17.5 ~ Fée Child ~

~ Siwenday, 7th of Prima, 11814 ~

He had been told to leave the birthing room when the bleeding had increased. His pleas and demands to remain were ignored despite his rank, and the common sense that he would not interfere. He just wanted to stay with her. She had been pale and already so weak, her grip on his hand less strong than when they danced (when just a few days ago they had jested she might break his fingers during the worst pains). She could not hold on as he was removed by his own servants and shoved through the door. Her last words echoed in his head on repeat, “My love, Félicien..!”

Now she was dead. The doctor apologized as if that made any difference to him. He had not been beside her when she passed, had not comforted, or held, or praised her for giving him his children, being his beloved wife, and the very reason he was even here. Anger cut through grief and he vowed to punish those that had separated them.

A nurse finally came into the hall holding a small bundle. He tried not to stare at the blood-soaked clothes as he reached out and took his newborn child into his arms.

So small, Félicien thought, unwrapping the baby just enough to see it was a girl-child. Smaller than his son had been at birth. And born almost on the same day—tomorrow would be Pierre’s birthday. But they had been conceived at different times of the year, and it was too early for her. Ophélie should have still carried her for three more months. It was not until late afternoon that they realized her pains were not false, and her brother, a doctor, was too far away to make it in time. A local doctor was called instead. They had hoped it would not matter, their daughter had been conceived in Faery and time was an unsure thing in that plane, and they would just meet their new child earlier than thought.

But no. She was too small in his arms and would have fit snugly in one palm. And why were they handing her to him? Shouldn’t the doctor be doing something, it could not be good for a child to be born this early.

“Your Grace, she has a few hours…” Whatever strength he had retained left him, and he sank into a chair that was nearby before he fell.

She would not live to see tomorrow. This was their feeble apology— to let him hold her as she drew her only breaths.

Halfway through the doctor speaking, when he was sure his legs would hold him, the duc stood and walked out of the room with his little girl held close. His beloved was dead and his daughter would soon follow, there was not time for such nonsense. A part of him thought to perhaps call his son along, but Pierre was still too young and needed not know of death so intimately. They would speak tonight and grieve together then.

He wandered out into the gardens that were let grow wild since he became duc. They were an extension of the forest now, yet still tended and having been shaped by human hands. He preferred it like this, and his wife did—had—too.

He hadn’t seen Ophélie before he left. He couldn’t see her. If he saw her dead he would begin to weep and never stop, and his children needed him. Pierre was still a child and this little girl… she was still here for now.

“Morgaine,” he whispered into the girl’s ear. “Morgaine Ophelia.” He had not know what name his wife had wishes to give their daughter, one name was given by each parent in this realm, but perhaps it was better this way. No one would know her true second name and no one could take power over her in that way. A superstition in this plane, but very true in Faery. He had learned quickly to give a false second name or be a slave while living there. The baby gurgled, making a happy noise for the first time, and seemed to accept being named in part after her mother.

Félicien walked with no destination in mind, wishing only to wander the natural land until Morgaine passed. The forest of early spring, trees full with new leaves and flowers that seemed to offer condolences with their stretched-out branches, was comforting. The day’s sunlight flickered between the leaves, painting the forest and his child. Her eyes, a deep blue, seemed tinged with violet in the shade.

He began to hum and rock her as tears spilled down his cheeks. He would smile for her, surround her with beauty, and give her as much as he could until she…

Morgaine watched the sky, the leaves, reaching to touch flowers that bent down as if to brush her cheeks. Every so often she would wiggle or laugh. They walked until twilight, until she lay peaceful and asleep, but still breathing. He held her so that when she breathed out he felt it on his neck.

It would not be safe to walk once full dark came over the land. Maybe she could still pull through, the doctor had after all not thought she would live this long. And she seemed to be gaining strength not losing it. He turned around to return home.

The trees no longer held flowers, the branches heavy with the growth of a season. The sun shone from the opposing side it had been on before, bringing the dawn, not leaving for the evening. He must have walked through the planes without realizing it and now stood in Faery.

“I must go back,” he called. But even as he said this he was not very sure of it. He was the duc, yes, but he rarely did much in the way of ruling his land. His steward did that. He had not grown up there, and even living in that plane for almost a decade had not truly endeared him to humanity (beside his wife and her family). He was always the outsider, even as the blood heir of Piques, because he had been spirited away to this magical land as a child.

Now he had no reason to stay.

Pierre. His son, who would be seven years old tomorrow, was not here. But would the boy like living here? He was more his mother’s son, interested in the politics Félicien himself ignored, and always wanting to know more about the medicine his uncle knew. He would not find the same whimsy here. Another feeling crept up his neck, a truth that if he tried to return to get Pierre he would not be able to find his way back. His daughter would die and he would be in exile from his true home.

Walking the same path back, wrestling with feelings that he was not sure were magic or pain, it was not his manor in Clandestina that he stepped out into. A village of the fée greeted him instead, making it certain that he was in another plane of existence.

His daughter began again to squirm in his arms almost wriggling out of his grasp. He adjusted her, feeling she suddenly weighted more. His arms must be tired from holding her so long. But her cheeks, which had been pale before, were now rosy in this new place. She reached for him and grabbed at his clothes with a strength she hadn’t earlier. Her eyes were now entirely violet.

His child could survive here. Faery, where a day could mean a year, and a lifetime could be lived without aging. She was already looking better, stronger, as if she had been born at the right time even. And his grief, while still heavy on his heart, seemed somewhat lighter than before. This was coming home, returning to the land he had lived in for half a century and yet only a decade. He began to cry once more, only now with joy.

Ophion would be at the manor by morning. He would take care of Pierre, perhaps take him in as his own. He would be alright.

“Je suis désolé, Pierre, I am so sorry.”

Félicien began to walk towards the village.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

15 ~ Delphinium ~ Death and Dreams

~ (Continued) Trisday, 8th of Aprilis, 11831 ~

The duc’s rooms were not his as of yet. Aimé and his wife Hélaïse would still be officially governing for the next year or so and their belongings were in that suite. Pierre was here on temporary adjustment after much time away for school, here for the summer with perhaps a return to the castle come autumn, and then a return in the winter. He would discuss the exact dates with Aimé at a later point.

Pierre was not certain what duties he would have right now, if any, but given the briefing he had had with Vivien, this would not merely be a vacation. That did not bother him—with having the power to do things it would be a pleasure. It was while he had been away and immersed in learning many other things that this part of his life had become less of a priority.

For now, he stood in the guest rooms that had been given to him for his stay this summer. They were elegant, often reserved for visiting nobles, which in a way he was. It reminded him in size of his quarters at the palace. He was on the second story, and so the room included a large set of glass doors that opened up onto a balcony, yet there were shades that could go over them and give privacy. The closet was far larger than he was used to, university meaning a small space for several people, so there would be a lot of empty space for now. Perhaps he would make this more of a study in the future. He could put his journals in there as well.

A knock on the door interrupted his thoughts. Shoes tapped with nerves against the stone when he did not reply right away.

“Yes?”

Wolfram entered. He shut the door, hesitated, and then turned the key that was still in the lock. “Your Grace, if I may, please, see Salome…” He looked for the trunk and upon seeing it at the foot of the bed would not turn his gaze away.

Pierre gestured that the young man could go over to it. He dug into his pocket for the chest’s key and handed it over to Wolfram.

With relief the boy rushed over and opened the trunk. The silk at the top was set aside, and in the remaining fabric and cushions a young woman lay curled up in a thin nightdress.

“Is she…” He did not reach out though wanted to dearly.

“Exactly as she was when we left,” the lord of death said softly. He placed a hand on Wolfram’s shoulder. The girl’s soul was tentatively linked to him, he had renewed the connection of magic by giving her blood every few days in secret during their trip, and as long as he kept that up she would be fine.

“I promised you, Wolfram.”

“Thank you.” Wolfram finally reached out to her and stroked her far too pale cheek. Pierre stood and walked back over to the window to give them some privacy.

The Mists of Death were named Akhlys. It was Mora’s land, a plane of the dead, and a place where all the dead in Noctuina began their afterlives. Other spirits of the dead were said to reside there as well, but he had only met and known Mora. When one died they were surrounded by the fog as their lives and actions were judged. The mists then cleared and one either found themselves in a dream or a hell until they were reborn again in this world. There were other possible scenarios, some stayed tied to Noctuina and found themselves in their physical places of death, or could temporarily cross over into the realms of the living, but those were special cases that often involved ritual or passion. Mora’s suitors, and her lords, could pull back a spirit from the mists, but once they were beyond that it was impossible. Pierre had returned to life those who had died even years ago, so the time spent in the mists could be long, but it differed for everyone.

Wolfram stroked Salome’s hair, and then after glancing at Pierre, bent down to kiss her. He replaced the silk to hide her and shut the trunk, locking it with the key before putting it in his own pocket.

He stood and straightened his attire. “My lord, if I may help you dress, or aid with whatever you need?” It took Pierre a moment to realize the title lord was being used to mean lord of death, not as someone refusing his claim to Piques. Aloud no other save Mora has address him as such. He would have to make sure that Wolfram did not slip up and say the wrong word in the company of others.

“Have you actually taken up the duties of valet as well as doctor’s apprentice and suitor of death?”

“You have done much for me,” Wolfram replied. “I need to pay my dues.”

“That will be acceptable. Help me choose something for tonight’s dinner then.”

They continued to discuss necrocræft as they looked through the trunks and Pierre tried on clothes he was sure he had not owned before. Someone from the castle must have commissioned sets for him, he remembered a head maid insisting on getting some new measurements now that he had returned from University. It was not unpleasant that new things sometimes appeared in his possession, but he did not often have any choices in the matter.

“Your Grace, may you tell me of Familiars? Your familiar is what you first return from the dead, and it is a special case, yes?”

“Oui. An animal is chosen based on personal preference, usually, and you must kill it. It is not pleasant in the slightest, and the only redeeming factor in what I had done to Pluta was that I knew she would come back. The animal enters Akhlys just as a person would, then gains knowledge and magia. The practitioner then returns them to life. They are essentially immortal, new daimons in a way, reborn of Akhlys. Most choose to die when their masters finally do, though.”

“Must it be an animal?” Wolfram asked.

Pierre turned to look at him at the question. “I have heard of a case where the familiar was human,” he said slowly. “What are you thinking?”

“That I can bring Salome back now. I do not have a Familiar yet, but I have some knowledge. If the first resurrection is guaranteed then it will not take me months or years to have her back!”

The lord nodded. “This is true. But you did not kill her, I did. Your familiar must be your kill. That I have not heard otherwise.”

“Is this magic not about straining against the conventions of what a human should be able to do? I wish to at least try.” Pierre raised an eyebrow, but nodded. He himself had performed acts of the cræft that had taken others longer than he to do, or were thought beyond the scope of the magic.

“I cannot guarantee she will become a familiar, or that she will return to life. But I do not think it will harm any future chances of bringing her back. I will help. Give me some time though, I wish to asses your skill and make sure you have enough knowledge. I would also like to know what her illness was so it is cured upon her return so this shan’t be all for naught.”

“Thank you.” Wolfram’s face lit up in the first true smile Pierre had ever seen on him.

***

Dinner was quiet, Elizabeth and Pierre being joined only by Vivien and his family, with the other advisors either not at the home or wishing to meet tomorrow. Lady Maiolaine Yvette, Vivien’s wife, was introduced: the eldest child of Comte Hadrien de Bladeren. They had three children, Bastien Dion, Apolla Sidonie, and Eliana Narcisse, who “took after my mother,” as Lady Maiolaine said, her and her husband’s hair dark, but the comtesse Cloé’s locks famously white-gold.

The discussions were light—about their journey, the food, and similar things.

At dessert Apolla asked where their grandmother was. Vivien explained that his mother lived here as well, but was feeling unwell that evening and could not attend.

“She has a headache and sends her apologies. I am sure she will wish to meet you soon.”

“Tibault sends his apologies as well,” Maiolaine added to Pierre. “Brother will meet you tomorrow. He is quite new to Spadille himself and does not wish to impose. Our cousin, Perdita, lives here as well, as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Cordelia, Lord Jourdain’s wife.”

“Of course, it will be a pleasure to become acquainted with everyone.”

***

Elizabeth dreamt. She walked the halls of the château, trying to find her room, and being unable to make sense of any of the corridors. Finally, a large set of doors stood before her. Something called to her to enter and before she could wonder why she had that feeling she was going into a large library.

Even standing on her toes she barely reached the half-way point of the bookcases. They were filled with a multitude of tomes and scrolls and maps. A few lamps were already lit in the room and long shadows were cast upon the long walls. She began to walk and read, head tilted to the side to see the titles better. The further in she crept the dustier the books were, the subject matter going from histories and fictions to whole shelves devoted to magic, cræft, and the fée. The feeling of being pulled towards a specific place did not dissipate.

She had read many books on similar subjects from home already, but among these there were titles she had never seen before, knowledge that was new. It reminded her that she should ask Pierre later on about that tutor in blancræft.

Thump!

She jumped in her spot at the sound. Turning around she saw a book had fallen from a high shelf. As she was about to go pick it up, another woman stepped from the heavy shadows and reached it first. She wore a mourning dress in deep black with a garland of flowers around her wrist. It was too dark for Lizzy to recognize them.

“Oh, forgive me, I did not mean to intrude,” Lizzy said when the mourner looked up to her. “I thought I was alone.”

“Do not worry yourself, my lady,” the other said. Her eyes were red- the irises themselves, not from weeping. But that was merely a trick of the light, surely, and the dusty lamps whose glow was not as bright as they should be.

“I see you are interest in magic?” the stranger gestured around to the section of the library they were in.

“I have always been.”

The other nodded.

“I am Elizabeth Anne,” she said, hoping to gain a connection to the other. She did not mention her title.

“Greetings, Lady Elizabeth Anne.” The other woman did not offer her name and, given the mourning dress, Elizabeth felt rude prying.

The fires in the lamps flickered. Lizzy found she could not move as the other woman then came over to her. She held out the book that had fallen before, clean of any dust though every other tome in this section had been filthy.

“There are many magics in the world, Elizabeth,” the woman said. “Humans have little of it inherently, but can learn almost any kind with enough practice. It is why they are my favorite. You want to learn to create fire or become a beast, all you need to do is go to the realm where such spirits thrive and gain control over them. Through force, or coaxing, or mutual agreement, it matters not- they will see you are equal measure of all the humors and therefore can inhibit your body and thrive. You are fertile soil for magic.

“And in you there is healing.”

The woman took Elizabeth’s hands, spreading them out, the heavy book open atop them. The woman then placed her finger at the center of the binding. It was bent at an odd angle, healed wrong having been broken at some time in the past. Before Lizzy knew what was happened the tome slammed shut on the finger. She dropped the book with a gasp and grabbed the woman’s hand. It was bloody, her nail almost peeled off, and bent at an even worse angle where a bone had snapped again.

“Forgive me, I do not know why—I—” As she held the other’s hand the finger straightened, the nail reattached, and the blood crept back from the wound before it healed over, now straight and without blemish.

“There will always be pain in the world,” the woman continued. The entire time her face had not changed expression, showing not fear or pain or surprise, only a small sad smile. “Sometimes it is your fault, sometimes an accident, sometimes it is Amôru’s plan. Sometimes it is not His plan, but He makes use of it. Sometimes you need the pain to heal.”

The woman vanished.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

13 ~ Delphinium ~ A Favor

~ Dvoday, 7th of Aprilis, 11831 ~

“It looks a bit suspicious that you are so attached to my trunk.”

It was after dinner and camp had been set for the evening. They were three days from Spadille now, this half of the journey going well. They were now down to those that were specifically heading to Piques’ capital— Pierre’s party and the guards and servants that the castle had deemed he need travel with. Among those were several from Eichel as well, for Elizabeth’s sake. Those from Eichel would stay with Lizzy, while the castle guards and servants would return home shortly after arrival.

Wolfram, who was a guest of Pierre’s more than a servant though the boy tried to help as much as possible, sat near the wagons that held the baggage. In particular by the decorated trunk that used to sit in front of Pierre’s bed at the castle.

“I would rather seem odd than have anyone open it and look inside, Your Grace,” the boy replied.

True enough. Inside, underneath some sheets, was the body of a young girl Pierre had killed. It was on behalf of Wolfram and the girl herself, of course, but that made it no less immoral or illegal. That he intended to bring her back to life doubly so.

“Tell me about her,” Pierre asked, sitting down beside Wolfram. “I have come to know some about you, but not her. What is a girl from the swan-folk’s land doing in Father’s court?”

“Cygnati,” Wolfram corrected. “That is their word for their bestia. And she came in search of me.”

“Oh?”

The boy smiled. “They have soul-mates. Those born cygnati have always had a past life where the couple swore to love another for all their future rebirths. They sense this person, in a way, but to be certain there are rituals done. She found out through another that her love, I, was on this continent. Her parents did not wish her to leave so young, but she disobeyed and stowed away on a ship heading to Kilenc. She found me months later. We were together for half a year at most, and then she began to fall ill late last summer. I left Bellotas to find a physician to help. I ran into Lord Ophion on my travels and he took me in to teach and help me. I do not know if this is an illness from this land that her body cannot deal with, or something that only affects her people, but everything Ophion and I tried failed. So I, as you know, began to study more desperate measures with him. In the end I was not enough.”

“She will be well,” Pierre said. “I give you my word.”

“Salome. Her name is Salome.”

Pierre nodded and settled back against the trunk which held her body.

“And you and she were wed in a past life?”

“Oui. She says that in her dreams she remembers moments, and perhaps I will too after we wed in this life. We had spoken about engagement already, before her illness, her parents finally accepting her departure as she had found me. They were agreeable to a wedding, no sense in putting it off as we were already wed once upon a time. Then she fell ill. We never told her parents that, saying instead that I wished to finish my education before traveling to her home. Then she asked to die. I could not… I just wished to do as she desired. I did not want her in pain and—”

Pierre placed a hand on his shoulder when the younger boy stopped speaking, gripping the edges of the trunk and holding on until his fingertips were white.

“She will be well,” Pierre repeated. Wolfram only nodded, taking a deep breath to compose himself.

“I do have a question,” he said. At Pierre’s nod he continued. “What if the body has decayed? It may be months by the time I am ready to try and bring her back.”

“She will not decay,” Pierre said. “I have made it so that the microanimalia will not feast on her. But even if a corpse were bones there is a possibility to resurrect the life as long as it is all gathered together. A missing arm or a leg could be regrown, I suppose… I have never tried. It is more likely if one is missing a limb then they will remain without one once they have returned.”

He stood and brushed at his trousers to rid himself of the dirt. “Come, let us test this.”

He whistled sharply for Pluta as they took to the edges of the forest. She came bounding out from under the carriages and over to them.

“My dear,” Pierre said to her, kneeling down to stroke her head and scratch underneath her chin. “Find something small and decayed for us, I have a lesson to show and something to attempt.”

She chirped approval and dashed into the woods.

Pluta returned a few minutes later with a large rat, decrepit and foul, and missing its tail already. She dropped it in front of Pierre and sneezed, shaking her head in disgust.

“Thank you. You shall be rewarded for your trouble.”

The boy crouched beside him and Pierre let Wolfram see his hand as he cut it with his folding knife along the line for Life. He picked up the rat then and positioned his hand until a small stream of blood flowed into the animal’s small muzzle. Pluta moved up beside him and nudged him, then began to lick at his wound. By the time was blood was cleaned off his hand there was not even a mark where the cut had been.

He did not move his fingers much, not needing to for such a small life, and slowly the rat began to change. New muscle and skin grew over a gaping hole, the tail lengthened and thickened, fur returned with a sheen. It was still mostly dirty, but when it opened its eyes and squeaked it looked no different than any other forest rat.

Pierre stroked its head and it calmed down.

“So this is far more than just returning the soul to flesh,” Wolfram whispered, forcing himself to keep his voice down. “We are healing—creating!” He sounded more excited than Pierre had ever heard him.

“We are.”

He set the rat back down on the ground and it ran off into the underbrush, with Pluta right on its heels.

Pierre wiped his hands on his trousers and stood.

“It is why I also began to learn medicine. Knowledge is most important in this cræft. Granted, I do not know much about how a rat’s body works, but in general how muscle and bone and blood all work together is very helpful. The spirits are far more likely to aid you if you push them in a direction that is natural and they are used to.” As natural as forcing life into death can be.

They returned to their seat by the campfire, continuing to talk about more innocent subjects.

A short while later Wolfram observed Pierre flinch harshly.

“Are you alright, Your Grace?”

The duc made sure to note that they were not being listened to before he spoke.

“Pluta caught the rat and killed it. I felt it.” He rubbed at the back of his neck, where a cat would bite to sever the spine.

“Oh.”

“Yes. This is not something I have felt often, but if you use the magic on many it will be more frequent. Should they die by anyone else’s hand beside your own, nature’s included, you shall feel their passing. It is different than when you inflict the last blow— that you control. So be careful who, and how many, you share your blood with. The power over them lasts three days and you are connected to everyone you do this with for that time being. If I were to, say, give my blood to a whole battalion of men to try and aid them in their fight, should many become gravely wounded and begin dying faster than I can heal them, I will die as well. Death pulls you to herself. Remember this.”

He wondered if, as a lord of death, this would still be true. Somehow he thought it would only entice death more.

“I will remember.”


***

They descended upon the camp of the princeling Pierre Salvador and his company, appearing only as flickers and fireflies. Those few of Triumphe that had been awake for the watch, or simply could not sleep, found their eyelids heavy and their beds inviting. Spirits and magic filled the air along with laughter from people unseen.


***
~ Trisday, 8th of Aprilis, 11831 ~

Shouting woke Lizzy. She sat up in her cot, the cold of the morning not comparing to the chill as she realized something was very wrong. Angry shouts and frightened calls to Sebelas wrang in her ears. Grabbing a robe so as not to be indecent she stepped out of her tent.

This was not where they had stopped the night before. True, forests looked different in the gloom of evening than the light of day, but they did not vanish. Instead of the wood they were in a field with a pond, a smattering of trees in the distance.

“We were moved!”

“We were taken!”

Mon Dieu!

Had they offended any fairies? Had they not liked the gifts Pierre and she had left? She did not recognize the area so it was not someplace they had already traveled. And if they had not merely been taken back several days travel then they could be anyplace. She grabbed onto the flap of the tent as her head swam.

A sharp whistle cut through the noise (or was it silence?, Elizabeth felt deaf).

“Where is His Grace? I need to speak with him!” Was Pierre missing!?

“Here I am.”

Elizabeth took a deep breath. Pierre was here. Good. One moment at a time. It was no use beginning to panic.

One of the carriage-drivers, the senior on this trip that lead the way, walked past her and over to Pierre (who had not even bothered to grab a robe and was standing in his sleepwear). She followed so that she would be able to hear, and most of those she could see did similar. Now it was quiet, enough that anything those two said would be heard all throughout the camp.

“Your Grace, as you can see, there’s been a bit of change this morning. But I recognize it, I know the routes of the land. If we continue down that road we will be in Spadille by early this afternoon.”

They had been taken.. Forward? The fée had not tricked them but had given them aid! The several days they had lost because of her illness were no longer lost and they would be in the capital on time.

Pierre nodded.

“That is a relief to know, thank you, sir. Well then let us have breakfast and continue on as usual, no need to seem ungrateful after all. I will send a pigeon to Spadille so that the steward will know that despite our earlier unplanned stop we will be there on time.”

At the notion of what could happen should they be ungrateful most held their tongues, but not all had the fortitude. Pierre paid them no heed.

“Oh, Lizzy, my dear! Come have breakfast with me.”

“Of course, Your Grace!”

Elizabeth ignored the naysayers as well and tightened her robe before going over to His Grace’s tent for breakfast.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

12.5 ~ Hanging ~

~ Dvoday, 16th of Septembrie, 11830 ~

The professor was not in the classroom as the students walked in to Anatomy. There were instructions written on the board in large letters (each student was to pair up with two others, choose one of the corpses laid out, and disassemble as much as possible, labeling each organ and its function. For extra credit they could find out the cause of death) but that was all. They had done this, or similar, exercises several times before under the watchful eye of their teacher, but today it seemed to be a test of how well they could work on their own.

Pierre Salvador stood by himself while most of the group paired with friends. Piers had finished his studies already, leaving for home a few weeks before, not needing the extra time in surgical schooling. The princeling therefor found himself alone more often than not now that his only true friend here was gone. It did not bother him much, he preferred working alone, but it was not pleasant. Possibly his status was scaring others away, or perhaps something about him emanated with Mora’s magic?

At the end there weren’t enough students for an even number of triads and Pierre stayed alone. He noted that one group had four students, and he should have at least been paired with one of them, but he let it go. There were also not enough bodies either so another group would be useless. He could make a fuss, or join one of the groups to observe, but he had better things to do. This was something he knew well already, and Mora has asked he kill a man for her.

He made to leave, minding to tell the professor later that he was feeling ill and to either get the assignment dropped or allowed time to remake it, but the door opened as he was walking towards it.

Two men in guard uniforms entered, a covered tray between them. They saw Pierre, apart from the others and the eldest, and addressed him.

“Monsieur! We are here to bring a body for the students. He was just hanged and sent here immediately for their observation.”

“Merci,” Pierre said, taking the wheeled slab and flipping over the white sheet. Beside the angry blue bruises around his throat he seemed asleep. His skin was still warm.

The prison guards said something and left a moment later after receiving no reply, the princeling having stopped paying attention to them. The corpse was his desire.

The man was still in tattered rags. He was thin, malnourished, having either been living on the streets or kept in a prison with strict rations. There was a sore on his wrist, and bruising in a number of places, some days old and others fresh. His neck was remarkably well intact for a hanging victim, but perhaps he had in fact been hung. The neck did not always snap after all and those who had that misfortune were left to strangle.

Yet, he did not feel like a corpse. Not in the same way the others had, or even the others in the room did. But Pierre had not spent extensive time with very many bodies. Perhaps they felt different based on their type of death?

Most of the other students had abandoned their chosen body to come observe him now. A fresh corpse was rare and never this fresh. Those unlucky enough to get the last body often had to deal with the stench of decay.

Pierre held out a hand and someone obliged him by handing a scalpel over. He cut into the torso only for blood to spurt onto his hands and clothes.

“Merde!”

“He’s still alive!”

If the bright lively blood had not confirmed it, a moan from the man and his eyes opening did. One of the youngest boys fainted. A few turned to help him, even more turned away entirely, but Pierre continued to watch in silence. He had seen men die before but every experience was new. Had he been dead and come back through a miracle, or had the doctor on staff at the prison merely not done his job?

Someone finally yelled out that they would run and get a professor and the door slammed on his way out. Pierre bent over the body and felt for the pulse. It throbbed a slow weak beat. He wrapped the rest of his hand around the windpipe. No one was looking at him, no one dared looked up to see the eyes of a man who had been pronounced dead and was likely dying for the second time. Pierre squeezed. One moment, one minute?, a quarter hour? … the heartbeat stopped.

The door burst open and their professor dashed in.

“Away, away,” the surgeon called, shooing his way to the body near Pierre.

“Your Graceful Highness,” he addressed Pierre respectfully. “What seems to have happened?”

“Monsieur, he still seemed alive when I started to cut. His blood flowed and his eyes snapped open. He made a noise as well.”

The professor was nodding, placing a stereoscope to the man’s chest, then neck. After a minute though he shook his head.

“Well he is not alive now. Do not worry, it is nothing you did, merely a dead man hanging on to life as tightly as he could until no more. See, he is malnourished, dehydrated, and was through a trauma. Let us merely call it a delayed hanging and leave it at that.”

Done with the analysis he nodded to himself again, wrapped the stethoscope around his neck and looked to the students.

“Well?” the professor prompted. “Back to your stations, there is still an hour and a half left in the lesson, and I will not be giving more time!”

Students shuffled back to their chosen bodies, one group’s left alone as the two boys who were paired with the one who fainted helped him to the side.

“I will go check on Raoul,” the professor said to Pierre. “You may continue with this body but I understand if you wish to skip this class. Not to worry, you will be given full marks, you have excelled in my class thus far.”

“Non, merci professor, I will be fine.”

He lined the slab up in the back of the room with the others, on the leftmost side with his back to everyone else. Pierre finished taking off the man’s clothes, folded and put them aside along with the shroud, and picked up his scalpel again.

“He would have lived.”

The voice in his ear was female. Mora stood by him wearing what only could be called a women’s uniform in the style of his own, though the students were all male at this University. Her hair was tied back in a deep crimson ribbon, and his wings were furled close to her back, but still there.

“With medical attention,” Pierre agreed. Attention a class full of students could have begun to provide until someone with more knowledge arrived. But the man was a prisoner sent to death. He would have only been executed once more after being saved. This was in a way kinder.

Mora looked to him and made to say something, but stopped instead. She smiled and then disappeared, off to greet the dead man’s soul in her domain.

Pierre had the feeling she had been about to inform him of the man’s innocence, a mistake in the roi’s judgement (for the roi was the duc in this land as well). But even if that were true it would no change the sentence. The roi had spoken. Pierre merely complied.

~ Previous Chapter ~ Next Chapter ~

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.

~ 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 ~

1 ~ Larkspur ~ Gala

~ Siwenday, 14th of Prima, 11831 ~

She caught his eye that evening. It was a coincidence that hers was the first gaze he saw upon entering the ballroom as he had not even known that she would be attending, but at every hint of deep blue he turned his head in hope of it being her gown. They had not seen each other in years, and oh he missed her. He moved politely among the guests (the party was, after all, in his name and honor) but kept her in view. The longer he stayed the more he desired to be in her company.

Etiquette dictated he should have taken another to dance, but he did not wish anyone else on his arm. Instead, he spoke with fellow gentlemen about his studies whilst waiting for Lady Elizabeth Anne.

Conversation was spirited. Many among the noble houses were knowledgeable in the healing arts, which is after all what Clandestina was famed for. With the completion of his own medical degree — one of the reasons for this party — there was much to discuss. He would have enjoyed the celebration more had other things not been on his mind.

“Principicule?”

“Hm?” He turned from where her dark blonde curls had his attention, taking note of the title of address. A duc’s son by birth, he had been fostered by Roi Edgard and some at court indulged him by calling him princeling.

“Yes, Margrave Bastoni?”

“Who shall be given the honor of your care?”

“Whoever is ill,” he replied. “I may not be able to open my own practice with the duties of my land taking precedent, but I will make the rounds at local hospitals and care for those of my household.”

“If that is the case, then you are always welcome to my mountains, with full privileges.”

“That is most kind, Bastoni.” Before he could say more her perfume caught his attention. Honeysuckles. Memories of summers spent at play filled his head. He turned again in search of her and found her smiling, aware of how they circled each other.

She hid behind the fan in her right hand—follow me. His heart fluttered, and his breath hitched. He took a step toward her to ask her to dance, but she was already being led away by another. Her dance card hung full from her wrist. It seemed the comte’s daughter was occupied for the evening, and it would not do to pursue her.

Yet, the duc excused himself and did just that, only paying enough attention to those around him to avoid suspicion of his intentions. He was near enough that when the dance set changed, he could ask for her.

Their eyes met again. She was ignoring her partner in his favor, keeping strict form and looking over her partner’s shoulder rather than into his eyes. Her fan was closed, but as she was turned away, she dropped it open—ask me to dance.

He cut in at her request, and the other noble graciously let his duc have the young woman’s attention.

“Lady Elizabeth,” he said, wrapping an arm around her, “Do you fear we may not see each other again?” He was awash in the scent of summer though it was barely springtime.

She blushed, realizing the situation she had put herself in, but was unable to look away. To flirt with the principicule from a distance was entirely different from being in his arms.

“Your Graceful Highness,” she replied. “It is a pleasure to catch your eye.”

“One as beautiful as yourself should be accustomed to catching the eyes of lords.” Her smile now accompanied the blush which reddened further. He squeezed her hand and began to lead her away, going against the wave of dancers. His were not the only eyes on her; several were interested to know for whom the duc had been so impatient as to ignore decorum.

“You are not a lord, Your Grace.”

“Then am I merely someone to flirt with from afar?”

“No, monsieur. I have just never quite had your full attention.”

“Oh? And when you and I were younger, the times I plaited flowers in your hair—at your request?” he tucked a loose curl behind her ear as he spoke. She felt the once familiar touch of a stem and leaves as he left a bloom that seemed to come from thin air.

“I was a child then, monsieur,” she replied, reaching up to touch the flower and the tips of his fingers. “It was some time ago. And we were in a field, not your ballroom.”

“It is hardly my ballroom.”

“The gala is in your name, making it yours,” she pointed out, and when he could not dispute this, she felt more at ease.

They danced with freedom, the crowd blending as the music took people to their fancy. The waltz was a dance between only those two who were partners, and not a choreographed dance for everyone in the room. Pierre guided her across the dance-floor, one hand on her waist and the other holding her hand in the air. A few of his steps were imperfect.

“And what do you think of my formal attention thus far, Elizabeth?”

The young woman repositioned her form, blue eyes moving away from his grey. He tightened his grip.

“You are taller than I remember,” she said. “But you know your steps well enough for someone who has had all of their time taken up with studies.”

“The next time we dance will not be after such a time that height becomes an issue. And thank you, there are few ladies to partner with at a men’s university.”

“So have you forgotten ballroom etiquette as well, Your Grace? You took me to dance outside of turn.”

“You asked, my lady.”

“After you had already begun pursuing me.”

“Ah, true,” he said, giving in to her. “Seeing you after all this time brought forth more feelings than I had expected. Your brother speaks of you often.”

“Only because he visited his lands between semesters. This is your first time home in years.”

“And suddenly I regret never taking up Piers’s offers to accompany him.”

She was silent a moment before saying, “You did not write this past year.”

“It was a very busy final year. I apologize for not being in contact.” He squeezed her hand to accentuate the apology, guiding her into a twirl with a press to her waist.

She had first written him in his second semester away, and for a while their correspondence had been frequent. Then, other matters became more important.

“The flower, monsieur,” she said after returning to his arms. She finally recognized it from its scent and touch. “Do I seem fickle in your eyes that you give me larkspur?”

“It is the royal flower,” he reminded her. “Deserving of a noble lady, to keep away things of dread. You have never been fickle, Lizzy. It was my fault entirely that our communication stopped. I do believe last summer you sent Piers to the dorms with so many baked goods solely to force him to share with me.”

She did not deny this, unable to hide a smile, though said, “Eglė helped as well,” referring to her brother’s wife. “Do things of dread follow me about?”

“Perhaps now they never shall.” Another spin and a change in posture brought them so close together it would be improper in any other context. They were to then step in unison, but he let her go entirely. He stepped back and stumbled as if about to fall.

“Monsieur!”

“Forgive me,” he said, trying to regain his balance while not interrupting the dancers around him. A hand in the air stalled those that would have rushed to him. “I seem to have forgotten those steps,” he mumbled as an explanation, not meeting Elizabeth’s eyes. He was pale, the little color in his skin seeping away so that his cheeks matched his black-and-grey attire.

“Monsieur, Pierre, perhaps…” She reached out to him.

“Were you not born during Iovilios?” He caught her hand in the air. “The larkspur, if nothing else, is your flower, my lady.” Pulling her towards him, he whispered, “I have not forgotten about you.”

She broke their gaze. “If I may beg of you a drink.” If she was truthful, this was more for her worry of the duc than her own wants.

“Of course, Elizabeth.” Their hands remained clasped, and he led her to the edges of the ballroom. Several tables around the perimeter had been laid out with food and drink.

“How long shall you be at court?” he asked, handing her a glass of watered wine. He took none for himself.

“My mother thinks it best we return home soon. Eglė’s time is near, and Mother wishes to meet her first grandchild.” Ah, yes, he had forgotten. No doubt this was why Elizabeth was here instead of her brother.

“And your thoughts, Lady Elizabeth?”

She took another sip to stall. “Until tonight I would have agreed… but since you have returned I find myself wishing to stay in your company.”

“In that case—” He held out his hand to her, asking for another dance. She put the glass aside and placed her hand in his. They walked through the ballroom together as the orchestra changed sets.

They had not even returned to their previous spot when he tripped again, pulling her off balance. He caught her but landed hard on a knee. This time, he did not straighten and ignore what had happened. He held her as they recovered. “Forgive me, Lizzy.” His pale cheeks were now flushed. Others around them began to watch. A few whispered.

“I did return just this afternoon,” he said, half to the young woman in his arms and half to everyone around them. “I must still be tired from my journey. Perhaps I took ill along the way.” When he stood everyone was occupied again.

Pierre squeezed her hand once more before letting go. She stepped back, curtsied, and bowed to him as a means of goodbye.

“Oh no, my dear.” He lifted up her chin. “We’ve danced tonight as partners. You may not bow to me.” His thumb rested at the corner of her lips. He was half-bent over her. Elizabeth felt the heat of his hand through his glove, and for a fleeting moment, she wished he would kiss her. Instead, he stroked her cheek and took back his hand.

She curtsied again and inclined her head, but did no more. He in turn bowed from the waist. “Good evening, Lady Elizabeth.” Without waiting for her reply, he slipped through the crowd and out of the ballroom.

It was only after he left that she pulled the flower down to see its color and remembered the meaning of purple larkspur: first love.

***

He walked down the hall with purpose, waving a hand to send away the guards. His smile helped keep up appearances as long as eyes were on him, but when finally alone, Pierre leaned against the stone wall in pain.

He tried to take deep breaths despite his throat closing and only managed to wheeze. His heart beat almost painfully and every moment on his feet was uncertain. He held out his hands and saw that they shook.

Letting his head fall back against the wall, he grinned at the ceiling.

If he did not know better, he would have blamed much of this on Lizzy, and the rest on truly being tired. The burning in his mouth, the rash underneath his gloves, and the desire to vomit, however, made this far more than just his body’s reaction to infatuation.

“Pluta,” he called. He could not get enough of a grasp to call her through their bond. He began to walk toward his room, one hand to the wall to keep him up, but his legs gave way. He fell to the floor, upsetting his body further, and retched upon the carpet.

Death filled the corridor; she pressed upon him like a heavy sleep.

“Pluta!” he called again. She had to be nearby. It hurt to speak, but he could not move without great pain, and dared not call anyone else.

A meowing from down the hall announced that his familiar had finally heard him. He sighed, and then inhaled deeply, desperately, as if there was not enough air in the realm for him.

The black cat rounded the corner, and seeing him on the ground, she ran to him. She looked him over and to where he had come from and nudged his hand. “Did someone do this to you?”

“Find Uncle,” he said. “This is my own doing, I need to get to my quarters—” His hand clamped to his mouth, his body jerking with the cough, but he did not vomit a second time.

The cat sprinted off to the ballroom.

Pierre rested his head against the wall. This was to have been done discreetly, but his time had been occupied, and he had left later than planned. That he had gone at all had been a risk, but for that dance, it had been worth the trouble.

Death cupped his cheek with her hand, and for the moment, the form of a woman knelt beside him. Her skin and attire were like mist with a blue larkspur tucked behind her ear.

“Mora,” he whispered. The Lady of Death kissed him and laid her head on his chest.

“Pierre! What have you done?” Between one blink of the eye and the next she vanished.

He looked up to his uncle and wondered if several minutes had already passed.

“I need help to get to my room.” He began to stand, and Ophion moved to aid him. Pluta meowed and paced around their feet.

“What have you done, Pierre?”

“That is not your business. Now help me to my—” Another fit of coughing took him.

The lord physician hoisted up the duc, taking most of his weight, and the two stumbled to his rooms. The heavy doors were not locked, and after repositioning Pierre, Ophion opened them and brought his nephew inside. Pluta ran in as he closed the door.

He placed Pierre on the edge of the bed, and he fell back onto the large mattress gasping. The physician leaned over him, but Pierre nodded the way they had come. “The door.”

“First you.” He lifted his nephew’s legs and moved him into bed. Only then, after checking to see if there were medical supplies in the room, did he pick up the key to lock them in.

“Pierre, what happened?” Ophion spoke again, softer now, lighting lamps around the room. When his eyes were not on Pierre, Death—Mora—hung over him, clothes so transparent that she was all but nude.

“Larkspur,” Pierre said, brushing back Mora’s hair. A glance around the lighter room showed the royal flower decorating desks and bookshelves. A row of pots near a window had sprouts. “I have taken enough to end my life.”

Ophion left the lamp on the desk, striding to the bed and taking out his knife. He rolled up his sleeves, exposing a large number of scars.

“No!” Pierre struggled to sit up. Ophion did not see Mora as she lay on the duc, intimate and yet a hindrance. “I am doing this for a purpose.”

The physician glared at him. He sat on the edge of the bed, not letting go of the blade or removing it from where it rested against his forearm. “How long do you intend to suffer?”

“For a few more moments. I will die soon and—”

“Pierre!”

“Her last test,” the duc snapped.

“How dare you?” his uncle said. “You ingest a fatal dose and go dancing!”

“I wished to celebrate with death as my escort,” Pierre replied and then grinned. “And I dare because I am her most favored, Ophion. Observe if you must, but do not save me.”

Mora’s appearance flickered, and Ophion saw her on his nephew’s heart.

“One generally has a tether,” he finally said.

She smiled and disappeared.

Pierre did not reply, settling back into the bed while looking away. Ophion took this as permission to continue. He positioned his arm over a cup beside the bed and cut deeply. Blood, darkening the longer it flowed, filled what had before held the poison. Ophion wrapped his wound and gave Pierre the blood to drink.

The young man coughed and choked. Ophion brought him up to a sitting position so he could catch the little breaths he still took and held him.

Pierre pulled away, motioning to the knife. “Hand,” he said. He wiped his lips with his kerchief, folded it, and kept it out to use as a bandage. “Give everything to Pluta after.” He pulled off his gloves, a bright red rash burning as it touched cool air.

Ophion cut into the other’s palm, near other scars made in the same manner as his own. Pierre’s blood was darker than his, turning almost black after the first few moments of red. Smearing it would still reveal a muted color, but after this, even that would be grey.

Pierre drank his own blood from the source and lay back in bed to let Ophion tend the wound. Their blood should not be seen by others; it gave away too much of their cræft.

He coughed again but shook his head when Ophion moved to help him sit. The duc grew silent, his body trying to take in air but unable to. An entire minute passed while he choked and refused aid with all of his remaining energy. Then he fell still.

Ophion took a shuddering breath of his own. He pressed a finger to Pierre’s pulse, waited, and let go of the corpse.

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