Morbidon’s Bride: Chapters 12 and 13

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Author’s Note: I didn’t get Monday’s blog out this week, which disappoints me, but I’ll be back in form next Monday. I did, however, finish two chapters of Morbidon’s Bride in time to publish them today, so that’s something. The manuscript is at 45,000 words so far, and still somewhat following my outline. 😉 As much as these things do, that is. My characters have a tendency to surprise me. Anyway, I hope you enjoy these two chapters. Please feel free to make any comments or critiques (as long as they are respectful, I will be happy to receive them.) I’d also love to know your thoughts on where you think this is going. 😉 I know where it’s going, but I want to hear what you think (I’m not going to spoil it though). *rubs hands together in anticipation*

 

Chapter 12

The following morning Febe awoke out of restful sleep, marveling at the fact that no nightmares and no strange noises had caused her to snap instantly awake—a habit that had become so ingrained over her lifetime of always being on guard that she no longer even noticed her fatigue and insomnia. Yet now her mind and body were refreshed from an easy sleep.

She felt more relaxed than she could ever remember feeling, even when she was supposedly safe within Vivacel’s temple. Back then, she’d still been on the run. Now, her time for running was over. She’d committed herself to this path, and to giving Morbidon a chance.

To that end, she didn’t object when Macie arrived along with her breakfast and pressed her to select a suitable outfit for her outing with Morbidon since she’d been too worn out to do it the previous evening. While Febe tried to eat some of the food that had been clearly prepared to tempt her appetite, she watched Macie pluck outfits from the wardrobe and hold them up for her perusal.

Febe rejected one after another. Many of them were dresses, and she’d never much bothered with such garments because they were restricting on her upper body and the flowing skirts got in the way of her legs, making it difficult to run when she needed to escape. Macie seemed to get the idea that Febe wouldn’t be comfortable in the dresses and instead pulled out a beautifully matched set of a long tunic and loose pants that were in the same style of the clothing Febe usually wore.

The color was a cross between rose and gold with embroidered flowers and vines sparkling with gemstones on the tunic and the hem of the pants. She nodded her assent to Macie, and the ghost girl smiled broadly, twirling around with the garment in hand in her exuberance at Febe’s selection.

Febe shook her head at the maid’s antics, unable to hide the smile that pulled at her lips. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d felt any sense of positive anticipation, but Macie’s excitement was infectious. Not that all the butterflies taking up residence in her stomach were good ones. Nerves made it difficult for Febe to control her trembling as she washed up and dressed.

She was still nervous when she followed the maid out of her room, though she tried to distract herself by memorizing the layout of the halls as they passed through them to reach the exit to the courtyard.

Her mind blanked when she stepped out into the courtyard and saw Morbidon waiting there. His masculine beauty made her feel uncomfortable rather than drawn to him. He was like a painting created by magic to be perfect rather than by the passionate hand of an artist, complete with flaws in the brushstrokes. Though he was pretty to look at, there wasn’t any life to him.

He bowed when he saw her, but it wasn’t deep enough to hide his frown. Perhaps he was disappointed that she had frozen on the steps rather than continue down them in the wake of the maid to join him.

Febe chided herself, forcing her limbs forward. Thus far, Morbidon had been kind to her, and he’d sounded sincere in his promise that no one would hurt her.

She closed the distance between them, crossing the courtyard in quick steps before she could change her mind. As she neared him, she shivered. The air around him seemed to crackle with his power. There was a scent of ozone and something else she couldn’t identify—a scent that was slightly musky, but also refreshing, like the smell of the first drops of rain striking hot clay pavers—earthy and exotic. She liked it, and breathed it in deeply without thinking.

Morbidon’s eyes widened as Febe audibly inhaled. Her cheeks burned with embarrassment as she realized what she’d done. To her surprise, his swarthy skin darkened with a slight blush as well.

He studied her for a long moment with an unreadable expression and then turned to gesture to two beautiful horses standing ready at the end of the courtyard. “Our mounts await, Princess. Are you ready to leave?” His tone was cool and composed, at odds with the flush that still stained his high cheekbones.

Febe swallowed around the embarrassment that threatened to block off her throat. What is he thinking right now? It wasn’t an auspicious start to their outing, but she’d made a commitment, and she was going to keep it. Besides, she really wanted to see the Blessed Isles. “I’m ready, milord.”

Febe hadn’t realized Morbidon had been tense until the muscles in his face and body relaxed at her words. The unnatural perfection of his features softened into something approaching human as he held out one hand to her.

With only a slight hesitation, she placed her palm over his, trying not to flinch as his fingers closed over her hand. A brief moment of panic struck as she recalled the fleshless fingers of his reaper. She straightened her spine and shoved away her fear as he gently tugged her towards the horses. His clasp was warm around her chilled fingers, and the contact caused a flush of heat to spread through her body until she felt almost too warm for comfort.

They rode mostly in silence down to the docks. Occasionally, Morbidon would point out features of the landscape, or name some of the souls floating around farming solid-looking crops or working with what appeared to be living cattle.

She gestured to a vast field of crops as they passed. “Milord, it seems strange that your kingdom would require so much food since the subjects are all spirits.”

He reined his horse to a stop and Febe followed suit as they watched a man labor in a vast field of crops. “The souls in my kingdom do not forget their previous lives easily. Some of them find it more comforting to continue on here as they did in life. I’ve provided them this environment to give them purpose. You will see that the spirits can eat if they wish to, though it isn’t necessary to sustain them. They are able to enjoy the tastes and textures they remember from life, just as they enjoy the feeling of solid soil and an animal’s hide beneath their hands.”

Febe studied the ghostly man as he bent to his task, one hand holding his back as if it pained him. “So you don’t force them to labor like this?”

Morbidon glanced at her, a frown creasing his brow. “These souls are not being punished. There is a place for those who are. I will never take you there.” His tone darkened. “It is not a place anyone would ever want to visit.” He turned to stare at the soul intently.

“What kind of people are punished in your kingdom?” Morbidon was known to be a harsh god, if the kingdom of Halidor’s worship of him was anything to go by. Small infractions could result in hard punishment.

“The people who face the worst punishments in my kingdom are the ones who deserve it.” He met her eyes with his pale gaze, and his expression had returned to the hard mask of perfection she found so unnerving. “Your mother has a place reserved for her, though now that she is a lich, she will not see that place for a very long time.”

She regretted bringing up the subject that caused him to slip back into god-mode. Despite his beauty, he was difficult to look at when his emotions were hidden behind this cold façade. It was almost as if he were wearing a beautiful version of the bone mask he’d had on when he’d been impersonating a necromancer. Still, now that she’d brought up the question, she had to follow it to its logical conclusion. She had to know.

Febe bit her lip, dropping her gaze to study the grass beside the shifting hooves of her horse. “And what of me? What punishment do I deserve? After all, you said yourself that your kingdom is filled with my victims.”

Morbidon guided his horse closer to hers. The two animals tossed their heads and snorted at each other, but their riders weren’t paying any attention. “Your soul is not darkened by evil like your mother’s. There is regret that eats away at the edges. I do not punish those who are already punishing themselves.” His fingers were warm and strong as they lifted her chin, forcing her to meet his eyes. “Many souls come to my kingdom with regrets. Too many more come to my kingdom without them. I won’t pretend that I’m not a harsh master. I won’t lie to you, Febe.” He gestured to the farming soul. “But I am not cruel without reason. Many who come here find peace in the tasks that remind them of who they used to be. They choose not to leave, though they are all given the opportunity to be reborn once they have served their penance.” His eyes narrowed. “Even your mother will be given another chance at life when she has paid for the evil she has committed in this one.”

Febe turned her head, breaking his grasp as she spurred her horse. The animal lurched forward, pushing aside Morbidon’s mount, which blew out an annoyed gust of air from his nostrils. “I’d like to see this Blessed Isle, milord.” She tried to pretend her voice wasn’t quavering and that she wasn’t so obviously trying to escape his touch. What bothered her most wasn’t what he’d revealed about his kingdom and himself, but what he’d revealed about her. She’d liked the feeling of his fingers touching her face. Her chin was still warm where his skin had caressed hers.

 

Febe enjoyed the ferry ride to the Blessed Isles far more than she’d expected. The waters of the lake were so still they could have been glass. Only the passing of their ferry caused ripples that distorted her reflection. The sun above them shone merrily—a false, magical globe in the sky, similar to Vivacel’s false sun in her temple, only much larger. The approaching island claimed most of Febe’s attention, though she couldn’t forget the solemn god who escorted her. His presence was simply too powerful to ignore.

Morbidon didn’t say much as they slid across the water on the flat-bottomed boat. He hadn’t even spoken to the ferry man, yet the ghostly man seemed to know exactly what to do. The god of the dead was clearly taciturn, which should have suited Febe, who was accustomed to spending most of her time alone in her lab. Still, even though making conversation appeared to be a struggle they both shared, she wished he would be more forthcoming, if only to keep that statue-like expression from stiffening his features until he looked as remote and unattainably beautiful as the moon.

It probably didn’t help that Febe had no idea what to say to him, especially since she was still struggling with her unexpected attraction to him. She wanted to ask him questions to break the awkward silence that stretched between them, but every time she opened her mouth, she ended up too nervous to speak.

She didn’t find her voice until they’d debarked from the ferry, leading their mounts up the beach to a copse of trees where they would picnic before their tour of the isle. She was watching him instead of her footing, but since the beach was covered in sugary white sand, with no sign of a rock in sight, she didn’t worry about tripping. As he drew his horse to a halt beside one of the trees, he did something that she’d seen him do several times since they’d met up this morning. He lifted his hand to his face as if to grip the edge of a cowl, then seemed to realize that it wasn’t there, dropping his hand. She found this seemingly unconscious habit of his intriguing enough to overcome her nervousness. “Why do you usually wear a cowl, milord?” Why would he cover up that face? Why would anyone?

He looked up from tying the reins of his horse to the tree. His expression was as unreadable as a stone statue. “Does it bother you that I’m not wearing it?”

She couldn’t stop her sharp laugh at his question. He was terrifying when he was wearing his cowl. Even though his appearance was somewhat eerie without it, she much preferred him this way. When his eyes narrowed, she hastened to shake her head, adding, “It doesn’t bother me, but it seems to bother you.”

He looked startled at that. His hand reached up to his face in that same gesture that had inspired her curiosity. Then he glanced down at his fingers as if he just noticed them clutching for a nonexistent cowl. A slight frown marred his features, creasing his forehead and deepening the lines bracketing his mouth. “I am unaccustomed to baring my face in front of mortals.”

She tilted her head, studying his perfect face from an angle as if there would be some explanation for why he’d choose to hide it. “I don’t understand. Surely you know that it’s ….” Feeling a flush creep into her cheeks, she cut herself off before she acknowledged aloud how handsome she found him.

He didn’t look at her. Instead his gaze focused on the pack his horse carried as he loosened the straps to withdraw their picnic meal. “I’m aware of how my face looks. It is abnormal to mortals—a constant reminder to them that I am different—a creature of divine magic.” His pale gaze flicked to her, and she gasped at the blazing light in his eyes. “A reminder that I’m the bastard son of the divine dragon that raped my mother.” His voice was ragged as he turned his back on her, abandoning his search for their lunch. “I was told that I could be his very image, save for my eyes. Those I inherited from my mother, though I rarely ever saw them to be certain, since she would not look at us.”

Febe had no idea what to say to him. Though his stance was more remote than ever, his confession, and the pain behind his words, revealed a vulnerability that made him seem more approachable. His mother had turned her back on him because she could not stand to see the face of her attacker in the inhuman beauty of her child. “Us? You mean you and Vivacel?”

His shoulders tensed, but he didn’t turn back around. “My sister and I had only each other growing up. We lived outside of our village, because the people feared us and did not want our tainted presence among them. We cared for our mother, who’d become an invalid after the attack, because the villagers feared her misfortune would somehow fall upon them as well. Yet no matter how much we did for her and how much we loved her, she died cursing our very existence.”

The pain in his voice drew her to him the way his beautiful face had not. She reached out a hand to touch his shoulder, pausing as his muscles tightened beneath her palm. “I’m so sorry, milord. I cannot say that I understand all that you’ve been through, but my mother did not return my love either. That, I do understand.”

He took a step away from her, and her hand dropped back to her side. When he spoke again, his tone was cool and remote. “I wear the cowl because I have been concealing my face since I was a child. Does that answer your question sufficiently, Princess?”

Febe didn’t understand what she’d done that had made him pull away just when she’d discovered something that could bring them closer. Doesn’t he want me to care about what has happened to him? Is he angry that I even asked the question? “Milord?”

His fingers clenched into fists at his sides. “I don’t have an appetite at the moment. Perhaps we should tour the isle before we eat. That is, unless you are hungry. We will eat now if you would prefer.”

Febe didn’t have much of an appetite at the moment either. She’d already messed up their outing by asking her question. She wished she could talk to Marcos and get his input on what she’d done wrong. Perhaps he could better explain the mind of this man so she would know what she could and could not say and do. Morbidon was back to being the solemn god, and Febe craved the company of another human. “We can tour the isle, milord. I don’t feel very hungry at the moment either.”
Chapter 13

Their tour was enough to distract Febe from Morbidon’s dour mood. Perhaps even he found it cheering, since by the time they returned to the ferry, the tension that had frozen his features into his beautiful mask had slackened again, and his eyes were no longer cold silver, but had warmed to molten metal whenever he glanced her way.

After their morning conversation had apparently revealed too much for Morbidon’s comfort, he restricted his conversation to pointing out sights on the island. Febe was too charmed by the beauty of the Isle of the Blessed and the frolicking spirits there that she hadn’t been too distressed by his reticence.

It was only once they were again sliding effortlessly across the lake of glasslike water to return to the mainland that she felt the weight of his silence. Without colorful villages, glowing flora, and dancing ghostly youths to distract her, she had only her own fears and doubts. Morbidon had proven that the Underworld could be a place of great beauty, and even in the more mundane areas like the fields they’d ridden through to get to the dock, she’d seen bucolic peace and contentment. He was not always the harsh punishing god the Halidorians worshipped. “Why do the Halidorians only depict that side of you?”

It wasn’t until he straightened from where he’d been leaning against the side of the ferry rails that she realized she’d spoken her thought aloud. She swallowed as she met his eyes, but there was no sign of anger or irritation in their silvery depths. “What side of me do the Halidorians depict?”

Febe swallowed again, and the lump choking her throat made her fear she’d swallowed her own tongue. It was difficult to speak, but now that she’d asked the question, she couldn’t take the words back and must explain where they’d come from. “In all our dealings with Halidor, we’ve seen their patron god as the Dread God of Death. They depict you as a master of judgement and punishment, a god who demands slavish devotion and worship, and who wields his power in anger when his followers fail him. Your priests are known to be cruel and the death priestesses ….” She shuddered as she thought of the poor women who removed their eyes to serve the god of the dead. They believed that they could not be distracted by the living world if they were to effectively channel the power of the Underworld.

Morbidon held up a hand to forestall any more of her speech. His expression had grown severe as the words had poured out of her. Now, his lowered brows cast his pale gaze into shadow and his lips were a bloodless slash. “So this is the image that I have been fighting against for your hand?” He shook his head. “It’s little wonder so many mortals view me with such terror.”

His tone held disappointment and exasperation, which was at odds with his hard expression. “Are you saying you didn’t know how Halidor depicts you?”

His brows drew together, creasing the naturally tanned skin between them. “Halidor’s worship is part of my due for providing my protection and guidance as their patron god, just as your people worship Zephrona in return for her protection and guidance. When she’s angry with her followers, she delivers a scouring wind to punish them. When she’s pleased, your kingdom is blanketed in fragrant, soft breezes that carry the seeds of new life from one field to another and then bring clouds heavy with rain to water them. As patron gods, we offer reward and punishment to our followers based on their deeds.” He sighed heavily. “Halidorians are a warlike people bound by traditions older than my arrival in this realm. Before they worshipped me, they followed one of the old gods—a primeval creature of blood and death, who fed on war and sacrifice. That creature was destroyed by my hand, which won me their worship, but it seems that they have continued to view my patronage as one to fear and respect, rather than love.”

He ran his fingers through his hair, mussing the long strands enough that Febe felt an unexpected desire to comb them straight again with her own fingers. She wondered if they’d feel as silky and soft as his hair looked.

His next words distracted her from her urge to touch him. “Many of my followers behave in ways that I find repugnant. Thus, I have probably laid too much punishment upon them. This is likely the reason that they portray me in such an unpleasant manner.” His eyes lifted from his contemplation of the boards that made up the ferry floor to meet her gaze. “As for the death priestesses, I have never asked for such a sacrifice as they continue to make. They can wield my power and see into my kingdom as long as they perform my rituals properly. Removing their eyes is a tradition that they refuse to abandon. It is symbolic only, but they are rigid in their customs. Since it is voluntary on their part, I have not interceded. Changing such deeply ingrained customs causes many of my followers great anxiety and foments unrest. I do not do it lightly.”

“I didn’t realize that gods couldn’t simply change everything to suit themselves. I thought Halidor was that way because you demanded it.”

His short laugh lacked any humor. “If I desired it, I could sweep through Halidor and destroy all those who disobey me. I could also coerce my people by claiming their souls even while they still live, sublimating their will to my own. I could control them so completely that they dance like puppets under my hands. I can change everything to suit myself.” His tight mouth twisted into a snarl of disgust. “There are gods who would do such things. But I am not one of them.”

Febe stared at him, stunned by his words and what they revealed about him. “You have all that power, but you still let them do things you don’t like?”

His eyes narrowed on her. “Would you have me take their free will? The very thing which makes them human? I leave them their freedom to make their own decisions, even when those decisions will see them punished when they return to my kingdom. How else is a soul to gain wisdom and grow stronger if it is not allowed to make mistakes?”

Febe hadn’t considered it from that angle before, but it still seemed wrong that he had so much power and didn’t use it to stop people from doing awful things. “But what about the suffering of their victims? When you leave them to do as they wish, they harm others who don’t have the strength to stop them.” She looked away from his face, gazing out over the calm water. “If I had the powers of a god, I wouldn’t let people hurt each other ever again.”

Morbidon released a hard sigh, stepping forward abruptly to close the distance between them. Suddenly, his fingers were stroking her cheek, and only then, beneath the heat of his caress, did Febe realize that her cheeks were damp with tears. “Is that why you build your engines, sweet Febe? Do you hope one of your designs will give you enough power to end the suffering of others?”

The sympathy in his expression was nearly her undoing. She couldn’t remember when—or even if—she’d ever cried on someone else’s shoulder. Her mother had always viewed tears as a sign of weakness to be purged, which was why Febe had always hidden away in her laboratory to shed her tears in isolation.

Morbidon’s sympathy scared her in ways that even his reaper could not. It threatened to crumble the wall she’d built so carefully over the rotaas to protect herself emotionally even as her traps protected her physically. All she had to do in that moment was lean her cheek against his broad chest and let go. Instinct told her he would catch her and hold her while her sobs wracked her body. Instinct also told her that she would lose much more to him in that act of compassion and unconditional support than she was ready for.

So she turned her back on him to face the water, gripping the railing as she brought her emotions under control. “I build my engines because I’ve always had a gift for inventing things. I see a need—a lack of efficiency in some process, a tool that is needed but not available—and I figure out ways to improve the situation. The engines you speak of—the ones made for war—I built because of the demands of my mother. Although….” She stared down at her white-knuckled grip on the railing.

Morbidon remained silent after her voice trailed off, though he joined her at the rail, standing so close to her that his heady scent clouded her thoughts.

She started speaking again to distract herself from the silent god waiting so patiently for her to continue. She was certain he could outwait her without even trying. “The thunder-pipe I invented was supposed to equalize power between the wealthy and the poor. I thought that if the poor—who could not afford to purchase swords, much less lessons in the martial arts—had a weapon that they could use without much training, then they could….”

“Revolt.” One word, spoken in his deep voice—not asking a question, but not an accusation either. He’d easily worked out the plan she’d buried so deep that even she hadn’t openly acknowledged it to herself.

“I was more naïve then. I really thought I could find a way for my thunder-pipes to be produced underground and put into the hands of the peasants. I kept the plans secret, searching for smiths that I could trust to build them.” Splinters from the railing dug into her fingers, and Febe marveled at how real the Underworld was, down to even that tiny detail. Morbidon’s magic made her inventions seem like children’s toys. He created reality out of nothing. She couldn’t even make a small weapon without the aid of blacksmiths and woodsmiths and alchemists. If she’d had magic like his, she would have created a thousand thunder-pipes and distributed them among the poor, the rebels, those downtrodden by her mother’s harsh regime.

“A revolt could have meant the death of you and your sisters as well as your mother. That type of rebellion usually ends in the blood of all nobles being spilled.”

Febe nodded. It was a risk she’d subconsciously acknowledged. She’d been planning to get in contact with the rebels that even now agitated the peasants in Barselor with their underground pamphlets and daring attacks on tax offices. However, there would have been no guarantee that they would spare her life, or even accept her help. She’d never gotten that far though. “My sister’s spies found a way into my laboratory.” Her shoulders slumped as she stared out at their reflection on the water. “She recognized the potential of my weapon. I would have expected her to keep it for herself, to raise her own army. I’m still not sure why she decided to share it with my mother instead.” And just like that, Febe’s plans to depose her mother had crumbled and the queen gained a weapon that would only further subjugate her people, as well as increase her confidence in angling for invasions of foreign lands.

The ferry bumped against the dock before Morbidon could respond. It was possible that he had nothing to say to that, because they led their horses off the ferry in silence. Febe allowed him to assist her in mounting, growing more comfortable with his touch, but also more sensitive to its effect on her. The brief brush of his skin against hers, the quick reminder of his hard body and inhuman strength, was awakening feelings in her that she hadn’t been certain she was capable of experiencing anymore.

She was no virgin. Her mother believed that the importance other kingdoms placed on such a thing was offensive, and in defiance of such traditions, she’d been adamant that her daughters make use of any men they fancied, as long as they didn’t grow too attached. Febe had been young and foolish once, breaking her mother’s rule by falling for a man nearly ten rotas older who’d been plucked from the mines for her use. Her mother’s reaction to that relationship had convinced Febe to never allow herself to grow close to another man again.

Yet Queen Isa was no threat to Morbidon. In that way, he was safe for Febe to care about, maybe even to love, but in so many other ways, he was just as big a threat to her as her mother had been to any man foolish enough to fall in love with one of her daughters.

Morbidon seemed to accept her silence as normal, rather than as the mental turmoil it actually signified. He made no effort to break it or draw her out of her thoughts. Perhaps it was simply because he was unaccustomed to conversation. She peeked at him from the corner of her eye as they rode back along the path to the palace. He sat astride his mount straight and tall, his gaze focused ahead of them, though he glanced at her briefly as if he felt her eyes on him.

“Milord?” She had no idea what she wanted to say to him, just knowing that she needed to break the silence, because someone had to. They were both too accustomed to isolation to make good conversationalists without at least one of them trying.

His attention focused on her, and Febe flushed at the intensity of his gaze. “Please call me Morbidon. I am no lord and master to you. I would be your friend, Princess.”

“In that case, please call me Febe.” She turned her head to watch the road in order to avoid his piercing pale eyes. “I’m no longer a princess anyway. I’m sure my mother has disowned me by now.”

“Your mother is too busy dealing with her new form to disown you formally. Nor will she. I will not allow it.”

“Is she in pain?” She still refused to meet his eyes, though she felt him watching her.

“Do you want her to be?” He asked as if he could make that happen, and would, for her sake.

Febe’s feelings where her mother was concerned were always conflicted. Both hate and love for the same person warred within her heart. She still dreamed of the kind of mother she’d wanted Queen Isa to become, but knew that the embittered, brutal, power-hungry matriarch would never change no matter how much she did for her, nor how much she loved her. “I suppose after what she’s done, she deserves to suffer, but if I insisted on her torture, then I would be no less a monster than she is.”

Febe caught the movement of his shrug from her peripheral vision. “Some would call it justice, but I understand your hesitation. I never stopped loving my mother, no matter how much she cursed us. Your mother does not suffer physical pain in her condition. Not anymore. Her pain will be of the spiritual kind. Her soul is shackled into the lich’s body until I free it. For now, I have allowed her to rule as she sees fit, but she is aware that I will take control if she goes too far. This understanding alone has caused her no end of torment.”

Toying with the reins in her hand, Febe dared a glance in his direction. “I thought you said you didn’t want to take away the free will of your subjects.”

“Nor will I, even with her, without good reason.” His lips were tight, his face a hard mask again.

“So if I asked you to stop her from hurting the people of Barselor, would you do it?”

His lips softened, but his gaze was still sharp and brittle. “If you asked me to, yes.”

She hadn’t expected that answer. “You’d sacrifice your own principles for me? Why?”

He drew his horse to a halt just as the palace gates came into view. “I would have thought that was obvious to you by now.” He waved his hand to encompass the palace and the fields beyond it. “I am a spirit dragon of divine blood. I can not only see the souls of others, I gain strength from them. I am attuned to souls the way a fire dragon is attuned to flames.” He dropped his hand, but his eyes never left hers. “When I meet my soul mate, I know it without question.” A slight smile, the first she’d ever seen on him, brightened the severity of his expression. “Even when I try to deny it to myself.” His smile disappeared. “You are my soul mate, Febe.”

They finished their ride in silence after Morbidon’s revelation. Febe had no idea what to say to him. She hadn’t even believed in such a thing as soulmates and now he was telling her she was his. It was too much to accept. She barely knew him, and if anything, he seemed more remote now than before their outing, as if his confession had bothered him as much as it disturbed her.

The emotionless mask she was beginning to hate had come back over his features as they entered the palace gates, making her ill at ease whenever she glanced his way, which made it a relief to see a familiar face when they rode into the courtyard. Though Marcos hadn’t been much more than a stranger when he’d come to find her near Vivacel’s temple, he was now the only link to her former life. A smile spread her lips at the sight of his human face turning to watch them pass. It was still an attractive face, but unquestionably mortal, which made it more comforting to rest her eyes on than Morbidon’s solemn, joyless perfection.

“Milor—Morbidon, I would like to spend the rest of the day touring your palace, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course, Febe. I can have one of the servants—“

“If you can spare him, I’d like Marcos to escort me.”

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