Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 7

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Author’s Note: This is going to be a long one. It’s actually two chapters, but I decided to combine it into one, for now. I just felt like the original chapter ending for seven wasn’t a good enough place to stop. At the same time, I’m not thrilled with this ending either. It needed something more to me, but I wasn’t sure what. Hope you guys will enjoy it anyway! Feel free to let me know in the comments what you think.

Chapter 7

Marcos forged through the snow with far more ease than he should have in the blizzard. In fact, his body felt more powerful than it had any right to be. I’m not human anymore. It was an idea that still took some getting used to and still inspired a flash of anger within him. He’d made the sacrifice for Eldora. Like a fool, he’d been willing to die for a woman who seemed to be incapable of returning his love and devotion. He’d never imagined he would end up being resurrected as a servant of Morbidon.

She couldn’t have known this would happen. Despite his certainty that she’d been as surprised by his death as he had been, he couldn’t forget the lack of emotion she’d displayed when “the necromancer” had run him through with his sword. Of course, now Marcos knew the truth about the stranger Queen Isa had mistakenly welcomed into her kingdom. The queen was now paying for her hubris, and Marcos was also paying—for his devotion.

Morbidon had taken his life and then returned it to him, though—much to Marco’s relief—he was no lich, rotted and shriveled like the queen of Barselor. Morbidon had returned him to life as a revenant, with the same appearance as he’d had in life. In fact, he was even more powerful than he’d been in life. The god of the dead hadn’t done it for his sake but because he needed an agent to approach Vivacel’s temple and lure Princess Febe beyond the wards that even he could not breach. A lich would have drawn too much attention.

He resented Morbidon’s control, even though it was currently only felt through an amulet he wore and could not remove. He’d been a loyal follower of Zephrona, but the goddess of the wind had abandoned him when he’d become a servant of the god of the dead. Even her breath no longer touched him, which allowed him to move through the angry blizzard that howled around him without much effort.

From his campsite within a sheltered cave further down the mountain, he’d traveled to the temple on several occasions since Morbidon had sent him to this part of the world. He knew he couldn’t approach the temple without alerting the priestesses to his presence, and Morbidon still wanted him to avoid drawing Vivacel’s attention, but he’d been ordered to seek out some sign of Febe’s presence.

He wasn’t certain she would recognize him as the farmer her sister had dallied with for the last rota, and he was less certain of what she would do if she did. She might go deeper to ground if she spotted him, or she might approach him, hoping her sister had decided to help her after all. It all depended on what her current situation was. From what he’d seen, she had not looked happy surrounded by the temple gardens, but then again, he couldn’t remember ever seeing the princess with a smile on her face. The frown she’d worn as she’d stared blankly out into the storm had been a familiar one.

That didn’t mean she was eager to leave the temple, so he needed to come up with a plan to lure her out beyond the wards. That was going to be difficult because Febe remained always on guard. Today, he was going to scout out the area again to see if there was anything that might draw enough of the princess’s curiosity to tempt her beyond the wards.

There was no warmth in him for the distant figure of Princess Febe. She’d been a constant in his beloved Eldora’s life—a constant threat. He’d been furious at Febe when Eldora had explained the situation and about her escape from the castle, telling him that Febe had run away rather than uphold her mother’s bargain. They’d both been worried that Morbidon would take Eldora instead. Yet, the god of the dead would not relinquish his claim on Febe. This should’ve relieved Marcos, and at first, it had, though he knew that he would have to find Febe to make things right. Now, he wondered why Morbidon hadn’t chosen Eldora. Marcos had been in love with her for many rotas by the time she’d pulled him from the fields and installed him in her chambers to serve her. He’d always considered her the most beautiful of the sisters, as well as the most elegant and intelligent. She was cool and dangerous, calm with a fierce fire beneath the surface.

In sharp contrast, Febe had always appeared to be a shy, rather plain little mouse, scurrying for her laboratory whenever she had the chance. Where Eldora courted the danger of her two sisters’ plotting and her mother’s viciousness, Febe had always hidden behind her traps and locks to play her hand.

Morbidon’s insistence on having Febe instead of Eldora made Marcos wonder if he’d missed something vital about the two women. The fact that Eldora had watched him die without any sign of distress only further cemented the fact that she wasn’t the woman he’d believed she was. Perhaps she truly was as cold as the façade she’d always projected to the public. Perhaps the fire beneath the surface was simply lust, and not the possibility of a capacity for deeper love—something he’d foolishly held out hope for.

He was so wrapped in thought that he nearly tripped over the bundle of rags and furs that crossed his path to the temple. It took him a moment to make out the human shape beneath the pile, since the wind and snow limited visibility. Once he realized what he was looking at, he leapt into action, scooping up the small, shivering body and cradling it close to his chest. The woman didn’t acknowledge his presence, even as her body shook so hard that he had to tighten his hold to keep her from shuddering right out of his arms.

It was possible that this woman was some pilgrim or one of the ladies from the temple who’d strayed too far beyond the wards and had gotten lost, but a brief tug on the moth-eaten scarf that covered most of her face revealed that his fortune had changed. No longer would he be forced to trudge to the temple and look for a way to capture the princess. She’d fallen right into his path. He wondered if it was the will of the gods. It was certainly the will of one god, but Morbidon had no power to make it happen within Vivacel’s wards. It was irrelevant at this point why she was there, only that she would not survive the exposure for much longer, and he didn’t think the god of the dead wanted his bride to join the ranks of his servants.

 

Warmth! Febe hadn’t thought she’d ever know what that felt like again. The last thing she could remember was following the tracks—definitely human tracks—when a blizzard kicked up, and she’d had to struggle just to remain standing, much less keep walking. The cold had seeped in as she fought the force of the wind trying to tear her layers of clothes away. Her face had grown numb, her lips had felt like frozen metal, stiff and heavy. Exhaustion had dragged on her shivering body until she’d surrendered to the pull of the ground and sank onto the snow path.

Now she lay on a pile of furs, covered with blankets that were not the tattered ones she’d been wearing. A fire crackled merrily nearby, putting out not only the blissful warmth that she instinctively turned towards, but also a comforting light that illuminated a small cave, protected from the wind that raged just beyond the narrow entrance where someone had hung another blanket.

The fire also revealed a large man with black hair that swept his collar and olive-toned skin, as he stepped into Febe’s view and knelt down beside a pot that bubbled over the flames. She stiffened and curled up on herself as if that would be any protection against him if he meant her ill will.

As the fire limned his features, they struck a chord of familiarity. She’d seen this man before, on more than one occasion. By the time he turned his head to glance at her, her brain had made the connection. “You’re Eldora’s consort.” Her voice came out as a weak rasp. Her throat hurt and the effort to speak those three words seemed to wipe her out.

The man’s handsome features pulled into a slight wince at her words that she almost missed because he turned his attention back to the pot. He stirred the contents, releasing a tantalizing odor of some stew that made Febe’s stomach growl in appreciation. “Yes. I… am her consort.”

Febe wanted to jump up in excitement, but exhaustion wasn’t the only thing that kept her from doing anything more than prop herself into a sitting position, clutching the blankets tighter around her. Caution warred with hope. “Why are you here? Did Eldora send you?” Eldora had turned her back on Febe. She could have changed her mind and decided to help, or Morbidon could have demanded Eldora’s hand instead, and her sister had decided to return his original bride choice to save herself. Either way, Eldora hadn’t come herself, which wasn’t surprising. She rarely did her own dirty work.

The man’s jaw tightened as he picked up a bowl and spooned a chunky stew into it from the pot. He remained silent.

Febe wanted answers immediately, but if she was going to get on his good side and convince him to help her regardless of her sister’s orders, she needed to treat him carefully, not order him about as the men of Barselor were accustomed to. Somehow, she didn’t think this man appreciated taking orders from anyone other than Eldora. “What’s your name?” She had a vague recollection that he was a farmer, or perhaps that had been Emilia’s consort. It was difficult to keep the men straight since they often rotated in and out of the palace as her sisters grew bored with them.

He rose to his feet, towering over her, and Febe felt a spear of terror stab through her. If Eldora had sent him here to kill her, she had nothing that could stop him. If he’d been sent to kill me, I’d already be dead. That realization was enough to calm her until her hand was barely shaking when she took the bowl of stew he offered. He may still try to drag me back to Barselor, but I have time to convince him not to.

“My name is Marcos.” He withdrew a wooden spoon from his pack and brought it to her. “Your sister called—calls me Farmer.” His face wore no expression as he met her eyes. His were a light blue, and stood out in striking contrast against his swarthy skin. “Before I was taken from her, my mother named me Marcos.”

Febe dipped the spoon into the stew, saliva stinging her mouth as she studied the thick chunks of meat and felt the heat of the bowl warm her chilled fingers. “When were you taken from your mother?”

Only a slight flare of his nostrils gave away his underlying anger at the question, but it was still enough for Febe to scoot further away from him. He retreated to the other side of the fire. “You ask as if you don’t know. Were you really so sheltered in your laboratory?” He turned his broad back to her, shaking his head.

Febe did know that boys were taken from their mothers at a young age to begin apprenticeships or work in fieldhouses learning the professions that were open to men. She just hadn’t ever paid much attention to what the minimum age was. She’d always seen it as a good practice—starting them learning a skill at a young age would make them masters at an age when they were still strong enough to perform the work themselves. Marcos didn’t sound like he agreed, and she resented him for that. She only wished she’d been taken from her mother when she was still young enough to become someone else. “You must have been young.” Perhaps too young to have suffered for long beneath a mother’s care. She glanced at him from the corner of her eye as she blew on a spoonful of stew. “Do you remember your mother?”

The muscles of his back tensed under his heavy woolen shirt. “I remember enough, even though I had only just passed my seventh rotation of the seasons when they came for me and tore me out of her arms.”

She stared down into her bowl, not really seeing the contents. There was an underlying tone of grief in Marco’s words that she recognized only because she had a vague recollection of feeling it. On multiple occasions, caretakers had been removed from the castle because they’d been too tender or comforting to her. That hadn’t happened in many rotas, though. Once the servants had learned not to coddle their charges, they’d kept her at a distance as her mother had commanded. She couldn’t imagine her mother’s arms ever being a place she would seek shelter. “I… I’m sorry. It doesn’t sound like you were ready to leave.”

“I wouldn’t expect you to understand, Princess.” He said her title as if it was something foul crossing his tongue.

She stiffened, prepared to blast him with a reproach for that disrespect, but his back was still to her, and she wasn’t such a fool as to stare at that broad, heavily-muscled expanse without realizing her current helplessness. It wouldn’t do to openly provoke him until she had a way to halt any retribution he might mete out for it. Instead, she ground her teeth, treating him to a freezing silence. If he noted the deliberate quality of her silence, he didn’t care enough to comment on it.

After a long moment where he stood unmoving in his own bitter silence, he finally shifted—the suddenness of it startling Febe—but he was only fetching a second bowl from his pack. When he turned back to her, his expression was composed into a hard mask which gave nothing away as he crouched before the fire and helped himself to the stew.

They ate in silence, neither of them meeting the eyes of the other. When Febe was finished, she set the bowl and spoon down by her feet, having no idea what she should do with it. Marcos turned his head to glance at the discarded implements and then his gaze lifted to hers. “You want me to wait on you, Princess?”

Febe blinked in surprise. She stared down at the bowl as there would be an explanation to clear her confusion there.

He gestured to her bowl with his spoon and then pointed at a bucket in the corner. “You seem recovered enough to rinse out your own bowl, Little Mouse.”

A streak of embarrassment and anger shot through her as she treated him to a glare that should have roasted him on the spot. “How dare you call me such a name? You will address me properly!”

Instead, he caught her look and chuckled, revealing teeth that had no right being as straight and white as they were, given his social status. “You’re a long way from home, Little Mouse.”

Febe lifted her chin. “I’m still a princess of Barselor, and when we return home, you will pay for any disrespect you’ve shown me.”

Marcos’s smile disappeared. He dropped his spoon into his empty bowl and rose to his feet, his heavy brows lowering over eyes that glittered like gemstones. Febe scuttled back as he approached her, but all he did was bend down and collect her bowl and spoon. As he rose to his full height, he sketched a small bow. “I’m yours to command, milady.” Then he turned his back on her again and walked over to the bucket, crouching down to dip the bowls and spoons into the rinse water.

Febe was shaken. Putting Marcos back in his proper place should have felt like a victory, but somehow, she had a sinking feeling she’d just lost the war by winning this battle. He was testing me. Seeing how far he could push me. Little Mouse indeed! Her mother would have had the man whipped for such disrespect. Do I really want to be like my mother? The very idea struck fear into her heart.

 

Marcos twisted the amulet of Morbidon between his thumb and forefinger as he sat before the fire, watching it slowly burn down into glowing goals. The blizzard outside had also died down and the wind was now only a mournful whisper, ruffling the edges of the blanket he’d hung up at the entrance to the cave. If the weather held, they could leave this cave upon sunbirth and begin their journey.

For Febe, the journey would be a long one—down to the Underworld—but they needn’t travel too far to get there. Even this close to the temple, Morbidon could manifest, although he had ordered Febe be taken farther away so that Vivacel had less power to interfere. Marcos had no idea how these things worked for the gods and didn’t care to be enlightened. All he knew was that he could soon be rid of Febe and her arrogance, and say good riddance to the entire life he’d lived in Barselor, serving the whims of women incapable of love or even kinder emotions. Perhaps the dour god was a perfect match for the prickly Febe.

He glanced over at her sleeping form across the fire from him. In the dim light of the still warm coals, she was merely a small shape beneath the covers, though her pale face still caught the last of the light. During the night, he’d added his own blanket to her pile, concerned that she might still be too cold. Though he was now cold, it would take only moment to stoke the fire again, but they were running low on wood. He didn’t want to waste it while she slept. In this new revenant body, he didn’t feel the need for sleep as often. It was yet another thing he must grow accustomed to.

I shouldn’t have called her Little Mouse. How could she have taken it as anything less than an insult? In retrospect, it had sounded insulting, but when the name had slipped out, he’d been thinking about how small and cute she was as she’d blinked at him with wide brown eyes blank with confusion. In truth, it wasn’t that he minded cleaning up after her meal, or even serving her. It was the fact that she expected it that had irritated him.

In the cold light of predawn, he had to admit that his touchiness was due more to her sister’s arrogance than to Febe’s. The princesses had grown up surrounded by servants. Febe had looked completely baffled by the notion of rinsing her own dish. It was clear that she didn’t have Eldora’s self-awareness of her station. It was more that she simply didn’t think about things she’d never had to deal with before.

I have to stop treating them as the same woman. This girl, with her big eyes and shy smile, is not my fiery Eldora. She’s also not the one who watched me die without shedding a tear.

He released the amulet and it bumped against his chest, feeling far heavier than a talisman that small should feel as the burden of serving the dread god settled over him again. When he was irritated with Febe, it didn’t seem like such a challenge to hand her over without remorse to the god. Now that he’d reconsidered his own behavior, he felt a sinking guilt.

She may be small and cute, but she’s no innocent. She’s killed people! The grim reminder helped as he studied the woman’s peaceful face, her long lashes dark against skin pale from the chill in the air. Febe had built many terrible weapons to aid her mother’s hunger for power and control. Also, more than a few innocent souls had been caught and killed in her brutal traps, simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The princess was no saint, and didn’t deserve his guilt over betraying her. Still, a saying his mother used to tell him repeated itself in his mind when he thought of what he must do. How you treat others is not about whether they deserve it, but about what kind of man you want to be.

                Frustrated with his musings, he quietly rose to his feet and walked to the entrance. Pulling aside the blanket, he looked out into the darkness which steadily grew lighter as the sun was reborn into the world. Provided everything went well when the princess awakened, they would be stepping out into the chilly morning air, bundled against the cold, to head down to the sheltered valley where Zephrona’s winds were broken upon the rocks and battered into gentle breezes. There, he would use the amulet to summon Morbidon, and be rid of Febe and the last tie to his life in Barselor.

 

Febe awakened when the light of the fire brightened the cave. She rolled onto her side to face the warmth and saw Marcos crouched beside it, feeding sticks and small logs of wood into the growing flames. It was an oddly peaceful scene, and she was almost hypnotized by the dancing flames, staring into their depths as their warmth chased away the chill.

Marcos’s voice broke the spell. “I don’t have anything fresh for rations. All we have for breakfast is travel-loaf and dried meat.”

She yawned as she pushed herself up into a sitting position, noticing only then that her pile of blankets had increased by one. She glanced at Marcos. He was bundled up in furs over his heavy woolen clothing. He didn’t look cold, but he hovered by the fire as if he was loath to leave the warmth. “I have a jar of preserves in my—” She gasped, jumping to her feet as she turned to look around at the cave. “Where’s my pack!”

Marcos stood and followed her frantic gaze. “Calm down, Princess.” He gestured to his own pack. It was only then that Febe noticed the battered leather of her smaller pack lying beneath it.

She rushed over to the packs, stumbling as she stepped out of the pile of blankets. She was so worried about her book that she barely noticed the chill as her woolen clothing failed to keep her warm when she left the small radius of heat put out by the fire.

Marcos watched her dig through her stolen supplies until she pulled out her design book, caressing the worn cover with shaking fingers. “You said you had preserves? That will soften the travel-loaf.”

Febe withdrew the jar of preserves as well as some of the dried meat. She cradled her book against her chest, handing the preserves and meat to Marcos as she returned to her pile of blankets. His gaze dropped to the rest briefly on the book before he took the offered food. She couldn’t read his expression.

Without comment, he turned back to the fire, laying two travel loaves on a stone next to the flames to warm them up.

“You didn’t check my pack?” Febe sat cross-legged on the blankets with the book in her lap, running her fingers over the cover to check for any damage.

He shook his head without looking at her. “Didn’t see a need. Besides, it wasn’t any of my business, Princess.”

Internally, Febe winced at the title. He was either being sarcastic with her or being overly ingratiating. She suspected that if it was the latter, it was only to make a point. She hadn’t won a friend with her earlier behavior. “I appreciate your consideration.”

He shrugged, the movement barely noticeable beneath the mounds of furs that covered his large body.

She struggled to find something to say that would break the awkward silence that fell between them as he fixed them a meager breakfast. Her finger traced out the branded title on the cover of her book. Her name. “This book contains all of my work for the last ten rotas. I was afraid that it had been left behind.”

His jaw twitched as he gave the book in her lap a sidelong glance. “So all your engines of death are in there?”

Febe clutched the book to her chest, treating him to a sharp glare. “I never wanted to make such things! I obeyed my mother’s commands, just as everyone else in the kingdom does. I also made engines to help people!”

He pulled one of the loaves off the stone and opened the jar of preserves, tipping it over the loaf. “Yet you weren’t ready to obey your mother when it would personally affect you. You ran from your betrothal, selfishly putting others at risk.” His eyes lifted to meet hers. “Your obedience only goes as far as those acts which leave you personally unscathed.”

Febe clutched her book so hard that her knuckles whitened. “You don’t know anything about me! About the things my mother does to ensure my obedience!”

He stood and scooped up the preserve-covered loaf, stepping over to her to present it with a bow that was unmistakably mocking. “You’re right, Princess. I don’t know what she did to you. But I do know what she did to everyone else. You and your sisters were in the best position to defy her, but you didn’t.” His glare deepened into a frown. “None of you did.”

She stared at the loaf, suddenly having no appetite. “All we ever did was plan to defy her.” Her voice came out as little more than a whisper, her anger abandoning her in a rush of despair at her many failures.

Marcos pushed the loaf towards her and Febe took it, setting her book to the side. He returned to the fire and his own heated travel-loaf.

“Are you going to take me back there? To marry the god?” She sniffed the loaf, but she was unwilling to take a bite until she had the answer she needed. Her stomach churned with fear over what he might say.

“Marrying the god of the dead was your opportunity to gain enough influence to usurp your mother. Instead, you ran away and left her in power and the god angry at Barselor and its people.” He spread preserves on his loaf. “If you’ve really spent your entire life planning to depose your mother, then you would have jumped at the opportunity.” He lifted the loaf to his lips, pausing just before taking a bite to glance at her. “I think you just play it safe.”

Febe swallowed, lowering the food back to her lap. “You have no idea what kind of sacrifice I would have had to make to marry—“

He cast his loaf back onto the stone and rose to his feet, turning to her with an expression of deep anger. “Do not talk to me about sacrifice!” His voice echoed in the small cave, the accusatory tone repeating over and over.

“Why didn’t Eldora marry him, then? I’m not the only one who’s selfish.” It was a purely childish attempt to shift his anger to someone for whom he had a greater emotional investment, but Febe couldn’t help it. Marcos frightened her in that moment. She didn’t believe he would hurt her physically, because it was clear now that he intended to make her return to honor the betrothal, but his words were like daggers, cutting into her with sharp truths she didn’t have the strength to defend against.

He stared at her, his eyebrows lowered and his lips tight. “The god does not want Eldora. He only wants you.” He crossed his arms over his broad chest. “Now that your mother is a lich, he has the power to control her actions. She was a fool, but you’re an ever bigger one to turn him down. You had the chance to influence him. Now, he’s angry.”

His words were startling to Febe. She’d been holding out the selfish hope that Morbidon would dismiss her for running away and select one of her sisters in her stead. After all, both Eldora and Emilia were more attractive than her, and Eldora was younger and more skilled with dealing with people. She should be the one sought after by men, especially by a powerful god. “Why does he want me so much?”

She hadn’t realized she’d said that aloud until Marcos answered her. “I still haven’t figured that out, Little Mouse.”

She ground her teeth, clenching the loaf in her hands so hard that it crumbled, spreading preserves all over her fingers. “Stop calling me that!”

His chuckle lacked any humor. “Then stop being a coward. Return to your place and obey your mother’s command one last time. Then learn how to seduce a god so that the people of Barselor do not suffer his wrath!”

Febe’s heart pounded so hard that she felt it throbbing in her throat. She swallowed. “I don’t know how to do that.” Her voice barely made it past the knot of pulsing blood nearly choking her.

Marco’s cold expression softened as he stared down at her. He turned and stepped over to his pack, pulling out a rag that could have come from his blanket. She watched him, trying to find something to say to express her fear over what he insisted she do, and her certainty that her own inadequacies would doom her. No words came to her as he dipped the rag in the bucket of rinse water and then squeezed it out. Even when he brought it to her and held it out, she could only take it wordlessly, using it to wipe the sticky preserve off her hand.

“You have a choice, Princess.”

She shook her head as tears crowded her eyes. “You aren’t going to give me a choice, are you?”

“Your choice is to make the best of this, or to fight it every step of the way. What you decide to do will affect your own people. Are you going to remain a selfish brat, or will you become the woman you believe you are?”

Febe sniffled, trying to keep the tears from sliding down her cheeks. “I don’t believe I’m a good person. You’re mistaken if you think that.”

Marcos knelt beside her and brushed away a stray tear that broke free. His touch was gentle against her cheek. Febe was so surprised by the contact that she didn’t move away from him. “If that’s true, then it’s time to become someone you can believe in.” He stood and turned back to the fire, picking up a stick to stoke the waning flames. “Eat what’s left of your breakfast, Princess. We have a distance to travel before we reach the sheltered valley where we’ll camp for the night.” He glanced her way, but Febe wouldn’t meet his eyes as she surreptitiously swiped at more tears that felt like ice as they slipped free to trail down her skin. “Think about what I said. We can’t always choose the path we’re forced to take, but we can choose how we deal with it. Other people are counting on you to make the right choice.”

 

The hike was not as grueling as Febe feared it would be, given her previous experience. Fortunately, the blizzards that assaulted the higher altitudes seemed to leave them alone this time as they plowed through snow that was almost waist-high on Febe. Marcos forged a path for both of them, and Febe was able to progress fairly easily in his wake.

Unfortunately, that meant she had plenty of energy left to reflect on his words as she watched his broad back, laden with a heavy pack, leading the way. At this point, there wasn’t a way to escape him. Without his help, she wasn’t getting off this mountain, and even if she wanted to return to Vivacel’s temple, she had no idea how to get back. But more than that, his words had given her enough reason to hesitate on another escape attempt.

Are my people truly suffering because I ran away? She didn’t want to ask Marcos what had happened in her absence because he might tell her things she didn’t want to hear. She knew very little about Morbidon, and that had been intentional. Now she felt like a fool for not learning more about the dread god whose favor her mother had courted so fervently. To be fair, there was no way I could’ve seen this coming!

Her escape from the castle had been reactionary. She hadn’t really thought through the consequences to anyone other than herself, except for perhaps her sisters, but she didn’t have warm feelings towards them. However, this truth only proved Marco’s point. She really was selfish. I never even thought of using my position as his bride to try and influence him and gain the power to keep my mother from further abusing the people of Barselor. She wondered if Eldora had considered such a thing. Clearly, her consort had thought of it, perhaps because Eldora had mentioned it. Yet, her sister had been just as eager to avoid matrimony as Febe was.

The answer to why was easy. Eldora recognized that she couldn’t manipulate a god like she could a man. The men of Barselor were generally gentle and very careful with women. The punishments for offending a woman were severe and often permanent. They obeyed a woman’s commands and were grateful for her attentions. They’d been raised in a system that Febe realized was perhaps not entirely fair to them, but at the same time, it had made them docile and controllable—though Marcos didn’t seem all that docile anymore. Morbidon and his servants—like the terrifying necromancer—were not the kind of men even Eldora was accustomed to handling. If her sister didn’t feel confident about bending the god to her will, then Febe certainly didn’t have that sort of confidence.

“If I were to marry…him, how would I go about influencing his treatment of Barselor and her people?” She hadn’t realized she’d said the thought aloud until Marcos stopped in front of her and turned around, causing her to collide with his hard chest and stagger backwards.

Hands steadied her and kept her from losing her footing. Marcos immediately released her when she was no longer slipping on the packed snow left by his passage. Instead, he was watching her face with a searching look. “Are you really considering doing your duty on this?” His eyes narrowed. “Without trying to escape, or bedevil the god with anymore selfish brattiness?”

Febe swallowed and looked away from him, staring out across the seemingly endless blanket of snow that spread out around them. “I… I don’t know how to… please a man. Can you teach me?” She watched him out of her periphery.

His eyes widened and he took several steps away from her, holding up his hands. “Sorry, Little Mouse. I’m not suicidal!”

A hot flush crept up Febe’s cheeks, warming them from the chill that had slipped beneath her scarf. “I didn’t mean like that!” She waved her hands in the air as if to dispel the misconception her ill-chosen words had given him. “I just meant… you know, how to behave in a manner that a man would find pleasing. How to not make him angry. Like I made you angry about the dirty bowl.”

Marcos rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, his gaze sliding away from hers. “I wasn’t angry, Princess.” He sighed. “Besides, I don’t think the god will care if you don’t do the dishes.”

Febe noticed that, like her, Marcos avoided saying his name aloud. Morbidon. She shivered at the thought of it. One didn’t say a god’s name lightly. It could very well summon that god. Apparently, even Marcos was keen to avoid that. At least for now. “I don’t even know what to say to him. He’s never even met me! What does one say to a perfect stranger who has decided to marry you, sight unseen?”

He dropped his hand and met her eyes. “He’s seen you. He was the one who chose you.”

“The necromancer chose…” Febe closed her eyes as the blood rushed out of her head and into the sudden surge of nerves in her stomach. She’d been so blind, but then again, so had her mother. It was little wonder the man had struck terror into her from the start. “I see. Now I’m even less certain that this won’t be a complete disaster!” Somehow, her image of Morbidon had been just a vague idea of some distant amorphous figure that could turn into a bone dragon at will. Scary, but not really concrete in her mind. Now that she realized that she’d been looking at him in her mother’s court the whole time—that the forbidding necromancer had been the god himself—her position seemed more real.

Marcos didn’t correct her assessment of the situation. “We should get moving. We’ll want to be in the valley before another blizzard kicks up.”

Febe thought about running the minute his back was turned. For about a minute. Glancing around her at the blinding snow that she’d have to plow through was all it took to convince her to follow his large body as he forged their path. I don’t know what to do!

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