes in their right fists. With strict military discipline, they looked neither left nor right nor at me as I walked past them.

Yet, I felt their curiosity and their hatred on my back.

Sergi departed after delivering me to the very gates of hell and vanished like a phantom at dawn. The doorwards, all but identical in their blue and silver palace tabards, swung wide the huge oak and teak doors. Laced with silver chasings and heavy chains, the monstrous doors, so wide three horses could walk abreast, creaked like coffin hinges. I passed the elderly wardens and into my parents’ private bedchamber as though I walked on deadly spikes. At least those old men bowed, even if they faked their obeisance.

“Flynn,” my father called as the heavy doors swung shut behind me with a resounding slam and rattle of chains. “Come here, lad, come here.”

Like a fat and stupid hare ambling into the wolves’ den, I obeyed him.

I likened walking into my parents’ personal rooms with that of a stroll in a museum. Huge and expansive, walled with dark oak beams and its vaulted ceiling high and buttressed, I wended my way among standing suits of antique armor. Sightless knights glared down at me, swords clasped within gauntlets of steel. Dead horses reared and screamed silently, jaws agape. Glass-topped tables held notable weapons, aged manuscripts and scrolls, tapestries so old a breath could crumble them to dust. Paintings of warriors, knights, great men and women hung on the walls, their miniscule eyes watching my every move.

More dead critters hung as trophies on teak mantles, their coats dusty with age. An incredible spread of horns from an immense feral bull one of my ancestors slew hung over the great fireplace, a fire large enough to roast an ox in blazing inside. Despite the summer heat outside, the chill of the dank walls demanded a blazing hearth.

Their bed, the size of small room and hung with dark red curtains, stood off to my right, covered in quilts and furs. I think I’d draw those drapes every night, I thought. Having all those dead people and animals watching me make love might cow me into abstinence. Should I one day inherit this room, I know I’d never sire offspring.

Seated in huge armchairs beside the roaring fire, my parents watched me enter. As ever, I glanced first to Enya, my mother, to gauge her mood. If my father raged, she wore a tight-lipped smile that warned me to tread softly and watch his hands. Tonight her lips widened in a soft welcome, informing me my sire relaxed in a genial, if not happy, frame of mind. I relaxed a fraction.

Both Fainche and I inherited her wealth of blonde hair, blue eyes and pale complexion. Though I tanned under the summer sun, but neither my mother nor my sister left of the palace often, and their skin remained as pure as spun silk. She smiled as I approached, and her beauty stunned me anew. Clad in a simple pale yellow robe, her hair loose and falling to the carpet and hides covering the floor, she looked as regal as any goddess.

As usual when they were alone, in private, my father’s hand rested on hers. We three stood pale of skin and hair, but Finian, named the Fair, was as dark and swarthy as a pirate. His thick mane, the color of a raven’s wing, curled to his shoulders. My sire liked beards, and kept a full one on hand. They made him seem wise and just, he often joked. Finian wasn’t a huge man, stocky and broad across the shoulders, but he owned a commanding presence. No eye could or ever did pass him by. One loved him totally, or hated him to his bones.

I fell into the category of the latter.

Dutiful son that I am, ever their obedient subject, I crossed the distance toward their chairs with lowered brow and neutral expression. Two rods from their chairs, I knelt, my hands behind my back.

“Father,” I said stiffly, formally. “Mother.”

“My son.”

Like my sister, Enya’s voice might challenge an angel’s for purity and sweet resonance. No wonder the people loved her so. Beautiful, thick blonde hair falling to her waist, her clear blue eyes sparked with humor and light. Her skin glowed like alabaster marble, and, despite bearing two children, her waistline was a slim as a maid’s. Full rounded breasts bulged in all the right places, and her smile could bring a man to his knees.

Even my corrupt and crude sire worshipped the ground she walked on. He adored her as no man worshipped the official Atholian goddess. Peasants, merchants, yeomen, nobles, foreigners…all of them fell prey to her beauty. As did everyone she came in contact with. She had but to smile and the earth fell to her delicate fingertips.

Yes, indeed. That list included me.

“Boy, you reek like a whore’s den.”

I winced.

“Are you a prince or a damn hound seeking his bitch in the gutter?”

As did everyone save my mother and my sister, my father found little in me to enjoy and much to condemn. If he found delight in his eldest born when I was small, I never heard tell of it. My earliest memories were of his beatings when I missed the target with my arrow, fell off my bucking horse, or lost my wrestling match. His laughter and coarse jests at my expense followed me at court. Naturally, his favorites laughed along with him, and their lackeys sang the same tune. Nothing I did was ever good enough. In his eyes, and in the eyes of his people, I fell far short of the royal family standards. I never measured up to the expectations the King had for his eldest, his son, no matter how hard I tried.

Only my mother dared turn his hand from me, beg him with soft eyes and a tear or three to be kind, to offer me some affection. Her methods worked, for he’d never gainsay her in anything – until she walked out of sight. At her disappearance, the torments began again. And again. And again.

“Hush, father,” Enya said, her musical voice soothing his annoyance, her fingers entwined with his, changing his angry gaze to one of worship as he glanced toward her. “He’s exploring his adulthood. Don’t make me remind you of your own search for independence.”

Finian chuckled. “Of course, mother. Let’s not give the boy any bad ideas.”

He lifted his hand, and hers with it, to his thick lips to kiss. I glanced aside, wishing I had the guts to kill him for daring to lay his filthy slobber on her flesh. Her tinkling laughter stilled his annoyance and my fury, easing both at the same time.

Finian’s dark eyes descended on me and his free hand beckoned me from my knee. “I’ve an errand for you, boy.”

I tried to recall the last time he called me by name, and couldn’t. I was never ‘Flynn’ to him. He never called me ‘hey, you!’, though at least if he had I’d suspect he at least tried recalling the name he gave me. To him, I was, ever and always, ‘boy’. Perhaps I should officially change my name to ‘Prince Boy’.

Stifling my irritation, I obeyed him, striding the few steps closer to their chairs. Maintaining a discreet distance should his anger rise enough to lash out, I’d room enough to dodge. Quicker with his fists than a whore with her G-string, Finian’s speed left a cobra gasping. Had I a gold crown for every time he hit me before I knew he was annoyed, I could arm the royal cavalry.

Warily watching his hands, I half-smiled the expected I’m-listening-with-avid-attention curving of my lips. I truly hated the farce, but had I not played into his fatherly fantasies, he’d not just beat me but murder anyone associated with me. For Fainche’s sake, and that of my mother, I dared not defy him in expression, word or deed. I feared him, but kept that much to myself.

Much to my relief, he nodded and smiled at me as if happy to be in my company. Those occasions, though rare, I could pretend he loved me as his son. He didn’t notice my lack of enthusiasm this particular evening; his excitement spilled over and quashed his prior annoyance.

“My spies have captured her,” he said, forgetting I was allegedly ignorant of what the errand was.

Though he worshipped Fainche with the same adoration he reserved for Enya, I didn’t want him to know she heard rumors and passed them on to me. My mind shied from the memory of Fainche imparting her secret. I dared not think such thoughts, half-fearing he’d pluck them from my head and punish Fainche in my stead. Though I knew he’d never read my mind, my gut feared he might.

I willed such thoughts away and dipped my brow. I faked a bland I-don’t-know-anything-at all-expression and its neighborly half-smile. “Pray tell, my father.”

“We caught that infernal bitch princess whatshername.”

I exchanged a lightning glance with Enya.

“Who, sire?”

He glanced my way and waved his hand, dismissive. “Oh, right. I didn’t tell you.”

Like you ever tell me anything, I thought, damping down my resentment.

“I commanded my spies keep watch on Princess, er, Iyuma? Ayumas?” he said, half-laughing at his own memory loss.

Enya chuckled under her breath and leaned her bosom toward him, her wealth of blonde hair sliding across her face as she ducked her head onto his broad shoulder. “Iyumi, father. Princess Iyumi.”

“Of course. How silly of me.”

He bussed her porcelain cheek, then bent to spill more filth from his mouth onto my mother’s pale fingers. “Now I remember, thank you, my love. Beautiful girl. A fit queen for you, boy.”

I bristled, fear nudging my spine. A queen? I, er, already had –

Enya lifted her gently smiling lips to murmur in his ear. Though I closely watched and strained my hearing to its highest level, I caught only ‘boy’, ‘Blaez’, and ‘princess’.

“Thank you, mother.”

Finian beamed, his cheeks rosy with triumph and red wine. His rough fingers caressed her knuckles as Enya lifted her lovely face to offer me a ghostly wink and a quick nod. Dread wormed its way down my spine and a voracious rodent gnawed my guts. When Finian smiled at me, trouble followed on fleet feet.

“Gods be praised, she rode out without an escort and they caught her,” Finian continued, nodding, still grinning like a dark, leering monkey. “My spies, those loyal and dedicated men, seized her venomous person. They’re on their way here, right now, boy. Praise the gods, we captured the Bryn’Cairdha prophetess and princess.”

My jaw sagged a fraction. “Prophetess?”

Finian smiled wide and rubbed both hands together in unashamed delight. He rose from his chair to pace behind my mother’s and stroked his blunt fingers down her porcelain cheek. She leaned into them, smiling, Fainche’s dimples curving into deep hollows to either side of her full, rosy, lips.

I stilled my anger, but only just.

“Indeed, boy, indeed. She knows the child’s been born and where it lies.”

Child? Prophecy? What the hell was he –

Somewhere inside my head, a memory flashed. My father speaking of the sacred prophecy, eons old, of the child that would eradicate magic from the lands forever. That in its birth, the two lands of Atholia and Bryn’Cairdha would find peace and plenty as one land. Countries conjoined, one people, one destiny, as they’d been in the beginning.

The people and rulers of Atholia prayed for that time to come, fearing the evil shape-shifters, the bizarre creatures, the hold magic had upon their neighbors to the north. They were cursed, the folk of Bryn’Cairdha. Men who could take on any shape they desired were nothing less than demons. They surely worshipped the cursed ones, for how else could the melding of man and horse, eagle and lion, bull and man occur? Strange spirits kept them company, weird lights with wings flying hither and yon, dropping deadly secrets into their ears. What evil was this?

They were cursed, the folk of Bryn’Cairdha. All of them, as a country, were nothing less than malevolent and the abhorrence of those upright and strong under the gods’ light. Kill them, spoke the Atholian mantra. Kill them, scourge their evil and take their lands. I grew up under the priests screaming invectives against the Bryn’Cairdha people, largely ignored them as the rantings of lunatics, and seriously considered crossing the border in search of sanctuary.

Bryn’Cairdha and Atholia had never been neighborly, despite the close quarters. Minor wars broke out over the centuries, here and there, never serious. They minded their business, we minded ours – with the exception of the fanatics. I never suspected my own father to be one of them.

“She’s our key,” he went on, rising from his heavy oak chair to pace, excited. Back and forth on the priceless carpet he strode, waving his hands, as Enya eyed him sidelong. She caught me watching her and dipped her face, a we-know-better, milk-mild mien crossing her expression before vanishing an instant later.

“This is our chance to take from them what is ours.”

“And what is ours?” I asked, polite, trying to keep his attention off her.

“What? Our rights, of course. With the child in our hands, we will scourge that black land to our north, kill the demon King and his family, and take what was once ours.”

I caught a sympathetic blue glance from my mother as her slender fingers hid a smile. Humor him, those blue depths suggested. Her prior attitude shifted into the realm of do-as-he-says despite the non-verbal alliance of moments ago. I frowned slightly before Finian’s bulk passed between us.

“Uh.” I coughed diffidently. “When was Bryn’Cairdha once ours? Sire.”

Finian waved a restless hand, still pacing before the fire, stomping the fleas from the carpet. “Centuries ago, boy, centuries ago. But we will prevail, I swear it. Bryn’Cairdha will merge with Atholia and her two people shall become one. Without their evil magic or their loosed demons.”

I bit my tongue as he swung hard toward me, raising his hand. Though I stood too far away for him to strike me, I flinched anyway, out of instinct. My hand crept toward my sword and dropped away without touching the hilt.

He didn’t notice my protective stance. “Escort her here, boy,” he said, his tone commanding, yet eager. “You’re royal, my only son. She deserves the highest honor, my son and heir extending his hand in friendship. She will give us the child, of course.”

“And if she doesn’t?”

Finian folded his hands behind his back and rocked back on his heels. Enya watched him for a long moment, then, with the fire behind her, watched me. Within her deep eyes I read nothing at all.

“She will give us the child,” Finian said at last, his tone low and thoughtful.

I didn’t want to hear more. I took his tone as my dismissal. I dropped to my knee in quick obeisance and backed the required three steps, head bowed, before turning. Inside my mind, I planned a rapid and evasive route among the dead knights and dead horses, hoping to disappear as quickly as a rat down its hole. I didn’t much like the comparison, but it certainly suited the situation.

“You leave at dawn.”

I halted in my tracks, my right foot raised to take that crucial fourth step in escape. I spun about, my throat tight as I gulped. I hoped he hadn’t heard the dry click. I bowed low. “Your will, sire.”

His next words froze me before I might straighten the thing I called a spine. “You’ll marry her, boy, in due time.”

I my head rose involuntarily as my spine stiffened. My fists clenched, though I forced them to open and hang at my sides before he noticed and beat me for defiance.

“Sire?”

Finian waved his hand again, expansive, permissive. “Princess Iyumi. You’ll have her to wife. The marriage will ease the transition and unite our two nations as one.”

“Um,” I began, my mouth dry as cotton and twice as sticking. “I’m already married.”

Finian’s brows lowered and he ceased his happy pacing. His dreadful eyes settled on me and his right hand clenched into the familiar fist I dreaded. “You married Sophia against my will and better judgment. I allowed it as the match made your mother happy. But I will annul it, posthaste, and you will set her aside. Do I make myself clear?”

I gaped, unable to speak. “Father, please –“

The King stepped closer to me, looming, hiding my mother behind his bulk. “Set her aside,” he said, his tone low, for my ears alone. “Or I’ll execute her. Is that what you want, boy? Shall I kill her so you’ll be free to marry Iyumi?”

“No, sire.”

I dropped to my knee, lowering my head for the blow, my hands clasped behind my back. “Please don’t.”

“Then find your excuse to set her aside. I don’t care what it is.”

Still on my knee, I bowed low. “Immediately, sire.”

“Go on then. See Commander Blaez at dawn. You have your orders.”

I did indeed. I danced to them, marched to them, obeyed them when my blood sang a sad song of unrequited freedom. Finian returned to his heavy, scarlet-cushioned chair, smiling at my mother as he took her hand, kissing it, gazing deeply into her cornflower blue eyes. Just as though he hadn’t threatened to murder my wife under the laws he created. He’d kill me as quickly should I fail him.

You can escape him, an inner voice muttered. You can be free of him and go where you will.

Right. Sure.

Bowing low, walking backward the expected steps, I retreated from my parents’ private chambers. Walking faster than I had on arrival, I dodged the suits and mounts without raising my eyes from the blue slate floor. Like magic, the huge oak and teak opened wide as though the wardens knew the instant I came close. Yet, they stood on the far side.

I crossed the threshold, sweating, my tunic sticking to my back, my shoulders. I didn’t turn around, yet heard the solemn creak of centuries old hinges. The doorwards shut the great teak and silver doors with a hollow boom and a rattle of chains behind me. I straightened at last, shaking, unmindful of their pitiless stares. I dragged deeply of the cool, moist castle air, my lungs relishing the change of atmosphere. My sigh of relief caught on a sob, snagged my throat. I walked away, feeling as though I’d just escaped the executioner’s axe.

Sophia.

Under the torchlight and the guards’ blank-eyed enmity, I ducked into the shadows. Where I belonged. Anonymous. A well-bred nobody. I grinned bitterly, with no humor. I do what I do to survive, I told myself. I’ll tell Sophia to go home. Find another man, one better than I, and bear his children. I will marry Iyumi.

Protect Sophia, gods of old, I thought, praying without conviction. For I love her.

Perhaps one day I may even ask her to forgive me.

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