New cover :)

We all, ironically, judge books by their covers. I made the cover on the right with some assets I had from the commission for The Larkspur Quartet’s Amazon covers, and public domain art. It’s a little busy, but I liked the woods fading into the Victorian wallpaper, the larkspur, the blood- you know how I am.

I was told that while nice, it (like my old flower-painting covers) was not quite right. And what is ‘quite right’ for online web novels?

Anime girls

I went ahead and had Mora, The Lady of Death, drawn in the style of anime. Which, considering my inner picture when I read is a mesh of real life and anime, works just fine for me. I think I would prefer my stories be turned into an anime over a life-action movie.

Now this is *not* the final version. This is a basic preview sketch that I ran through Style2Paints and colored to I could see what it would look like. I’ll be getting the final version in a few days, and then add a title and make it nice. But I thought I would go ahead and use this as a temporary cover as it’s at least better than the original.

11 ~ Delphinium ~ The Witch and the Duc

~ (Continued) Trisday, 1st of Aprilis, 11831 ~

The traveling parties returned their luggage to the carriages and made to continue the journey. It would be better to leave in late afternoon and gain some ground rather than wait for morning given that two days had already slipped by.

“You are sure you are feeling up to traveling?” Pierre asked her as he helped Lizzy into their carriage. His good mood at her recovery was quickly brought down as the uncertainty of how that had occurred. This was not an illness ending naturally, it was all at the desire of spirits that he may not be able to control. What was to say that they would not change their mind? “And do you wish to continue to Piques? We can return you to Quercus for a time. You may come visit in a few weeks when you are better.” Several of the traveling party would in fact be heading in Eichel’s direction today instead of continuing along to Spadille.

“I have said I am fine, Pierre. I already wrote Mother and Father that it was just a small cough and there is nothing to worry about. Returning me home will only reveal my lie. Beside, you were far more ill than I recently and you are traveling.”

“You said nothing the first week until you were too ill to hide it.”

To this she did not reply and settled into her seat. Pluta, seemingly taking her side, jumped into her lap and purred. Unknown to her, his familiar assured him that she was truly fine, all the spirits that would have caused her ill were gone.

He sighed and closed the door, taking the chance that no one would notice they were without a third party save for his cat. He sat across from Lizzy, placing his cane against the seat. From a pocket he pulled out his deck of cards and began to shuffle them. It helped him think and to calm down. Without thought he made more elaborate moves with the cards and after a moment he had enthralled both girl and cat with the flying colors.

Her health, and more specifically what it meant, was a mystery. He longed to understand her body and what had happened, to feel her soul again against his, the desire stronger even still than the need to be near her physically. Their connection was weak as he had slipped her blood a few days past already and it would break by tomorrow. He knew the spirits had done something, came to some sort of conclusion, but the why and what it meant eluded him. Mora had merely said that they accepted her as his lady, but he did not believe she would become a practitioner.

Compromising, he moved to sit beside her and wrapped an arm around her, pulling her to his side, the cards put aside. His fingers found her pulse, and he only relaxed when he could feel its strength.

“And how are you?” Elizabeth asked, curling up into his embrace. Her pulse increased. “Did the tea I ask for help?”

“You sent that? Thank you. It did help, actually.” Before leaving he had received a cup of chamomile tea with varying other herbs that sometimes helped for headaches and sweetened with honey. He had thought it a nice but useless gesture, those teas had not worked on one of his headaches in years. The pain was from performing magic and more than simple herbal cures would have been needed. This time there had been a difference though.

“Good! Now we are both well.”

She reached over and took the deck of cards from his hand. She tried to do a fancy shuffle like she had seen him do and this ended with most of the cards spilling onto her lap. Pluta sprung back in surprise with a yowl.

“Pardon! I’m sorry, Pluta.” Lizzy gathered up the cards before sheepishly returning them to Pierre. He could not hold back a chuckle.

“There are seventy-eight in the deck, you are not used to so many,” he said. He removed his arm from around her to show off some more, flicking the cards through the air and catching them. Pluta watched for several moments, at one point standing on her back legs and trying to grab one herself. Failing that she sneezed and moved over to the corner, beginning to wash her paws. Pierre thought he heard her say something along the lines of ‘I could have caught that if I wanted to.’

“Of all the hobbies, why fancy card tricks?” Elizabeth laughed, managing to catch the queen of hearts as he tossed it to her.

He hesitated a moment before taking off one of his gloves. “I have calluses and scars on my hands. Shuffling the deck helps me to keep my dexterity. I cannot have that be an issue in surgery.” They were not deep scars, Pluta healed him enough that few remained, but some were too deep to be erased completely. Another student had suggested he pick up a skill to exercise his hands after spotting the scars. Come to think of it that student had often worn gloves as well.

“Oh, Pierre!” She took his hand and began to inspect it closer. He wanted to pull back, fearing she would understand where some of the cuts had been placed, but she mostly seemed to worry that they were there at all. She then began to kiss his palm.

Several kisses later she let go of his hand with a smile. “There. Now give me your other one. Has that been hurt as well?”

Pierre held up his hand for inspection. The calluses were still there, they were important to how he held his instruments, but many of the scars had faded even more, and a few of the smaller ones were gone.

“Elizabeth, thank you!”

It was easy to forget that Lizzy knew some magic. There was an inherent ability in her to heal with her touch. As children it had come in handy when scrapes and bruises would have halted their play, but it became a thing of the past when they grew up and were not as rough. As far as Pierre knew she was not trained.

“Who are you studying with?” he asked, taking off his other glove after hiding the deck. He gave her his left hand to kiss. “I never asked, have I taken you from your tutors and schooling with this summer holiday?”

She looked down to the floor, now ignoring his outstretched hand, her cheeks a rose that gave away her embarrassment.

“Elizabeth?”

“I have no tutor,” she said softly. “I just took to reading the medical and magical books in our library hoping to find some ways to do more magic. I thought because I could do this I could do much more. When I asked to be taught it was decided I was still a child and had no use of educating myself in such a way, even if I did have some talent for it. I cannot tell if it was because of my sex or age, boys after all begin their teachings younger than I sometimes, though both factors together likely made the decision final. Maman tried to persuade Papa differently, but he would not be swayed. I did not learn nothing, of course, but not what I desired. It was not out of cruelty; I think he just did not wish both of his children to leave. Piers went off to the castle often because of studies, and Papa has always held me dear and wanted me close.”

Pierre nodded. “Lord Eichel told me off more than once when we were younger that I was to be a gentleman with you, and not to take Piers’ side if you bickered, for it would not be fair.”

“He did?” Lizzy smiled. “Yes, he liked to keep me safe.”

“Ah, so then, do you know what you are?”

“What I am?”

“Yes. I’m surprised you missed this in your reading.” He kept to himself the fact that he too had not thought of it until this moment. “Though if you were looking to create fire and become invisible, it might be in another set of tomes entirely. You told me you wanted to be a mage, and yet now that you have never received any training. But there is magic in you, even if not as elaborate. You are human, perhaps there was a fée somewhere in your line given how Eichel touches Faery, but you do not have a bestia’s magia—you have cræft. It makes you a witch.”

“A witch?” Elizabeth repeated as if unsure this was a jest at her expense.

“Yes, my dear. Magecræft, you see, is taught. There may be talent for it, but you cannot just have it in you. And if you stop learning and practicing, it will fade. In time you will no longer be able to control the spirits. But a witch can never get rid of their witchcræft.”

She thought this over, expression soft.

“Witchcræft,” she whispered. “So I cannot be taught?”

“Oh, that is not what I meant, of course you can. You should, in fact, learn to harness the power. But the point is it cannot be taken from you.”

“I will mention this to Father then. He may be more inclined to let me learn now. Oh! Perhaps that is why I am all better so quickly. Please, write to doctor Hervé about it if you think it is relevant medically to the cure.”

“I will.” Though he knew the reason for her wellness was not her magic, perhaps it would help others.

“You need not wait to learn, you know,” he added. “You may by all means find someone to aid you this visit. I am sure we can find some healers around Spadille who would be delighted to tutor comte Eichel’s daughter.”

“You would let me learn?”

“Whyever not? I would not keep you ignorant.”

She looked away from him, fighting back tears. Her father, though she loved him, had thought it best to keep her that way. It was how it was done. That she enjoyed reading was almost too much, but he let it go as it kept her out of other trouble. She tried to justify it in her mind, but here was Pierre without a thought allowing her, encouraging her, when before it had not been spoken of.

“How was the town?” she asked instead. This subject was too confusing for her right now. “I confess I saw little of it from my room at the inn, but I was told you were about.”

If Pierre realized she was changing the subject for a purpose, he did not comment.

“I did not want to leave your side, Lizzy,” he began instead, but Elizabeth shook her head before he could continue with the apology.

“Oh, I know, my dear principicule, but the head of state is more than power and fine foods. You did what you could for me and your people wished to see you. Now, how was it?”

“It was lovely,” he admitted. “I have never been to this town, and they were welcoming. The hospitals are fairly modern, well-staffed, from what I saw of a short tour. I assume it will only be better closer to home. Truthfully it had not yet sunk into me that I will be duc soon. I am still grateful I passed my exams this winter and was awarded my degree.”

Lizzy laughed. “I am glad as well.”

The carriage began to move. It seems their secluded meeting was either not found out, or was being ignored, and they would get to spend more time in just each other’s company.

They were already in the duchy of Piques. He had felt it when they crossed the border some days ago, right before Lizzy took too ill to continue on. His heart had clenched when they entered the land. There was little fanfare to separate Hearts and Spades, the border unguarded and the only building of note the grand tower that stood in the center where Hearts and Spades met along with Diamonds. But it was enough—the outermost reaches of his parents’, his, home.

Now he was returning to rule this land and its people.

Would he do a good job? He had spent the last several years learning how to be a doctor, and a lord of death, forgetting many lessons in politics. He was suddenly very grateful that Aimé promised him help and gave him this last year to regain his knowledge. Before he could stop himself he voiced his fears aloud.

“What if I am a bad duc?”

“Oh, Pierre. You shan’t be. You will have your advisors, His Highness, and I have never known you to be bad at anything.”

“Except riding,” he said.

Elizabeth smiled. “Except riding. And I will be there as well to help, though I do not know how much that will be of use.”

Invaluable, he thought.

“Have you been to Spadille, my dear?”

“I have traveled the borders of Piques,” she replied. “But I have never been within the heart of the land.”

“I have not been home in so many years, I cannot assure you of what we will find. An adventure then?”

“An adventure,” she agreed. “How long have you been away?”

“A decade from Piques, but even longer from Spadille. I… we never returned to the capital after mère died. Ophion took me in, and we traveled, helping and healing around the kingdom until he was given the position of Lord Physician for all of his good works. The roi and reine began to foster me so he could do his job, and I could be taught more about being a nobleman. Then of course we met,” he said turning to place a kiss in her hair. “I stayed at court and learned politics from Father and Mother, while still being taught some medicine from Uncle… Mère used to teach me politics too.” His voice turned soft and he tightened his arm around Elizabeth again, wanting her close, needing to feel her. “I remember asking about all of the men that Papa met with in his large conference room that had the great red doors. She told me their names, their station, and how my père was their protector and the man that set the rules. They worked together to make the land good.” Of course that had been the explanation a mother gave to her young son, being the Duc of Piques was far more complicated once one was no longer five.

“Did His Grace Félicien not teach you?”

“Non, actually,” Pierre said, beginning to absently stroke Elizabeth’s arm. He leaned against her, not putting much of his weight onto her, but enough to be close. “He never seemed to like it much. Mère was the politician and I think the only reason she was not allowed into that room was tradition. She and père spoke lengthily every night after dinner, and I am certain that during that time Piques was in fact ruled by its duchesse. No wonder…” He stopped speaking as his throat closed on the words.

Elizabeth leaned back so she could see Pierre. She reached up to stroke his beard and the stubble that was more decorative than unkept. His grey eyes shut and when her hand passed near his lips he kissed her.

“No wonder what?” she asked softly.

“No wonder he left after mère died. I am sure you know the story, how Duc Félicien fled into the forest, into Faery, with my sister after her birth. Mère had already died, and Sœur was dying. I was left behind… No one ever really told me why that was. Ophion assured me that I was loved, and Papa would have taken me if he could.”

“But that’s terrible. He should have stayed!”

“Should he have, my dear? His wife was dead, he had no love of his position at duc, and Faery was his true home. His daughter was dying and if Faery could save her it was no choice at all.”

“Non, you’re right. If ou—my child was in danger, I would do the same.”

He nodded, ignoring the cold in his stomach at the knowledge that his cræft made him infertile. If Elizabeth stayed his beloved, if they married, they would not be able to have children of their own.

Lizzy sat up and kissed away the morose look that was beginning to settle onto Pierre’s face. “Maybe he knew you would be a good duc in a way he never could be,” she said. “He knew you liked politics even as a child, and the land was important to him, even if he himself could not rule in a way that interested him.”

It was enough to return a smile to his face. Anything Lizzy said was often enough to make him smile.

“Yes, I like that. Then I will do well and be a good duc for them.”

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

10.5 ~ The First Suitor ~

When doctors and healers began to converge in the realm of Clandestina, learning of its natural healing magic, its blancræft, the daimons of violent illness and death were forced out. The fée, who respected violence and death as they were volatile in their own way, returned to their plane of Faery. Everything that bound and tamed the spirits of death was suddenly gone.

The magic of a realm was innate. While other realms survived without these chains, Clandestina began to crumble.

Plagues descended upon realm. They infected man, beast, and vegetation, bringing famine along with it. Wars sprung up as people tried to hoard the few resources that were left. In trying to keep sickness at bay Death began to thrive.

One last daimon remained: a ker by the name of Mora. As much as she delighted in this, being the last, the most powerful, the chosen, she could not maintain control alone. And if this was left unchecked then everything would die and there would be nothing left. She was the last Keeper of Death, and thus it made her a Protector of Life as well.

A kingdom formed during this time of war, the four main factions finally brought together under one ruler. This new king, who took the title of Roi, promised to bind together all of the people of Clandestina– the humans, the fée, and even the keres. He called his kingdom Triumphe, for Victory, and for the joining of the duchies and people under one rule as a trump card.

He was without a wife. Mora showed herself to him, told him the secrets of the realm, that it not only held magic of healing, but also of violence, and death. She showed him noircræft as well as blancræft, and even nekrocræft, weaving the three together so he could do anything from heal minor injuries to return the dead to life.

The realm began to heal. The roi was revered, said to be chosen by God for now under his rule there was peace and health.

A second guardian kept much at bay, but when Mora wished to show her magic to more people, to begin to fix more, the roi became possessive.

“You are mine,” he said. “You chose me, out of all men. You will not show anything to anyone else. Make me yours and we will rule together.”

She complied. She continued to teach him until there was only one last test. As she was a Lady of Death, after this, he would be a Lord.

“Take your own life,” she told him. “Kill yourself, come, enter my plane and learn what it truly means to be a being of death.”

That night they went to bed together. He ingested poison chosen by her own hand and taken with his own, and as they made love he experienced both little and true death.

Mists surrounded him. He was in Akhlys, the place of judgement before ones afterlife. Before him was a throne of limbs and bone, vines growing from the flesh and holding it all together. Mora sat on the throne in her true form– great black wings like a bat unfurled behind her, her robes stained a many colors of red, her eyes the same crimson.

“And here are you mine,” she said. “Kneel, accept me as your queen, and you too will gain all of my powers.”

And here the roi shook his head, stepping back from her. “No. I am your king. I will not kneel before you.”

Before she could protest, say anything else, he used the cræft she had taught him to return his own soul to his body and left her.

He was alone in bed that morning. Quickly he took from his drawer a small knife and cut into a finger– his blood ran black, like it had ever since he began to learn magic from Mora. So he could still perform the deeds that made him great.

Time passed. Mora did not return to him, but as he had completed her last test, it did not matter. He was a lord of death, capable of even returning himself to life after death! He continued to rule. He finally married. He could not seem to impregnate his wife, but it did not matter as he continued to live on. He aged, true, but far slower than most men, bringing rumors that he had fée blood in him.

Then rumors began to circulate that there were men and women who were beginning to cure ills that should not be curable even with blancræft. A few more even said they could return the dead to life. The roi was furious that Mora had betrayed him. He called this ‘necrocræft’ vile, and unnatural, and anyone learning or practicing such magic would be put to death.

They were killed. They had not passed her last test and remained dead.

Plagues sprung up again. Illness took root.

Mora still did not return to him.

It did not take long for the roi to be overthrown, by his own great-great-grandnephew at that. He was accused of practicing the same magic he outlawed, and when his blood ran black it was confirmed. He was sentenced to death.

The day of the hanging he felt his neck snap, but he then hung there, eyes wide, unable to feel or move or breath, yet undying.

He was buried amid silent internal cries that he had not died! He was still alive! But after they shut his eyes by force he could not even open them again.

Mora finally came to him. She appeared in his coffin, pressed up against him, wrapping her arms around him. He felt her breathing, felt her skin moving against his. She stroked his cheek and for the first time in days he could intake some breath. It was ecstasy. His flexed his fingers and slowly moved his arms so that he could hold her in return.

“Please.”

“You are not mine,” she replied into his ear. “And so you shall never enter my plane, never again see my throne, or have your life judged. You chose to return to this and so you may keep it.”

He was alone again. His breath was stuck in his throat, his arms no longer feeling. His eyes were half-open, staring into darkness. He lived. He could not die.

Mora never gave her heart in the same way. She continued to teach in secret, both men and women, her cræft. If rumors amid the people gave false information she let it be. And when her last test came she continued to offer her magic at a price. She hurt when they returned their own lives, but allowed it, still being with them and letting them help her. One day one would take up her offer, but it was not to be for a very long time.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

10 ~ Delphinium ~ Her Fate

~ (Continued) Trisday, 1st of Aprilis, 11831 ~

Pierre entered the inn at dawn. He intended to ask the nurse about Lizzy and then to go to bed until noon, but the moment he opened the door Death covered him.

A fool. He had been played the fool.

He ran to Elizabeth’s room. The door was unlocked, and he rushed in. The nurse was there, slumped over in her chair in such an unnatural way that he wondered for a moment if she was dead. A noise had him turning his attention to Lizzy, who lay on a bed with covers thrown aside, tremors coursing through her body as she coughed. Blood spattered her cheeks and the front of her nightclothes. Her eyes were open, but she stared at nothing.

“Lizzy!”

He hesitated at her side, unsure whether to try to gain her attention, use his cræft, or call for aid. He touched her shoulder, and she jerked away from him.

“Elizabeth! Lizzy, darling!” No reaction.

“What did you do to her?” he demanded of Mora. When the ker appeared, form becoming visible though still a haze, he reached out and grabbed her wrist. Pulling her into this plane she became physical and stumbled into his arms, but he did not embrace her. He forced her chin up with no delicacy so their eyes met.

She became smoke.

Her presence filled the entire room and overwhelmed him. The queen of pain and suffering was before him in all of her glory. He could not breath, his very soul being torn out of him. Sinking to his knees before her he watched, eyes never leaving where she had stood, as she reformed into a terrible angel. Her wings were spread, and her somber attire of this era replaced with a red cloak. It seemed dirty as well as dyed, and the varying shades of red resembled blood. The stench confirmed it. Pierre would have been sick if he still felt any connection to his body.

Mora reached out to stroke his cheek, tracing where she had wounded him at his rejection of her. With the blood she spilled, with the magic she gave him, he had thought he exorcised her from the room. How foolish that notion was, to dare think he had tamed Death.

“I took you away to spare you,” she said. “The spirits are deciding her fate, I have done nothing and do not influence them. I merely stand witness.” Her breath upon his face was so cold it burned.

She looked over her shoulder to Elizabeth, who was now calming down, and smiled sadly.

“You will not be mine, I see this now… The spirits you claim to hold sway over must decide if she will be worthy to be your lady. And I will adhere to their choice.”

She turned back to him as he realized what he had done.

“My Lady—”

“Adieu.”

She was gone. There was an unnatural emptiness in the room as if all the spirits with her had decided to follow. Pierre did not move for a very long time, tears staining his face.

He finally crawled over to Lizzy’s bed. She lay still, save for the rise and fall of her chest, sleeping and alive. The sheets which had been soaked in sweat looked new and clean. There was no blood.

The spirits had judged her like they had him because he chose her. And they approved.

“My Lady Mora?” he spoke again. He wanted her to return, to beg forgiveness, to apologize. But there came no answer.

He kissed Lizzy’s forehead, tucked the covers around her, and left the room.

***

She felt as if no illness had befallen her. Waking up early this morning Elizabeth dreaded consciousness, fearing the terrible way her body was succumbing to an illness where she had begun to cough blood, but all seemed well. No aches or pain in her throat and her head was clear. She was even quite hungry.

She rang a serving bell and asked for breakfast, being attended to immediately. A nurse came in to check her as well, the same woman that had been helping her for the past few days, and Lizzy asked if anything odd had happened last night. The nurse replied that it had not, save her own falling asleep in a chair and waking up with a stiff neck. “You slept soundly, my lady, and it seems the illness has passed if you feel as well as you say.”

When she asked about the duc, she was told he still had not come from his room, but if she wished it, he would be woken.

“Oh no, do not disturb him for me.”

“Oui, Lady Elizabeth.”

She ate in silence, still contemplating how she had gotten better overnight—it had not been a minor illness after all. She was not ignorant of medicine, most nobles had a basic understanding of it, but she was not as learned as her brother or Pierre.

“A local doctor has said he will see you today,” the nurse continued. “He will confirm your wellbeing hopefully and then you can return to your travels. His Grace arranged it.”

“Thank you. And may you bring a note to His Grace for me for when he does wake?” She quickly penned a short letter to Pierre, asking him for a visit, and addressing her love in a way that she could not bring herself to speak aloud just yet. The nurse left to deliver it.

Finished now with breakfast and no longer tired, but without company, Elizabeth lay back in bed with a sigh. Her luggage was not here, likely thought unneeded while she had been too ill to even sit up, and so she could not get to her things. Not that there was very much in her luggage, she had initially only been going to the castle for a few days with her mother to celebrate Pierre’s birthday and his graduation. Now she was to spend the summer with him in Piques! She would need to buy clothes, perfume, and perhaps some books if she had any money to spare from her allowance.

Maybe Pierre would buy her some of those things as gifts? They had gone from distant old friends to dear companions quite quickly these last few weeks. He had already gotten her a lovely necklace, and her mother would chide her if she knew how long they sometimes kissed. But Pierre had hinted at marriage already… That thought made her heart beat harder and a blush rise to her cheeks. Her father had had suitors come visit her this past year, but none of them had made her feel as Pierre had. But then again none of them had been her friend from childhood that she had not-very-secretly loved even then. It seemed that even if such a bond faded, time and distance would do such a thing, it could be rekindled. And being with him at times felt like a flame.

She now understood why chaperons were needed.

Lizzy’s hand moved up to her throat to caress the necklace she had received. She was already used to the soft weight. A few days ago Pierre had had to take it off after a fit of coughing; it had felt like the chain was choking her. After the incident passed, she insisted he return it to its rightful place. She liked having something from him always close, and the fan with his flower had fewer moments in her hand than jewelry she could wear at all times.

She must have been more tired than she thought, because while thinking of Pierre she dozed off, waking when there was a soft knocking on the door.

“Come in!”

She expected a maid with lunch, but it was Pierre who entered.

“How are you feeling?” he asked. “I received your note but was told you were sleeping again. I waited a while and hope I did not wake you.”

“Extremely well, and you did wake me, but it is a pleasure to be woken by you.” When he leaned over to touch her forehead, she kissed him. His arms wrapped around her and checking her was put off as they were reacquainted.

It was with a reluctance that he pulled away several moments later, and Elizabeth realized he had begun to kiss her cheeks and was making his way to her neck. He coughed and straightened his collar while she tried not to think of what could have taken place.

“A doctor from town is waiting in the hall, that is why I came in now. I wanted him to check up on your before we decide whether we leave just yet. Is that acceptable?”

“Oui, it is, thank you.”

He stood up and went into the hall to call in the doctor. A middle-aged man walked in a few moments later with Pierre, introducing himself as the head physician of the small, but growing, local hospital.

“A pleasure, Doctor Hervé,” Lizzy said.

“All mine, Lady Elizabeth.”

Pierre stayed in the room, off to the side, as she was examined. He seemed nervous, fiddling with his hands the entire time.

“Well, I cannot say how it has happened,” the doctor said, having looked her over in a modest and quick inspection, “But it seems you are all well, my lady. You are a little underweight, but nothing a few days of good food will not fix. Has anything unusual happened? Did you take a medicine or herbal brew?”

“No, doctor. I mostly slept the last two days and ate nothing unusual. Broth, bread, some fruits, and not in any great quantity. Perhaps it merely passed on its own?”

“Perhaps. Early season fruits might be filled with enough warm humors to balance out some of the winter illness. I will still give you a few doses of the medicines I have found helped just in case. But I see no reason for you to remain in bed and delay your journey.”

“Thank you, Doctor Hervé.”

Pierre thanked him as well, and the doctor left. Almost as soon as the door closed it was opened again by a maid carrying a tray.

“Oh! Pardon, Your Grace, I assumed with the doctor leaving I could bring lunch—”

“No, no, it is fine. She needs her strength. Here, let me, mademoiselle.” Pierre took the tray from the now bemused maid. He sat on the bed with it in his lap so that it would be easier for Lizzy to reach. She might be well but he could not refrain from setting up the scenario.

“Thank you,” he then dismissed with maid. At least this dismissal was given with a smile, unlike two days past when he had been curt, though understandably, from worry.

“It is your turn to play nurse, then?” Lizzy asked, scooting over so that she was nestled up against him. When he picked up a piece of fruit, she opened her mouth obligingly.

“I, my dear, am a doctor, and do not need to play.”

A few weeks ago he had been the one ill and in bed, Lizzy had helped him eat and kept him company. Returning the favor now amused him. That she was healthy made this even better. Hopefully them both being ill so early in their relationship was not a bad omen as to how it would progress.

Pierre put down the second strawberry and rubbed at his temples. A headache from monitoring Lizzy with his cræft had begun. Even becoming a lord of death was not enough to keep the side-effects of the spirits from affecting his body.

“Pierre, are you alright?”

“Just a small headache, it’s fine. It will pass.” She nodded, but bit her lip and he saw she was worrying about him. She of course did not know of his magic and he intended for it to stay that way. While she had showed an interesting in learning more about it, that was just the curiosity of what was forbidden. Watching a hanging was also popular in some of the larger cities, it did not mean any of the on-lookers wanted to pull the lever or would be enamored with the executioner. He wore a hood for a reason.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

9 ~ Delphinium ~ Fée Funeral

~ Trisday, 1st of Aprilis, 11831 ~

It was dark when Pierre woke. At first he thought it was worry that took him from dreams, but he then saw Mora sitting on the edge of his bed. Her clothes were more smog than cloth, and with a low-cut back her great bat-wings were displayed. She also wore a veil crowned with blue larkspur that stood out in her dark hair.

“There is a funeral procession coming,” she said as he sat up. “One of your distant kin, I believe. You have never seen a fée funeral, and I thought you might wish to.”

“I am technically fay, and even then do not call myself such. Would I be welcome?” He did not consider himself fée, his late father and living sister were those who had been raised in Faery. Fay implied a more distant relation to the plane, like his cousin Eglė and perhaps even Ophion who had adopted her. But he usually thought himself just human.

Was there a different attitude in Piques than where he had lived in Cœurs? He did not remember if it had impacted his childhood much, beside celebrations and leaving offerings on certain days or searching for fairy rings. After his père’s disappearance, brought on by his mère’s death, he had been taken care of by Ophion for several years, who did abide by some fée traditions as well, but then even later the roi and reine took him in. Cræft, the studies of human flesh and spirit, as well as politics, all made Faery seem like something only for children.

“You are son to a man that had been chosen and spirited away to their plane. His time there will have changed his humors, his person, for the rest of his life, and for any child he sired. Your duchy is the closest to Faery as well. There will be weight to that heritage even if you do not embrace it. You should learn.” She crawled over to his side, her layered skirt disappearing into the darkness when it was too difficult to pull along and reappearing when convenient. “And I have never known you to pass up an opportunity to learn.”

“This is most certainly true, my lady.”

He got out of bed, beginning to change clothes in her presence as she settled into the warmth his body had left. She was not human, and the morals of humans were not hers to keep, and so modesty that he would show with anyone else was not needed. As he straightened his collar he realized that fée, and fay, too were not expected to keep the tradition and practices of humans.

“Is there a particular reason you are luring me to this side of myself? We have discussed it before, but never in depth.”

“The royal land of Hearts clings to its humanity—did you never notice other students uncertain of being paired with you, or even professors wary of your gaze?” she asked. He had, of course, but never thought it had anything to do with being fée-kith. Such things were rarely mentioned in Cœurs. He would have thought it to do with status as princeling or even an aura about him because of the dark cræft he practiced. Then again, his closest friend was from the land where a misstep in the woods would lead you into a fée’s domain.

“And?”

“As I said, you are fée-kin. They, and the keres, were the first true people of this land. You are no longer my suitor, you have passed your tests as a physician and are a lord of death, but only as a human man.”

He stopped buttoning up his waistcoat to turn and look at her.

“Then there is more I could do?”

She did not answer, which in and of itself was answer enough. If the comparison held true then it was easy to understand- he was a physician, but had not the experience of a doctor many years into his career. Now as a lord of death, and a fay one at that, the spirits may react to him in other ways. This was merely another beginning.

Pierre finished dressing, formal attire of the highest quality for this was a solemn occasion. Perhaps at a human funeral educational curiosity would override formality, he had seen enough corpses that it was not a special occasion for him, but to offend the fée would be a terrible thing.

When he looked over to her again Mora was missing. A sprig of larkspur lay on his pillow.

With a click of his tongue he woke Pluta. His familiar stretched and shook herself off before jumping up onto his shoulders. He scratched her under the chin.

“A fée funeral. We will be on our best behavior.”

She purred her reply while curling up around his neck.

Enough of the moon’s light shone through the windows to mark his way out without the need of a lamp or candle. He walked softly, cane high in his hand, not wishing to alert anyone of his departure.

Outside of Elizabeth’s doorway he paused. This reminded him of the night they had snuck out only a few weeks ago. It had been Springfinding, to watch the fée enter this plane of being and prepare it for the changes in season. He had been ill and the adventure had lifted his spirits while the night magic had helped his condition. She would surely wish to see this.

An invisible hand on his cheek turned his head, and a cool wind pushed him along. This was for him to see along with his Mora as his lady. Another would intrude.

He let his hand slip off the doorknob and continued out alone.


***

They walked through the unusually empty town, wearing robes in a multitude of pale colors, holding bouquets of twigs as well as large boughs. At the very end of their procession the body lay on a litter made of branches, carried between several men high in the air. It was wrapped in white glowing cloth.

Fée were rarely put to rest in this plane, many having so long taken to their own world, but they were as much a people of Clandestina as any other, perhaps more. Some chose to remember this.

Pierre found his way amongst the mourners, Mora beside him with her arm through the crook of his. They were welcomed without question.

They walked south along the main road, heading towards the entrance of the town. Whispers filled the air as they spoke of the deceased, his life, his accomplishments, his family. They became louder the longer they walked. Fée magic filled the air and Pierre could not even feel any spirits of death around.

They came out of the city almost yelling stories about him and bursting into laughter at memories. It felt much better than the other funerals Pierre had been to- this was joyous and a happy remembrance. Finally, they stopped before a shallow grave. Those carrying branches of varying length lined up, and each walked past, placing their offering into the pit. The body was placed on the very top, lowered with the stretcher. It was a pyre.

Then the fun truly began. The group spread out in pairs and small rings along the main road. They laughed, danced and sang, and anyone who looked out into the night would see only faerie lights bobbing in the air. The man had died well, in old age even for a citizen of Faery, and this was a celebration.

When anyone tired, they looked to the surrounding homes. If there was milk and honey or ale left out they drank the offering and blessed the house, a warning to their kin from pulling pranks upon a silly human. If they did not see anything close by they chose a house to punish instead. A cow would only give sour milk for three days, or the next time guests came over they would feel ill until they left. Nothing permanent or too dangerous as this was a funeral and to compound the death spirits was a line even the fée worried about treading. They lived long lives in a plane where time was unlike to itself, but death would find them, eventually.

Pierre and Mora danced with the fée, twirling and leaping to the many tunes that came together in the night. No court dance would be this reckless, much less take place at an occasion such as this, and the duc was glad he had been invited. Pluta danced as well as much as a cat can with féeries.

After a time, hours? days?, a calm came to them. They regrouped, standing around the deceased, laying down any new branches and flowers that had been picked up during the dances.

An elderly fée woman came then from the forest. A murmuring broke out amongst the gathered—the staff she carried, which should have been lit so she could begin the pyre, was not.

The dead man suddenly threw his wrappings aside and leapt up from within the branches. “Fool’s Day!” he called.

Several gasped, others shouted in surprise and then laughed in delight. His family crowded him, relief and some anger among them, but mostly joy.

“Did you know of this?” Pierre asked Mora. He had thought the man had not felt dead to him, but dismissed it as not knowing the fée very well. That it was the first of Aprilis had not even entered his mind.

“I did. He liked the celebration and did not wish to miss it because of his own death.”

The cheer of the night returned, heightened as there was no death to be wary of. A few of the pranks pulled after this were more harmful than before, or done without much reason, and Pierre intervened when one couple thought to exchange a false-child for one in a human home.

“They have much on their mind right now with a young babe. To forget to leave out offerings is not their fault. Please, leave them be.”

“We would have returned him after a few days,” the woman said. Which, in Faery, might mean years. She looked from the figure in her arms, a doll that mimicked a child and would to the parents look like their own, to the sleeping baby through the open window. She then sighed and nodded, “Oui, Your Grace.” With a quick curtsy she made the figurine disappear and returned to the dance with her husband.

That she had listened somewhat surprised Pierre, but given Mora’s comment before perhaps it should not have. Any fée living in Triumphe were to pay heed to the ruling parties of a land- that is why the titles were in the Clandestinian tongue and not the universal language. But visiting fée did not always do so. He, though, was no longer merely human. Perhaps he had never been.

He glanced through the now-closed window to the child inside, still asleep, unaware that it had almost been taken. His père had been taken to Faery in a similar fashion, and not only for a few days, but for decades as Pierre had learned when he was older. Over fifty years passed before Duc Félicien returned, merely ten years older than when he disappeared much to the confusion of the court. Pierre remembered him as a fun-loving man, who took few things seriously, but that which he did was with terrifying conviction.

He would need to learn more about the fée. This was as much a part of his inheritance as being the duc was and deserved just as much care.

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8 ~ Delphinium ~ Cræft

~ (Continued) Iunday, 29th of Prima, 11831 ~

Pierre made his way to the dining hall a while later. He had gone to his own rooms to try to think, but he could not focus. Pluta listened, but did not know enough about medicine to offer any aid, and even magically this was beyond her. Grabbing his cane, Pierre went to join those that had accompanied him—they had been left to have meals while Lizzy was tended to and rooms sorted. From guards, to those driving the carriages, miscellaneous staff, and other nobles who had been at the castle for his birthday party just two weeks past: Traveling as a child of the court came with great attention.

He raised a finger when he entered the dining hall, hushing the man that would announce his presence. He would be polite with the rest later but for now he needed just one person. His student Wolfram, a boy gifted in medicine and similar skills. Pierre found him quickly, sitting among a group of young men that helped with the animals.

“Have you heard of this illness?” the duc asked, interrupting some story about the dogs. Wolfram nodded though the others seemed unsure of what to do with the duc before them. They settled for keeping their eyes on their mostly empty plates.

“Yes, Your Grace,” he replied aloud, standing to address his master. “But I have only heard of it in passing. I do not know the treatment. I have just heard the lord physician mention it.” Before being with the duc Wolfram had been a student of the royal physician, Ophion, who was also Pierre’s uncle.

Pierre nodded, the tightening of his grip on his cane the only sign of his discomfort. “Let us go wait for the doctor and see if this has been happening in the area. Come along.” Wolfram was still a student, but he was bright to be chosen by Ophion. And brave, Pierre added to himself, thinking of how he had reacted to learning of Pierre’s dark magic. His fresh eyes might help Pierre see something that emotion was clouding over.

The remaining food was forgotten, Wolfram attending Pierre while leaving behind the others. Several more people offered to come, but the duc ignored them and walked by. He had spent the last several years as a student of medicine, becoming accustomed to his social rank not interfering too much with his life. Since returning to court the transition was still new.

“What else has Ophion said?”

“It presents with a harsh cough that can lead to blood coming up from the lungs and throat. The few cases he has seen…”

“Ended in death,” Pierre finished for the boy when Wolfram did not voice the words. Under his breath he added, “At least death I can cure.”

They stood before Elizabeth’s room now. Guards were at the stairs but none in this hall, giving the lady and the duc any privacy they desired. A chaperon would have been proper, but with the sickness Pierre was a physician before he was a lover.

“Your Grace?” Wolfram asked, as the duc had paused and the movements of his fingers showed him to be using magic. Though still a new apprentice of Mora, the boy felt the spirits of illness in the air give their attention to the duc. He could not help the shiver that ran through him.

“She drank the wine,” Pierre said, “And fell back to sleep immediately. I can feel her soul once again,” he added with a smile. “Come.” He opened the door and ushered in his medical student and magical apprentice. The door was then closed and locked, and Pluta meowed from her spot on Elizabeth’s bed before jumping down to be near them. A familiar was good to have around when performing complex magic.

Pierre put aside his cane, pulling off his gloves and stuffing them into a pocket before he shrugged off his outer jacket. As Wolfram took the outerwear, he watched and saw that at no moment did the duc stop painting with his fingers, reeling in the spirits so that their attention, will, and power was his to control.

The duc then made to snap his fingers. The movement was there, but he could not press hard enough and there was no sound. He tried again and still could not do it. Positioning his hand for a third time he could not press at all, and his fingers moved apart as if an invisible force was pulling them in opposite directions. Pierre fought until his thumb was so far back that it dislocated with an audible pop. He swore, cradling his hand and glaring at the air. Wolfram, who had been entranced with the display, suddenly found himself able to move and rushed to help.

“Move it back in carefully,” Pierre said, holding out his throbbing hand. He had not had spirits react to him so violently in years. Wolfram did not bother cautioning that it would hurt before snapping it back in place.

Pierre flinched and made a pained noise. “Thank you,” the duc said, releasing a breath as he tested his fingers. It would swell some but mobility was not much affected. He would shuffle his favorite deck of cards later to make sure of that.

“They do not want me to interfere,” he spoke, more to himself than Wolfram. He ran a hand through his black, grey-streaked hair, made so from pain and cræft. “Mora mentioned them being unlike her own.” A magic and its spirits were, in theory, the same throughout a realm. That was after all what the borders of the realms signified. But citizens were not always loyal to their liege, and borders could be crossed.

He walked back over to Elizabeth and stood closer to her than before. She was still sleeping deeply, unaffected by their talking—though that was his doing. The first spell he had put her under was unconsciousness, which had been allowed of him.

She coughed even in dream and more blood came up. He wiped her lips with a handkerchief.

He began to draw with his fingers again as if coaxing over a frightened animal. He did not ask for anything aside from information, making sure to be polite, and it was finally given.

Harmful micro-animalia ran rampant in her body, clustering around her throat and lungs. Her whole body was weakened and in time it would simply stop working. Unfortunately, that was all that he could tell. Necrocræft was not a miracle, one had to understand what one was looking for and this was new to him.

He tried anyway, banishing some of the illness with a general command, and the spirits thankfully thinned.

“Perhaps if you try,” he said over his shoulder to Wolfram. He broke the active connection and moved out of the way to let the boy come closer. A dull ache in the back of his head confirmed his actions would have consequences.

“I am not sure…”

“You have not started your practical training, I know. But the first step is knowledge. I am here,” Pierre assured him. “Should you overstep I can save you and her.”

Wolfram looked worriedly to the duc but took off his gloves. He had practiced cutting into his hands with Ophion, to know how deeply to cut, how to hide the pain, but that was as far as he had gone. The lord handed him a small folding knife and began to explain.

“The greater the wound, the greater the magic. But eventually you will be skilled enough that small incisions will do the trick. There are too areas where the magic is more concentrated. If a wound is deep, or closer to your heart there will be a stronger connection. But lines of power are easiest found on the hand. While painful to use the hand later unless a familiar helps to heal you, it is fastest and easiest in the moment.” He took Wolfram’s hand and opened his own palm to compare the two. “Instead of reading the lines to know things about a person, a suitor of death cuts their flesh along them. This one for healing,” he said, tracing a scar on his own hand and then the same line on Wolfram’s. “And this for illness. Another for death. This is not better or worse than other parts of the body that have similar threads, but it is easiest to do quickly, and what you likely will most often use. Eventually you may not need the lines.”

“And for bringing back the dead?” Wolfram asked. Pierre had done it in front of him with just a cut along his palm, something small and thin that would heal over in a few days’ time even without Pluta’s help. It had not even been on any specific line of power.

“For the first year or two you will cut your wrist for that,” Pierre said. Pushing up his sleeve there was a long scar running from his wrist to halfway up his elbow, with smaller ones surrounding it.

Wolfram slowly pushed up his own sleeve and swallowed to keep down his anxiety. “Even with a familiar you will scar at times, though far fainter than it would be otherwise. This wound is meant to be deep, Wolfram. I say it happened when I fell from a horse, should I need my sleeves rolled up in company. It helps that I am not the best rider.” The attempt at levity was lost on the boy still looking at the scars.

“You do this because to bring back a life, at first, you must risk your own?”

“Correct,” Pierre confirmed. And then in one motion he took the open knife from Wolfram and cut down his student’s arm. To his credit the boy held back his yelp of surprise and pain. It was a shallow wound though, not threatening to his life just yet.

Pierre ran a finger along the cut gathering blood. He then wiped his hand on the handkerchief he still had in his hand.

“Pluta? Heal him and clean the floor.” Pierre smiled to Wolfram and said a quick apology while the familiar jumped on top of a chair to reach the arm. Several scratchy licks later the wound was closed and only tinged pink. The blood from his arm, and the floor, were too then taken care of.

“Wolfram, are you alright?”

“Yes, Your Grace. Just a little shocked. Thank you, I am not sure if I could have done that myself. But surely Lady Elizabeth—”

“Is still with us. But perhaps the risk I forced upon you will entice the spirits to tell you more than they told me.”

The duc wiped Lizzy’s lips with Wolfram’s blood and stepped aside. “Feel with your soul. The motions of your fingers do not need to be anything specific, just get their attention.”

Wolfram did so, closing his eyes and using a hand to play an invisible piano in the air. Another sense opened to him as if he was for the first time in his life seeing detail or color. He felt, somewhat with his mind and yet too with his whole body, a connection with Lady Elizabeth. He felt her heart, her breath, her life, and how to aid or end those things. It felt too intimate, and he almost broke the connection, but a hand on his shoulder steadied him. Concentrating Wolfram narrowed the feeling to the parts of her body that were ill.

“It feels like death,” he said. “Like Lady Mora, but not the same. This illness wants to kill her. But would that not leave it without a host and therefore be its own death?”

“There are many illnesses that kill. It does not have a reasoning.”

***

After trying to understand the spirits of the illness and failing, Pierre and Wolfram retired to the duc’s large suite to wait until the local physician came. The boy held a whispered conversation with his lord’s familiar, and Pierre sat shuffling a deck of cards.

“Will my hair turn grey, like His Grace’s?” Wolfram asked. He tried to pull down a lock of his own black hair to see if any of the color had changed.

“Probably a little,” Pluta said, licking her paw and cleaning her fur. There was still some blood between her digits. “And you’ll have a headache tomorrow too. But it should not be too bad yet.”

“I can withstand a headache.” If it meant being able to bring back the girl he loved he would gladly deal with pain.

It did not take long for a servant to announce the doctor’s arrival.

“Have him brought here,” Pierre said, pocketing his toy. A few moments later there was another knock, and the door opened.

“Your Grace?” a doctor greeted them upon entering the room.

The duc stood and crossed the room to shake his hand, a gesture of equality from physician to physician.

“My beloved is ill,” Pierre began without further introduction. “A harsh cough that leads to bleeding, though whether from the lungs or throat I am not certain. She runs a fever and is weak and pale. She is asleep at the moment though if you need to examine her she may be woken.”

The doctor nodded, looking grave. “There is no need, Your Grace. I have seen the illness. It is rarer here than in the south of Piques, but it is slowly spreading north. I know of no name for it, but I can describe what is happening. It is an illness that can lay dormant in a human person for many months if not years. I speculate there are many infected among us, we are merely not ill. When it becomes active there is bleeding, as you have seen, weakness and degeneration until death if it is not stopped.”

“And what causes it to become active?”

“The presence of death,” the doctor replied. Pierre remained composed, but Wolfram coughed to hide his intake of breath. The doctor did not pay him any attention.

“How is this treated?” the duc continued.

“I have medicines to treat the cough, the tearing, and to keep down the fever—but these only treat the symptoms and not the illness. The afflicted must be surrounded by life. It is early spring—if she has just become ill then perhaps it will not be for long. By autumn I hope to have a better cure in mind. I can come by soon again to see her when she is awake.”

“Thank you. If you could show me the medicines that will help and provide me with enough doses until we reach Spadille I would be most grateful. How much will it be? And if you need any aid to find this cure, financial or otherwise, then I will provide it.”

“For you and your beloved, My Grace, there is no charge. I may take you up on the offer for research patronage though.”

They shook hands once more, and the doctor left.

***

Pierre sat by her bed again that evening, reading through letters that she had sent him. They had held a correspondence for a time while he had gone to University, but he was ashamed to admit that she wrote him far more often than he replied. There were a few letters in the box that he had not even opened though he had certainly planned to read them upon getting them.

He slid a finger under the wax seal and opened one of the forgotten letters. It was short, just a note to ask how he was doing now that her brother had returned home and he still stayed. He did not even remember getting it.

“I was well,” he replied to her now. “Glad that Piers had passed his exams and could return early to his family. I helped him with those, I’m sure he told you. He begged me to study with him so he could learn quicker and get home to Eglė. Then I needed to continue my own studies. So as you guessed, I was busy.” They had taken many of the same courses, but Pierre had not been content with just being a doctor. He had decided to become a surgeon, learn more invasive techniques, and to know more about the human body. He also needed to finish Mora’s lessons.

He went to his own room once night set, asking Pluta to wake him every other hour so he could check on Lizzy. A nurse was staying by her side at all times that he was away, but he needed to see for himself how she was doing. He checked her temperature throughout the night and woke her up once so that she could drink a tea to bring down her fever. Her coughing increased, as did the amount of blood that was left after it, but the last couple of hours before dawn she seemed to improve and then become stable.

***
~ Dvoday, 30th of Prima, 11831 ~

In the morning Elizabeth said that she was feeling better and he need not hover. Pierre was torn between staying with her, and possibly making her worse because of his magic, and staying away when there were things only he would know about her. Not due to any recent long term intimacy, but the cræft that he suspected made her ill might be the only thing that could help her.

In the end there was business to attend to, and the decision was made for him. Though they had not planned for a stay in this town along their way, the foster son of the roi, and future duc of Piques, was there and that came with expectations. He ordered several to attend to her and made certain that the bells that chimed for maids and nurses were in order. Wolfram was given a specific set of orders to check the microanimalia after meals if she slept and to monitor her humors.

“I love you,” he whispered into her ear before he left. She was again asleep, and he could not tell if she heard, but he wanted to say the words. It was the first time he said them aloud to her.

The day was long. He met the maior and thanked him for the extended welcome. As a new medical graduate he also went to oversee the small local hospital and staff. There he met again with the doctor that had promised to see Elizabeth later, making proper introductions this time (his name was Hervé Yannick), and scheduling another visit for the next day.

By the time he returned to the inn it was late, and the nurse assured him Elizabeth was better than this morning. Wishing to see her, but almost certain now that his presence was not helping her, he only paused by her door to whisper good night on the way to his room.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

7 ~ Delphinium ~ Spirits of Death

~ Iunday, 29th of Prima, 11831 ~

She had become ill. A cough began the day of their departure and lasted throughout the journey, bringing with it chills and taking away her appetite. Still far from Piques’s capital they were commanded to stop and rest in a town, her suitor refusing to go further until her health improved. His orders were that of duc and doctor; none could argue.

Pierre Salvador carried Elizabeth Anne to the most elegant suite in the inn as if he were already her husband, laying her down in bed and then moving to the hall while a maid helped her undress. When he entered again she was curled up under the covers shivering. Ignoring the maid, he made his way to the lady, kissing her forehead and letting his lips linger to both comfort and assess a fever.

“I am unfamiliar with what ails you, my dear,” he said, pulling back and then stroking her curls. Her blue eyes were unfocused and her skin pale save for blotches on her cheeks. He felt her throat, noting abnormalities. “I will consult with local physicians about this. You will be better soon.”

“Forgive me for being so much trouble—” A kiss silenced her. The thought he could catch her illness entered his mind, but the desire to show her no blame won over. And if he did fall ill, feel the symptoms himself, at least he might recognize and hold back the spirits that plagued her.

She broke the kiss to cough. Spots of red betrayed how much worse her condition had become.

“Rest for now,” he said softly. Taking out a handkerchief he wiped away her blood and tucked her in again. The duc then remained standing by her side, not wanting to leave her, one hand still stroking dark blonde hair damp from fever sweat.

“There is drink for Lady Elizabeth by the bed, Your Grace,” the maid said behind him. “And chimes to the servant’s rooms for when she wakes.”

“Thank you,” Pierre replied. “You may go.”

He poured his love a glass of diluted wine as the maid left and paused after she shut the door. Lizzy’s eyes were closed.

There were no witnesses.

He set the pitcher down and took off his gloves. With folding knife taken from his pocket he pricked his finger. Blood seeped out, becoming dark first with saturation and then in hue. When it dripped down his hand, even the trail left behind was black.

He let several drops of blood fall into her drink before putting on his gloves again. They were dark as well, and by sight one would not see the bloodstains. He would change them later when he had a spare moment.

“Sleep well, Lizzy. Do not forget to drink. I will have a light dinner brought to you later.” She did not reply, already asleep or too weak to answer.

He sat in one of the spare chairs and put away his knife. Perhaps she would wake to quench her thirst, and he would be able to use cræft to try to heal her by means outside the natural. This too kept him from seeing the rest of his entourage. There was enough on his mind without half the court attempting to gain favor.

For half an hour the duc watched his dear friend. She slept peacefully, only coughing now and again, and her shivering began to cease. Pierre only moved to wipe her lips once, and later again to touch her throat. It was still early spring, perhaps this was an illness she caught in winter?

The door creaked as it opened. Pierre glanced over to see a black cat entering the room and smiled as Pluta nudged the door closed with her head. She then turned to him and jumped into his lap. Pierre hugged her as she began to purr.

“I have just been here with Lizzy,” he told his pet. He whispered so as not to wake the girl. The cat nudged him to continue. “She is very ill. I do not know what to do, Pluta. I don’t know how to feel. A doctor has been sent for, but what if they can offer no help either?” Elizabeth had been unwell, but seemingly not terribly so, until that morning when she could no longer hide the blood that came with her increasing fits of coughing.

Still over a week away from their original destination of Spadille they were only six, perhaps five, from her home in Eichel. Lord Ophion, the royal physical, was also visiting her home at the moment. Perhaps a detour there would be prudent.

Pluta pressed herself to her master and purred louder to try to offer comfort.

“What is the worst that can happen?” the cat asked. To most it would sound like mewling, but to him and those that knew necrocræft it would be Saiva’s common language.

“She could suffer,” he replied, looking up to the sleeping comte’s daughter. “And I might not be able to do anything.”

Illness was something one learned to understand and live with in Clandestina. While some of the best healers and doctors of the world resided in this realm, it was by necessity. Death was not a certainty for many illnesses that would have taken lives anywhere else, but that did not mean the journey to health was smooth. The guardians who had once controlled this were all but gone. Some resided in other realms, most had just disappeared, but the magic of a realm was innate. Other places could continue to thrive without ever knowing about the keres; this land of fée and human was in turmoil.

Yet some did not accept this fate so easily.

The lord of death stepped out of the room, giving Lizzy one last glance before shutting the door. His familiar was still nestled in his arms.

“My Lady?” Pierre asked the air. A presence arose behind him and arms wrapped around his waist. Death rested her head between his shoulder-blades. She brought a chill with her, as if she had stood out in the snow for far too long and had yet to warm, and the duc shivered in her embrace.

“The illness—” he began.

“The spirits are not mine,” Mora said. “They come from my plane, but only in ancestry.” She was not divine though at times called goddess to honor her power. Neither all-knowing nor all-powerful, she was a being that came from another plane, and had a power over certain spirits—a daimon. The last of the keres, the daimons of pain and suffering. Legend and time had turned her into a being that responded to Death. And sometimes Life.

“Do what you will,” she said before he could ask his question. “Piques is your land and Clandestina your home. You do not need my permission, Lord Pierre.” The wrong title to call him as he was a duc, but she was referring to his other rank as her chosen.

“Will you help?” he asked. Mora had been wary of Elizabeth since the girl had returned to Pierre’s life. Had been jealous even that he had come back to life after committing suicide (the final of her tests) instead of staying with her in the land of the dead. Elizabeth was a large part in why he had chosen to return.

“I will not hinder.” She placed a kiss of ice to the nape of his neck, and the weight of her against him vanished. The cold remained.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

Make-over

I’ve redone the website! The main blog is still here, but I’ll also be putting my serialized stories on WordPress, as well as Royal Road, so you can read wherever you are more comfortable. Links to where you can support me are now on the right, and the ‘front page’ is now a static Table of Contents for all of my stories. Each chapter ends with a ‘previous chapter’ and ‘next chapter’ links, so you don’t have to keep going back to the main page.

Like everywhere else right now, Larkspur is up, and Delphinium will begin serialization on Monday 🙂

I’ve also gone a step further and added dates in-story. When there’s a scene break and there’s a new day, I mention at the top the date, though my in-world calendar is a little different than ours. I’ll have to make worldbuilding posts again and show maps and the calendar and all that.

(This might get confusing when I get into planes of existence where time is more wonky, but I’ll figure something out…)

6 ~ Larkspur ~ Poison

~ (Continued) Vijfday, 19th of Prima, 11831 ~

A touch, a slight of hand: he shuffled the deck in such a way that a card cut into his finger. He placed aside the whole pack. Gesturing for Lizzy to remain seated by the bed, he used the same hand to pass her tea, now with an extra drop of blood.

He folded his hands together to hide any black stain.

“Thank you, Pierre.”

“Of course, Lizzy.”

She took a drink and did not notice. He did nothing but smiled as she complimented the tea and placed it on the saucer for a time. They resumed their conversation as if nothing amiss had happened.

“Now, my dear,” Pierre said. “I would like you to come with me to the feast.”

“Me, Pierre? I have earned no such spot at the royal table.”

He would be entirely well in three more days, if his estimate about the moon was correct, and by that point, the roi and reine would be home as well. There was to be a royal family dinner staged for their return and Pierre’s departure for Piques. He had insisted on the date even though some wished he would still stay in bed.

“You call my uncle with familial terms, and you have become close to me. It will be in two days. This is not an order, my dear, but a request. Do think about it, please?”

“I shall; I will.”

She left shortly after this, and Pierre was allowed to give her a kiss on the cheek. This time, when his heart fluttered, he was sure it was because of her. Trying to be patient, he waited until the moment the door closed before he snapped his fingers and captured her soul.

If he wished, with another movement, he could place her in an unnatural sleep, never to wake by any medical procedure or prayer. He could end her life, forcing her into a land of the dead. He could take her to, and bring her back, from those edges.

He moved his fingers as if fiddling with a coin. Hers was a gentle soul, and he longed for it.

He flicked his fingers to release his hold. Still, for the next three days he could grasp her soul without much effort, despite distance as long as she remained in the realm. In the back of his self, he felt the humming of her spirit alongside the links that tied him to Pluta, Wolfram, and would to anyone else that had been made to ingest his blood. Her spirit comforted him as much as her physical presence had, and he felt more at peace.

Until the crescendo of his headache overwhelmed him. He hid his face in the pillow and whimpered. He had hoped the pain would lessen when he used cræft, but it did not seem the case. It was one of the many prices one paid to know this magic.


***
~ Hexday, 20th of Prima, 11831 ~

“You are leaving the day after tomorrow as well, yes?” he asked Elizabeth the the next day, placing down the Seven of Wands to lose against the Knave of Pentacles in a game of War. She was sitting on the far edge of his bed to better play the game, legs dangling near the corpse that still lay hidden.

“Yes. Brother is certain his child will be born by then, and as you are leaving yourself that day, Mother insists I return.”

“And if you were to have other plans?”

“Like?” She seemed curious but unaware this was a suggestion. She won the next hand as well, picking up the Ace of Swords and his Queen of Cups.

“I am leaving for Piques, as you know, which my brother is in his last year of governing. I have finished my studies a year early, and he too wishes I know how to properly run ‘his’ duchy. I would like you to be there as well.”

She was already blushing. “Your Grace—”

“Elizabeth,” he interrupted. He placed his hand over hers and squeezed when she looked down. “I wish the company of a friend. You have proven a dear companion. Perhaps you shall learn how to run a whole duchy?”

“I am the younger child, a daughter, of a comte. I shall have no need to learn how to take care of an entire duchy.”

Pierre smiled gently. “You are the beloved companion of a duc,” he told her. He raised her hand to kiss it and tugged her toward him, catching her in his arms. When she looked up, he kissed her.

For a moment, neither was certain of what to do, but his arms wrapped around her, a hand tangled in her hair, and she shivered in his arms and pressed herself ever closer.

They pulled apart after several moments, Lizzy sitting back and touching her kiss-swollen lips.

Pierre seemed almost surprised by his own actions. “Lady Elizabeth, I—”

“I accept your invitation to spend the start of spring with you, Duc Piques. Dear Pierre. Though I shall need to ask and be granted permission by my family.”

“Of course,” he said. He brushed back some curls that had come loose from her hairstyle and kissed her gently once more.

***
~ Siwenday, 21st of Prima, 11831 ~

Her mother was delighted that she had been formally invited to stay with the duc at his estate. Such arrangements were not uncommon for ladies if the men of their affection were of a more distant land. The household would know to treat the lady guest with respect, as a probable future lady, and there would be no lack of chaperons.

The pigeon with Lady Eichel’s message returned the morning of Springfinding, granting permission and also mentioning that Eglė’s time seemed to be upon her, the comtesse having just received another letter from home (she was still traveling). The lord physician was riding ahead to try to make it in time (though her mother did not think it possible even with a good horse, they were still a few days away). With any luck, another message would be sent soon about the child.

***

The royal family dinner was to begin at moonrise. The roi and reine returned to court in the late afternoon, visiting Pierre for a short while to be assured of his improving health. He had taken to sitting at his desk, bored with lying in bed, but was still forced to nap during the hours of high sun. The spirits had dispersed enough so that his journal was unreadable except for the sections about daily life and his legal education.

“I am fine, Maman,” he assured the reine when she asked why he was up, hugging her. “Here, feel my forehead.”

Wolfram was keeping him company at that time, and Pierre introduced him as his own student. He had decided to bring Wolfram along to Piques as well, stealing him from Ophion.

“And Eichel’s daughter?” the roi prompted. He scratched at his auburn beard. “I do not see the girl who has become the topic of gossip and praise among my staff.”

“She will be my guest tonight, Father.”

“I look forward to meeting her.”

Pierre had not seen her all that day, but Wolfram assured him that the lady was merely busy with tonight and the departure tomorrow.

“Well then, perhaps I should be busy as well. Help me pick out my attire.”

***

Washed, dressed, and feeling healthy for the first time in a week, Pierre left his room without trying to hide from the guards or his doctors. Elizabeth had sent a note that she would be waiting by the east entrance to the dining hall, and he made his way there alone. Even Pluta stayed behind, with Wolfram, who wished to try to see if he could feel his love’s soul with the limited knowledge he had.

Turning the corner, Pierre stopped and had to actually support himself with the cane. Lady Elizabeth Anne stood off to the side, wearing a very similar blue gown to what she had worn at the last party, but this time, her sleeves were quite short, and she wore long white gloves to compensate. Her hair was loose, some of it over her shoulder, displaying sapphire earrings. She twisted a cream fan nervously in her palms but stopped and opened it to check whether she had damaged it. Pressed upon the parchment was the larkspur he had given her that night.

“Oh, Lizzy…” Seized with desire, he did not announce himself, striding over to her while she was still occupied with the fan and kissing her before she could fully realize what was going on. One arm wrapped around her waist, and the other held her hand and the fan so it would not fall and be damaged.

“You are the most beautiful creature,” he told her between kisses to her lips, her cheek, and brow. “Do not fret, for no one can feel ill will towards such a lovely being as you.”

They entered the dining hall several minutes later after stealing several more kisses and composing themselves.

***

“News, Your Majesties!” A courier entered the dining hall before dessert when everyone was seated more informally, some exchanging their glasses of wine for cups of tea. “From Eichel. Lady Eglė has born a son this Springfinding; Gwythyr Été.”

“Named after summer,” Hélaïse, Aimé’s wife, said softly. “What a wonderful name. Though it is springtime.”

“But Summerfinding was nine months ago,” Pierre replied, and there was quiet laughter at the understanding.

Aimé raised his glass. “To Gwythyr Été!”

Pierre’s glass touched Elizabeth’s, and he whispered to her congratulations for the new addition to her family. He took a deep drink of his dessert wine and immediately tasted something wrong. The wine was bitter and a familiar burning coated his throat.

Poison.

Whether deadly, and if so how quickly fatal, he had no idea, but the lord wasted no time, curious though he was about the effects. He tugged at Pluta’s soul to gain her attention from his rooms and bid her hurry. He thought it better not to bite the inside of his cheek and give the unknown substance access to his bloodstream.

As the courier left, his cat entered, and with a wave, he made it known it was all right.

“A family dinner without Pluta, whatever was I thinking,” he said. Elizabeth had not turned back to her food and made to hold Pierre’s hand underneath the table.

“Are you alright?”

“Yes, fine. Just a spell.”

Pluta dashed to her master. Pierre bent as if to give her some food from the hand that Lizzy did not hold, and she bit him. He gasped, taking his left hand back and placing the gloved finger in his mouth. He could taste the blood on the fabric.

“Pluta,” he scolded her gently aloud. “Be more careful next time. Take just the fish, not my whole hand.”

Before he could do anything else, Lizzy had leaned over and pressed a handkerchief to the bite.

“I … thank you,” he replied softly. His right hand stayed in her lap, and their fingers twined together.

Conversation began again. The prince discussed the duchy and the kingdom, and the duc offered his opinions while manipulating the spirits. Playing with Lizzy’s fingers was just the motion that they responded to as well.

His unease slowly left. Whatever poison had started to attack his body became void. He did not drink or eat anything for the rest of the night, but did not stop thinking about what had happened. He neither spoke up, however, nor alerted anyone except to make sure no one else drank what he left. To say something would be to delay his trip, to cause worry, and begin an investigation. He was still far more curious than fearful about who wanted to take his life.

***

“Did you do this?” he asked Mora, feeling her presence in the room that night. Another headache from using his cræft had begun as well, though not too terribly painful compared to the usual.

“The poison or how you feel now?”

“Whichever one you were involved in.”

“More the latter,” she said. She stroked at his bangs and shooed away the pain. “I did not warn you about the poison, but it was not me who put it there.”

“And do you know who it was, my Lady?”

No answer, just the feeling of a kiss on his forehead.

***
~ Iunday, 22nd of Prima, 11831 ~

It was not a coffin, but as she was not staying dead, perhaps it was more fitting. Pierre laid the girl in an elaborate trunk, legs tucked up so that she would fit. Her nightgown was different from the one she had died in. Pluta had for good measure consumed that as well, but it was thought immodest to leave her without dress. Wolfram made certain his love’s body was well kept, her head even rested on a pillow, and he hid her underneath a pile of silk. She would not decay as long as Pierre willed it.

“Thank you again, Your Grace,” the young suitor said. The trunk was locked, and Wolfram given the key. “She really does seem just asleep.”

“We shall find you an animal to become your familiar after we arrive. Lessons shall be sparse at first. You are certain you wish to be the one to bring her back?”

“Yes, Your Grace.”

“Very well then.”

The servants were called in to gather up luggage, and Pierre made his way to the carriages. He had heard that Lizzy was already seated in hers and reading.

He found the one with elaborate gold acorns on the side and knocked on the door with his cane.

“May I be allowed in?” he asked. She smiled and opened the door while he climbed in before a footman could move to help.

“Pierre,” she greeted informally, and he pulled the small curtain to the window before he kissed her.

“Lizzy, darling. I have something for you.” He took out a rectangular jewelry box from his coat pocket and opened it so that she could see: a gold pendant in the shape of a larkspur stem, with amethysts to accentuate the petals.

“Pierre, I—” He silenced her with another quick kiss and hooked the clasp behind her neck. The pendant rested in the hollow of her throat.

“I will finish monitoring everyone getting ready and return soon, darling. Wolfram and Pluta shall be our company; I wished this to be done privately.”

“Thank you, Your Grace.” She fell back into formal speech when unable to think of anything to say. He smiled to her, kissed her cheek, and went to finish checking the cortège.

Elizabeth smiled so widely that her cheeks hurt. She tried to continue reading but had to stop every few sentences to look again at the pendant. It was beautiful and the first piece of jewelry that she had ever received from a suitor.

Something caught in her throat. The lady pulled out a handkerchief (one of Pierre’s dark ones) and coughed. She did not taste or see the drops of blood that were left behind.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

5 ~ Larkspur ~ Murder

~ (Continued) Dvoday, 16th of Prima, 11831 ~

He did not have breakfast with company the next morning. Elizabeth did not come, and he refused to let anyone in aside from a doctor (and only when he swore it was on Ophion’s order). At lunch, though, she returned.

The duc was sitting up in bed unable to rest because of the headache that had returned. It seemed to flow throughout his whole body. Writing was impossible, but a distraction would be welcome, so he shuffled a deck of cards and laid out a game of solitaire on the bed.

Lizzy came in after knocking softly, and after being granted entry, sat in her chair at the head of the bed. Without even asking permission, she raised the fork from his ignored lunch to his mouth.

“I slept in late after our adventures,” she said. They had wandered the garden for a while after talking and had to sneak in so as not to be caught. Pierre was almost certain the guards were well aware of what was going on and had purposefully left them be.

“I worried perhaps I frightened you with all that talk of necrocræft,” he replied. Pluta’s head jerked up, and she glared at her master.

Elizabeth did not reply, looking to the game being played.

“What funny cards,” she said. Tilting back his head, she placed a cold cloth on his forehead.

He heeded his familiar’s warning, taking a new route of conversation. “The Comte d’Eichel’s daughter does not recognize the symbols?”

“Of course, I do,” she responded quickly. The cloth got a squeeze and water dripped down his face. “Triumphe has worked its lands out to reflect those of playing cards suits, and I am aware that different symbols are used in other lands. I simply have never seen a set like this myself.”

“My sincere apologies for saying otherwise.” He wiped at the stream of water, trying and failing to keep back a laugh. She continued to ignore him, looking at the cards more closely.

Instead of hearts and spades for suits there were cups and swords, a fourth court card (knight), and another fifth set that were not a clear suit. The cards did not simply show the symbol and what number the card was, either. Entire scenes were beautifully drawn, the symbol incorporated into the art.

“Tell me then,” Pierre said. “Are these symbols from the Italaviana set or Roseliande?”

“Italaviana,” she replied. “Swords, coins… but what are these? Wands? They are not in the standard deck.” They should have been canes or staffs—bastoni. That is why the lands near her family’s county were called such, for the suit translated here as a walking stick of some sort.

His game was forgotten as she picked up several of the cards to look at them closer.

“These are alternate symbols from Italaviana. And these cards,” he picked through the forgotten klondike setup, “are another whole suit, the atouts. They are used for different games than usual. They have the highest value along with the kings.”

He handed her the cards and watched as she looked at all of them. At one, she paused for a moment, and Pierre counted which place it would be in when she handed back the small deck.

“This fifth suit, is there any set up in the Royal Court to reflect it? It is a very interesting group of cards: the Emperor, the Moon… Death.”

“No, there is not. The fifth suit is up to the maker of the cards though some themes are common. Planets, concepts, those alongside nobility like a magician.”

He gathered all the cards up again and seemed to shuffle them. When Elizabeth turned to get the fork, he glanced at the card that she had taken note of. He had thought it would be Death, as she had mentioned it softly before, but no, it was the Lovers.

Another knock on the door. Before Pierre said anything, it opened, and a man several years his senior entered the room. His eyes were a sky blue, and his hair so that it was almost white. Usually clean-shaven, it seemed as if he had not had time in several days.

“Brother!” Pierre grinned at the true prince, sitting up. “What are you doing here? You are to be running my duchy.”

“Ah, that is the welcome I receive?” The prince walked over to the bed, and the two men hugged. He noticed Lizzy upon stepping back, who was still in a curtsy.

“Rise, Lady Elizabeth,” he said, extending a hand to help her. “It is already all about the castle that you are Pierre’s only permitted companion. Feel free to defer to me as his brother, not your prince, in private company.”

“Yes, Your Highness. Thank you.”

“Mother sent me,” Prince Aimé said to Pierre, sitting on the edge of the bed. “They cannot return from their travels just yet and wanted to know how you were. Ophion wrote them when you became ill, you see. I was already on the way here myself and took a horse to ride ahead. Hélaïse and Ancel will be here in a few days.”

“Ophion surely told them I was getting better.”

“Well, yes, but Mother worries. She wanted news and would not ask for you to write it yourself in your condition.”

“Your Highness, Your Grace,” Lizzy interrupted. “I believe this is a conversation between brothers. I shall take my leave and see you soon.” She nodded her deference to the two men.

Pierre held out his hand to her, and she placed hers atop. He bent and kissed her fingers. “Until we meet again.”

She nodded, her cheeks rosy. “Until then.”

“Brother, I am bereft of speech,” the prince said, watching Elizabeth leave. “Does Mother know about her? Has a wedding been planned?”

“She has been my companion while I have been ill. We are not yet betrothed.”

“Yet,” Aimé repeated. He then took pity and changed the subject. “What did take you so violently? Screams, Pierre, and throwing out the staff? I heard about that merely from walking the hall to your room.”

“Already wondering if my degree was well-earned?”

“Truly, Brother.”

Pierre hesitated on the lie. He had come up with several excuses for when it had merely been the larkspur, but as it was, there were more factors than just a poison and headache. He had not thought of how intense the recovery from her last test would be.

“Or can you not say?” the prince continued. A chill settled in Pierre’s stomach.

“An illness circled the dorms this winter,” the duc said. “It was likely the culprit along with an imbalance in the humors brought on by long travel.” He suspected his brother had some idea of the truth. The Royal House was well aware Mora was more than just a rumor; several people had been brought to sentence because of suspected affiliation during his time at court. Necrocræft was not a moral or lawful practice in the realm. Hiding the practice while being of the highest status at school had been rather easy. Here, while called principicule affectionately because of his fostering by the roi, he was merely the orphaned son of a duc. Legally, many outranked him.

Corruption existed on all levels though. If the princeling why not the prince? But Pierre could still not confirm anything for his brother, even if Aimé approved of Mora in some way. The risk was too great if he was wrong.

“Perhaps you should go take that last semester you are skipping,” the prince said and smiled. Pierre relaxed.

“I finished quickly, there were no courses I did not take. And why are you and your family all coming up to the castle?” he added, changing the subject, “For a visit or to meet with me?”

“Ah, well, Father and I have been in correspondence,” he said. “Seeing as you finished classes a year early, but our deal is still in effect, perhaps there could be a transitional year.”

“A transitional year?” The duc had a fair idea of what would happen but wanted to make certain. He reached out to pet Pluta as he listened.

“I will return to court here more often, begin to move back over the visits, and get caught up in business. Similarly, once you are well, you can go to Piques to begin understanding the land and the people. I have set up a council, those who have aided me, and I hope they shall aid you as well.”

“Brother, that is very generous, thank you.”

“You are welcome.” Again, the prince smiled and placed a hand on Pierre’s shoulder. “I have missed you, Brother. I will go inform our parents that you are doing well and see you soon.”

***

Pierre lay awake that night, dismissing the student that Ophion sent to keep an eye on him—the very same he had earlier killed. His name was Wolfram and while only fifteen he was top of the private class that Ophion led. The duc noticed the boy was wearing gloves and did not take them off all the while he sat there. He vaguely wondered if his uncle had taken another apprentice. He could not remember if the boy had had gloves on when tending him last.

The memory of what he had done to his lady returned to him.

“I am sorry,” he whispered. He reached out towards the larkspur that still decorated the room, but did not touch. With a sigh he closed his eyes. “Forgive me.” A phantom clasped her hand in his. “I was in pain,” he continued. His thumb stroked the back of the lady’s hand. He would not have seen her even if his eyes were open. “I should know how to deal through agony, but I felt betrayed.”

Mora settled on the bed, more spirit than flesh.

“As did I.”

He pulled her into his arms and returned to sleep with death.


***
~ Vijfday, 19th of Prima, 11831 ~

Elizabeth visited often. What had been a pleasant surprise the first few times was now routine and much appreciated. The illness continued to wax and wane with the times of day, Pierre finally realizing that his body would finish adjusting the day after Springfinding—the last quarter moon. Death’s Moon. It was a long time to deal with this level of reoccurring pain and Lizzy’s company helped.

Tonight, there were still a few days left, and the pain had not stopped even at midnight. Pierre lay curled in his bed, having sent Lizzy away hours ago, though she had desired to stay. Wolfram was helping him manage, and the boy had just left to bring more cool water.

He needed to kill something. It would distract the spirits of pain that now grew restless from being near him and unable to do more harm. He could channel their energy or suffer, and there was no other magic to tame them as that full moon had that first night. During other times, they might leave him be, but this was still his final test; they would not accept a weak lord.

The glass beside his bed held watered wine, and after piercing his finger with a pin, added a few drops of dark blood. He did not need to work a complicated spell and a smaller wound would do. The greater the wound, or the greater the violence, the more powerful the resulting blood.

His assistant returned. Pierre balled his fist to hide the blood and scars, not having time to pull on his glove.

“Please, you have worked hard, drink from my glass,” he told the boy. “I have not had the desire for it. Tea, perhaps, if you could get some.”

“Yes, Your Grace. Thank you.” He first tended Pierre, replacing the cloth and covering him with another blanket. Taking the glass, he seemed to want to refuse the offer but could not. He drank it then left for the kitchens.

Some of the spirits left with him, and there was a slight reprieve until he returned.

Wolfram set the tea down on the nightstand. “Shall I die again?”

“You know what I am doing?” The same boy that he had killed, the same one that had taken to wearing gloves. Ophion’s best student.

“I have guessed,” the boy replied, allowing himself to look at the duc.

“Then no, you shan’t. I assume you have an interest in this?” Pierre opened his hand, showing scars and smeared black blood.

“I do.”

“Then bring me another sacrifice.”

The boy was silent for a moment, unable to look away from the duc’s hand. “May it be an animal?” he asked.

“No. Bring a person. I hold your soul already. Do not attempt anything revealing or it will be you.”

He bowed and left again.

“And how will you explain a missing person?” Pluta asked. She was lying on the pillow beside him and licked at the blood and pinprick.

“Fée.”

“Not entirely a lie, either.”

Wolfram returned with a young woman. She curtsied deeply upon seeing the duc. The boy stood beside her, close enough for their hands to brush together.

“You fret so much, you ask it to be a creature, and you bring this lovely mademoiselle?” the lord of death asked. He sat up, and his eyes flicked over the girl. She wore a sleeping gown, and her dark curls were loose for bed. “Look at me,” he said. She retained her posture, only raising her head. “Your lineage?” he asked. There was more to her than human.

“My family hails from Cygnorum, Your Grace,” she said. She would have some of the swan-folk magic in her, perhaps even be able to change form herself.

“Do you know why you are here?”

“I am to die, Your Grace.”

“Come, sit beside me.”

He motioned for Wolfram to give him the glass and took out a knife from the side drawer. Positioning his hand above the rim, and in full view of both the boy and the girl, he cut himself and bled.

Pluta was given this wound to lick until it was no longer so deep, and Wolfram bandaged it.

Pierre had his full attention on the girl sitting on his bed. “You will drink this,” he said. “And I will kill you. It will be painless, and no marks will appear anywhere on you. Nothing cruel shall be done to your body.”

She was pale and now shaking, but stayed sitting beside him. He raised the blood to her lips. She looked to Wolfram, and seeing something that calmed her, she closed her eyes and drank.

The lord put aside the empty glass and hugged the girl. He held her, comforted her, stroked back her hair, and watched as tears flowed down her cheeks.

“Un, deux—”

“Mercy.”

He snapped his fingers before finishing the count, and the girl died in his arms. He held her a moment longer then let her body slide to the floor.

“Rid the room of her waste,” he told Pluta, lying back down with a grateful sigh. “Her corpse must stay intact, let it be hidden underneath the bed. As I promised her, do nothing harmful to her. She will be buried at a more convenient time.”

Turning his head to look at Wolfram out of the corner of his eye, he saw the boy standing, a hand to his mouth, fascinated and abhorred.

“Death is not pretty,” the lord told him. “She was beloved to you, was she not?”

“She was dying,” the young suitor replied. He walked over to her body and knelt beside it. “Often in pain. I began to learn so I could heal her, but it did not work … she asked to die.”

“Then I am glad it was her will.”

Wolfram touched her, stroking back her hair. He waited for her to open her eyes as if he had not seen her murder moments ago. Pluta sat beside him for the moment. It was a sick room, unpleasant scents were standard, and it was well known the duc was still quite ill. She could give the boy his time.

“Can you not bring her back now?” He sounded close to tears as if just now understanding exactly what had taken place.

“No,” Pierre replied softly. “She was my sacrifice, to return her life would be to break a vow.”

“And … if someone else brought her back?”

The duc turned on his side so he could see both the boy and the girl. Clever young man. He could see why Ophion had chosen him. Why Mora had chosen him.

“If someone else did it, then I would break no vow.”

“May I return her?” The assistant looked up to the duc, pleading. “I can still learn, can I not?”

“Returning a person’s life will take quite a long time of studying. Three years, perhaps four. You could just wait for Ophion’s return. There is also the matter of her illness. It may return with her. You would need to know what it is and how to treat it before you attempted it or it may all be in vain.”

“I want to be the one. I mean … is she well where she is? Happy?”

“Yes.” She would be in Akhlys, a plane of the dead, where those of Clandestina were taken by Mora herself. It was a judgement before a more permanent afterlife, not paradise, but neither an inferno.

“Then I will learn. Both how to bring her back and what hurt her so.”

Wolfram turned back to his dead love. He finished his inspection and hid the body, pushing it under the bed and pulling the sheets so that they covered the gap to the floor. Pluta snuck under after it.

“Thank you, Your Grace,” Wolfram said. He stood and poured the cool tea for Pierre, handing him a mug. It was then the lord understood—she had not meant mercy; she had thanked him.

“You are welcome,” he replied to them both.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~