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.”

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 11

Author’s Note: Only one chapter today, unfortunately. I feel like my confidence in my writing has been shaken lately, so I’m dealing with a touch of writer’s block. I’m still gamely tapping away at the keyboard, but everything I write seems like garbage to me, so I have to go over it again and again, and I’m never satisfied. I’ve been sitting in front of the computer staring at the screen, so paralyzed by self-doubt that I can’t even remember the words for common things.

Still, I made a commitment to myself to keep to my set deadlines and post these chapters in the time I promised. In fact, it’s even more important that I do it now, because these moments of self-doubt can turn into something much longer lasting, crippling my ability to create at all. So here is Chapter 11, in all it’s imperfect glory. I apologize if it seems rough and raw. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to add any comments, questions, or critiques below. I love hearing from you guys, and I’m certainly open to constructive criticism.

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Chapter 11

Febe followed the steward into the dark palace where she was met by a young, ethereal maid who led her to her rooms. By this time, she wasn’t even bothered by the strangeness of the ghostly servant, though the steward had at first frightened her. She’d been eager enough to escape her betrothed that she’d chosen the smaller fear of touching a ghost over remaining behind with the god of the dead. Now, she realized that the souls around her were not mournful or vengeful hauntings, but merely the spiritual form of once-living people. She doubted they meant her any harm, which was more than she could have said about the servants in her mother’s castle. Far too many of them had been agents of her sisters.

Her rooms were far nicer than she’d been expecting after walking through the dour, dark palace that was decorated with skulls and skeletons—constant reminders of where she was and who she’d be forced to marry soon.

In her mother’s castle, she’d only had one room, and she’d preferred it that way since it had been easier to set her traps in the smaller space. Here, she had a spacious suite of rooms to contend with, as well as multiple entrances where assassins could get to her. I must remember, my sisters aren’t here. There’s no reason for anyone to assassinate me now. No, she was facing a far worse fate than dying. She was facing the future of marriage to Death.

Despite the inconvenience of a large space to set traps over, the rooms were cozy and elegant. The sitting room was filled with bookshelves packed with books the likes of which Febe hadn’t seen even in her mother’s extensive library. Several overstuffed chairs sat beside the bookcases and a handful of side tables held candelabras that filled the room with a warm, mellow glow, chasing away the gloom that tried to creep in from the corridor.

A four-poster bed hung with silk drapes in a soft pink that complemented the lilies that were embroidered on the bedspread dominated the bedroom which sat just off the sitting room. There were so many pillows arranged on the bed that despite the size of it, they took up over half the surface.

A massive wardrobe sat against one wall, intricately carved with magical beasts. Febe looked away from it when she saw that the curving, graceful shapes were dragons. One glance had been enough to tell her that the wardrobe depicted the Allgods pantheon, based on the symbols of their elements enshrouding each dragon as they writhed across the surface.

A vanity table with a huge silver mirror sat near the wardrobe. Rugs woven with flowers in pinks and reds—with a dash of purple and green—warmed the black marble floors as she walked to the final room of the suite in the trail of the ghostly maid.

When the maid threw open the door, Febe stepped inside a room with a huge marble basin that was already filled with steaming water upon which rose petals floated on the surface. Beside the tub was another basin on a table carved of marble. Across the large room was a garderobe unlike any she’d ever seen before. It was carved of marble and the seat wasn’t simply a crude plank with a hole in it, but rather shaped in a way that made it look like it would actually be comfortable.

“Everything is self-filling and self-emptying, milady. You need only touch the side of each basin here.” The maid demonstrated by tapping her fingers on the edge of the small hand basin.

Febe watched as the basin magically filled. She’d installed pipes to pump water to her mother’s bathing room in their palace, but nothing she’d ever seen had been this convenient. Even with her pipes, draining the bath had been a hassle, and the heater she’d built beneath the tub had to be constantly tended, yet the water in this basin steamed already without any sign of a heat source, and when the maid tapped the basin again, the water simply disappeared.

She’d avoided magic her entire life because she’d always seen it as a dangerous and destructive force. She considered her engines and inventions as far more positive, even though they’d been misused by her mother, because anyone could make use of them. Magic required an inherent talent, and far too many mages had abused their power to oppress others who weren’t blessed by the gods with such talent.

Yet she couldn’t deny that she was charmed by this bathing room, and given her current state, she was eager to make use of it. Nothing sounded better to her at the moment than a relaxing soak in the bath with the fragrant petals brushing against her skin as she washed away the dirt and tension from her ill-fated escape.

As she dismissed the maid with as much kindness as she could muster, the apparition told her that dinner would be sent soon, but that it would be delivered to her sitting room. However, she could take as long as she wanted, since it would remain warm indefinitely.

More magic! I suppose I should get used to this. She shook her head as she closed the door and locked it, appreciating the heft of the lock that had been installed in the solid oak panel. She didn’t have the supplies to trap the entry, but then again, she doubted anything would stop Morbidon, and right now, he was the only one she feared.

Still, she hesitated as she stood before the bath, fingering the worn fabric of her tunic hem. The idea that the god of the dead could come across her at any point while she was nude and vulnerable in the bath made her wonder if being clean again would be worth it. She eyed the lock.

The maid had explained that these rooms were created especially for her arrival. Not built. Created. Out of nothing. That was a power that the spirits took for a granted. A power their lord wielded without effort. Yet, he’d installed locks on every door in her suite. Complicated—difficult to pick—locks. Who are they meant to keep out?

She wondered if he’d done it for her sake. If he’d known that she would be more comfortable behind a locked door, even if she were aware that it wouldn’t do anything to stop him from entering. She wasn’t certain what she thought about that. If he’d truly added the locks for her peace of mind, it demonstrated a surprising—and perhaps disturbing—insight on his notions of honor. Not only that, but the rooms were beautifully designed, filled with books and piles of pillows, both of which were luxuries Febe had enjoyed in her own chamber back in her mother’s castle.

The many shades of pink used in her rooms were also surprisingly soothing. Her mother had never allowed such feminine colors in any of Febe or her sister’s rooms, so she’d grown up with greens and blues, but the soft pinks and the bright blossoms made her oddly content, as if the color and the blossom design would have been her pick if she’d had the guts to go against the upbringing that had been instilled in her by her mother.

There was simply no way that Morbidon could know her so well when they’d barely spoken. She couldn’t imagine a monster such as she’d seen back on that mountain taking the time and effort to learn about her so that he could create this haven for her. A haven so far removed from the rest of the palace in tone that it could have been in a different world altogether.

Perhaps it had been merely luck, or a good guess, that had informed his choices. At any rate, the bath was calling to her and her aching muscles couldn’t resist it any longer. The sooner she entered it and washed up, the sooner she could dress again and feel less vulnerable.

 

She had to put her worn and dirty clothing back on over her clean body because she didn’t have her pack—a realization she’d come to only after she’d sank deeply into the soothing warmth of the bath. Anxiety and panic had assailed her, causing her to sit up with a slosh of scented water, but then she slid back down until only her nose and eyes remained above the water, her heart breaking as she recognized that she would no longer need her design book, filled with schematics and mathematical equations and blueprints. She was going to be the wife of a god. He could create an entire palace out of aether. He had no need for her inventions. The one thing that had truly made her feel special—her ability to invent—was completely pointless in this kingdom. She was just another princess and not even a pretty or charming one.

Her warm tears blended so well with the bathwater that she barely felt them on her cheeks.

After a good cry, Febe had pulled herself from the tub and dried off with a new sense of determination. Just because Morbidon didn’t need her gift, didn’t mean she couldn’t still use it. She would get a new book and fill its blank pages with new inventions, new equations, and new schematics. The ideas already started to prickle in her mind as she studied the bathroom surrounding her. How nice it would be for everyone to live in such luxury—how lovely for even the poorest peasant to touch a basin and be rewarded with hot water for washing or maybe even cooking.

Perhaps she could come up with inventions that could do these very things without magic. It would give her something to focus on, an idea to germinate in a mind that had spent too much time dwelling on a frightful future that had come to pass.

It occurred to her that the wardrobe she’d avoided studying too closely for fear she’d be reminded of her future husband might have a change of clothing for her. However, now that she was filled with a renewed purpose that cheered her, her body demanded food, reminding her that she’d neglected it for too long. She had no idea how long it had been since her breakfast with Marcos, and she hadn’t even eaten much then.

Just as the maid had promised, the food was laid out on the small table in the sitting room, almost buckling the table beneath the amount of dishes set upon it. It seemed that her new husband had somehow become aware of her favorite dishes, because they were all there, tempting her with the aromas of spice and savory meats. Every warm dish steamed, and the cold dishes, like the bowl of summer berries, were still crystalline with ice. Marvelous! There has to be some way to do this without magic! I will figure it out!

She was just about to sit down to the spread when there was a light knock on her door.

The food and the rush of ideas inspired by it had lured her into forgetting where she was, but the sound of the knock had her instantly on alert again. She eyed the door, complete with its lock, which had not been turned by the maid when she’d gone out. Her thoughts twisted from practical inventions to those that insured her survival. Her gaze darted around the room. Febe had no traps set. Nothing to protect her from danger.

“Milady?” The soft voice of the maid called from beyond the wooden panel.

Some of Febe’s tension eased, though she still felt the tightness in her stomach and the trembling of her limbs from muscles ready to move at a moment’s notice. “You may enter.” Her heart was still pounding, but she tried to rein in her nerves. She’d gotten through much worse encounters than dealing with a ghostly maid who was nothing but kind and helpful. After all, the girl had seemed downright sweet and childlike.

The door swung open, revealing the maid, who quickly stepped aside to allow another person to enter ahead of her.

Every muscle in Febe’s body stiffened again as she froze in her seat. Her jaw gaped open, but she was powerless to close it. Fear spiraled through her like acid, burning her stomach and tingling in her limbs. At the same time, she was unable to look away from the man in her doorway. Her eyes didn’t even want to. He was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. No artist had ever captured masculine beauty like his—an idealized perfection that didn’t seem real.

His black brows were dark slashes set low over silver eyes that were piercing and pale in stark contrast to his swarthy complexion. His jaw was square and chiseled, and high cheekbones framed a straight nose without a hint of any bumps or breaks. She’d seen those lips before, but hadn’t realized how sensual they were when they weren’t tight with disapproval. Long, straight ebony hair framed his perfect face, falling well past his shoulders, blending into his black robe.

His eyes looked familiar. The color, the shape, even the almost glowing quality, reminded her of the goddess Vivacel. But there was no sign of sympathy or kindness in the face of the man who faced her. Not man—god! No matter how lovely he was to look at, he was still the monster, Morbidon. She didn’t need to have recognized his robe to know that. There was simply an air about him—an air of darkness and authority that didn’t tolerate being questioned.

Fear paralyzed her throat and kept her from swallowing, much less speaking as her future husband stood in her doorway.

He studied her as she trembled, then his gaze left her to take in the surrounding room, freeing her from the piercing power of it. He sighed and his shoulders slumped in a manner so human—and so at odds with his ethereal beauty—that Febe was caught off-guard. For a moment, he’d looked disappointed and almost vulnerable, his features shifting to reveal an actual human expression before his face returned to sculpted perfection.

Then he caught her further off-guard by sliding the strap of a pack off his shoulder, holding it up so that she could see it. “I was told you would want this returned to you.”

Complex emotions warred within Febe. On the one hand, she wanted to leap to her feet and rush to grab her pack so that she could dig out her design book and check it over in an almost compulsive need to reassure herself that it was safe. She’d never expected to see it again, so the relief she felt made her almost lightheaded.

On the other hand, she still feared the man holding the pack, and her fear made her want to leap from her table and run into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her to close him out. This conflict kept her frozen in her seat.

A flicker of impatience crossed Morbidon’s beautiful face, tightening his lips into a slight frown as his gaze touched her face, then settled on the pack in his hand. “This is important to you, yes?” His eyes met hers again. “Do you not want it back?”

Febe nodded, surprised she was able to do that much. Morbidon’s imposing height and breadth filled the doorway so completely that she couldn’t even see the ghostly maid behind him. At the same time, now that he didn’t have his cowl, she was better able to see his expression—which made him slightly less intimidating. He didn’t look angry. Rather, he seemed exasperated. No doubt she was making him seriously reconsider his choice to make her his bride. Good!

Her nod of agreement seemed to act as permission for him to enter her room, because he stepped forward, rapidly approaching her as if he worried that she’d change her mind. Since she hadn’t meant to invite him in, there was nothing to change.

She thought about getting up to run as he neared the table, but knew that was foolish. There was nowhere to go. She was at his mercy and as vulnerable in this place as she’d been in her cradle right after birth. No matter how clever her mind, no matter how cunning her traps, she couldn’t harm the man in front of her. Her safety and continued well-being were entirely in his hands—and she hated that. Her helplessness made her angry.

The anger was a good antidote to her crippling fear. Febe rose to her feet and snatched the strap of the pack as he held it out to her over the table. “Of course I want it back! I wouldn’t have been separated from it if you’d treated me with any degree of respect instead of grabbing me up like a sack of grain to haul me back to this dreary kingdom!” Her words spilled forth on a river of anger, stress snapping her restraint like a dam breaking under too much pressure. She’d endured so much just to avoid this very situation. Now she was stuck here, chattel to this creature, and he had the nerve to act as if he were doing her some favor by returning her property to her when he was the one responsible for her losing it in the first place.

A frown deepened the shadows beneath his brows and creased the skin between them. “You would have had plenty of time to pack your things properly and return with me in comfort if you had honored your obligation and not run away in the first place.” His tone was chiding, his deep voice rumbling into the room like one of her engines growling to life.

How dare he try to turn this into my fault! “I never made any promises! You made your bargain with my mother! Why should I have to honor it?”

“Are you saying you don’t obey your matriarch? Your queen?” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, one straight eyebrow lifted in skepticism. “You create weapons of untold destruction for your mother’s army.” He spread his arms out to his sides as if to encompass the room. “My kingdom is filled with the victims of your genius. These weren’t created out of obedience to your mother’s will? Is this something you do for your own enjoyment?”

The pack slid from Febe’s nerveless fingers and dropped to the marble floor at her feet with a soft thud. Anger spilled out of her like sand from an hourglass, leaving her deflated, her knees weak from the abrupt departure of the strong emotion. She gripped the edge of the table as her legs buckled.

Suddenly, strong hands grasped her before she could topple forward. They pressed her down into her seat, taking the weight off legs that no longer had the strength to support her. “I don’t enjoy killing.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I did what I was told.”

“And yet, you rebelled when it came to marrying me.”

Febe looked up into Morbidon’s eyes. He was standing over her now, leaning over the table, his hair brushing against her shoulder, his hands still gently gripping her arms. He was so close she could see the pores of his skin, the perfection of it unmarred by any scars or marks. His lashes curved long and lush beneath his lowered brows, and within the silver of his eyes were small spots of blue and green, barely visible. “I’ve never been more afraid of anything in my life than marrying you.”

She didn’t know how she managed the words without her anger to bolster her, but the truth would no longer be contained. She’d never directly disobeyed her mother before; because that was the one person she’d feared more than anything. Yet, Morbidon had replaced her mother as the scariest person she’d ever met. That was why she’d run from the betrothal instead of doing exactly what she’d always done—which was to obey her mother.

Strangely, his frown this time didn’t seem angry, but rather sad. “I know. I see your fear knotted within you.” He released her arms and stepped back, towering over her still but giving her breathing room. “I would never harm you.” He gestured with one hand to the room around them. “No one in my kingdom will ever harm you.” His eyes narrowed. “No one in the world would ever dare harm you now. You are safe with me, Princess Febe.”

Febe twisted her fingers together, avoiding his eyes to stare at the table piled high with food that still steamed or crackled with frost. “You say that, but I’ve seen….”

Morbidon turned away from her, running long fingers through his hair, ruffling the smooth fall of it so that he looked less perfect and more approachable. “I know what you’ve seen. I will not pretend that the reaper is not a part of me, just as my dragon is a part of me. Perhaps that makes you view me as a monster.” He glanced over his shoulder at her, catching her staring at him.

She quickly looked away as he spoke again. “I would have you see me as more than that.” He turned back to face her, his eyes blazing. “No part of me would hurt you, Febe! I swear this on my word as a god! I swear on my honor that you will be safe.” His jaw was set as he struck his chest with one clenched fist. “Give me the opportunity to court you, Princess, and I will prove that I am a god with honor and that I can be a worthy mate for you.”

His tone rang with sincerity. He was asking for what he could simply demand, or even take by force. Febe still feared him, and she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to feel the way he wanted her to about him, but he’d been right about one thing. She’d disobeyed her mother for her own selfish reasons when it came to marrying him.

In most kingdoms, arranged marriages for alliances were common. Doing your duty by forming an advantageous match was simply an accepted part of being a princess. Am I truly better than these other royals who have done their duty by their countries? Surely there’s no more advantageous match than marriage to a god! I already accepted this when I agreed to marry him, but he’s offering me a chance to know him as a person before I must learn him as a man. It would be foolish not to at least make an effort!

When broken down logically, the decision was an easy one. Taking her fear out of the equation, she had no reason not to take him up on his offer and allow him to court her. She’d already committed to him, but her fear would stand between them and only make her miserable if she didn’t put forth an honest effort. “I… I will try to….”

She swallowed around the lump in her throat, thinking of all the times she’d faced down death and come out on the other side unscathed. Those other times, she’d bent her mind to the task of surviving, overcoming her instinctive emotional responses to danger in order to triumph using logic and tactics. This time should be no different. “You may court me.” She didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but figured it would take time—time she desperately needed to grow accustomed to her new life and this strange creature who’d invaded it.

His stance relaxed, his fingers releasing from clenched fists to hang at his sides. The crease between his brows smoothed out as he sketched a bow to her. He still didn’t smile. She wondered if he even knew how. “Very well, Princess. I will leave you to your meal and rest.” He gestured behind him and the ghostly maid floated into the room. “Macie will provide anything you want or need. You have only to ask.”

The maid curtseyed to Febe, a bright smile on her sweet face. Her gaze turned from Febe to Morbidon, and her eyes lit up, fixing on the imposing god with naked devotion that made Febe uncomfortable, sparking an unexpected twinge of possessiveness that made her want to snap at the girl to leave the room. She kept her mouth shut, pushing away the unwanted emotion.

Morbidon didn’t look at the maid as he continued speaking to Febe. “The days in my kingdom follow the sun on the surface world. In this part of the underworld, I have adjusted the day to match the same cycle as Barselor.” He gestured at a wall that was empty of bookshelves, and suddenly a window formed, revealing a landscape where the sun was setting to cast a brilliant rainbow of colors across the small clouds that dotted the horizon. “This is a view of the Isle of the Blessed. There are many beautiful places in my kingdom. I would show them all to you. This window will allow you to choose which view you see.”

Febe stared at the view beyond the window in awe. She’d never seen a place so lovely. Not even in paintings.

“I would like to take you there tomorrow, after your morning meal.”

She turned back to him. “That would be… amazing!” She was struck by the desire to see the place in person, to experience its vivid beauty with all five senses. Even if it meant she would be spending time in Morbidon’s company.

He bowed again. “Then I will come for you tomorrow. Farewell, Princess. Enjoy your meal.” He turned abruptly and left the room, striding through the door that had been left open by the maid.

Once her lord was gone, Macie clapped her hands together, grinning at Febe. “Milady, you must choose something perfect to wear for tomorrow! There’s a whole wardrobe filled with clothes! Once you finish eating, I’ll gladly help you go through them.”

Febe stared at the maid, feeling exhausted from the excesses of emotion. Since Macie seemed to be excited enough for both of them, she figured it was okay that all she could do was stare at her empty plate with no energy to fill it, despite the emptiness of her stomach. She glanced at the view within the magical window, as breathtaking as the god who’d created it. Tomorrow. I’ll deal with it tomorrow!

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 10

Author’s Note: The good news is: I’ve decided to publish more than one chapter at a time if they are ready by that Friday. The bad news is: I’m currently only one chapter ahead, and I want to keep a one-chapter cushion in case I run into a difficult two week window and don’t have a chance to get to my writing. However, now that Jessabelle’s Beast is almost ready to be published, I have more time to work on Morbidon’s Bride and should be getting several chapters ahead pretty soon. Hopefully by the Friday after next.

More good news is that–while making some character notes–I hit an inspiration bubble and managed to fully map out the rest of the story, clacking madly away at the keyboard as the ideas flowed and the story fell completely into place. The end was not what I was expecting! We’ll see if it’s what you all were expecting.

I have to say, I’m very pleased with it. It feels right. I love when a story I’m working on takes off in a direction I didn’t anticipate, or that I had specifically planned against. This sense of “rightness” sometimes makes me feel like I’m not making these stories up, but simply telling them as they happen in some other dimension. Hey, it’s fun to dream! 🙂

And I sure dream that Morbidon is real somewhere! I can’t help falling in love with the arrogant (but so socially inept) god of death. And Marcos! Sheesh, my alpha males are so much fun to write. I love this guy! He’s completely hijacked the story in some spots! Men who feel fear but still stand in the face of danger are so much hotter to me than men who feel no fear at all. It shows more courage in my opinion. 🙂

The real question is: Who will Febe fall in love with? I gotta tell ya, I love them both already. I hope you guys do too. And I hope you’ll keep joining me for new chapters (fingers crossed there will be even more than one at a time soon). Enjoy, and as always, feel free to add any comments, advice, suggestions, critiques, predictions, or maybe just a hello. 🙂 I love hearing from you guys!

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Chapter 10

Morbidon wanted to enjoy the feeling of having his bride in his arms, but the bitter yellow of her aura robbed him of even that much pleasure. She feared him, and his hold on her as they descended to his kingdom did nothing to assuage that fear. If anything, it only deepened the roots of it. Her fear was an obstacle he would have to overcome, and he’d blundered badly thus far in winning anything even remotely approaching affection from Febe.

He hadn’t intended to unleash his reaper in front of her, but the way she’d clung to Marcus had only aggravated the suspicions Vivacel had put into his head. His control over his rage had slipped, and Febe had borne witness to the monster within him. To make matters worse, it had only taken a shift to his dragonsight to see that she did not harbor any amorous feelings towards Marcos. At least, she didn’t yet.

Giving in to her request to keep Marcos around as a companion had been the most difficult choice he’d ever made. Morbidon wasn’t a gambler. He didn’t like leaving anything to chance, and there was a big chance that allowing the two to remain together for any length of time could lead to the very situation Vivacel had mocked him about.

Yet, what he’d seen in Febe’s aura beneath the corrupting fear had been plotting-pink, not the red of romantic feelings. Marcos was part of her plans, whatever they might be. Morbidon was confident he could handle any escape or murder attempt Febe or her companion might try, so her plotting didn’t worry him. The important thing was to keep her near him long enough for her to see that he wasn’t the monster she believed him to be, although he’d done a terrible job proving that to her thus far.

His magic flowed around them as they traveled through the pathway to the Underworld. Though he’d left the revenant behind, it was a simple matter to have a reaper retrieve Marcos, and he’d already sent the order. By the time his horse, Specter, set hooves onto the black marble of his palace courtyard, Marcos would be on his way. It occurred to Morbidon that the former human might be of use to him in more ways than simply reassuring Febe. Somehow, despite Febe’s upbringing and her dislike and disdain for males, she’d turned to Marcos for protection. Marcos had earned her trust, even after she’d discovered that he was working for Morbidon.

Given her history, he hadn’t thought Febe would be quick to trust anyone, but then again, perhaps her soul was starved for companionship. That was something he could relate to. He’d been alone for so long he’d almost forgotten what it had been like to trust another. He hadn’t forgotten what it had been like to have that trust betrayed. Though he was still sorely tempted—every time Vivacel came around—to forgive the past and foolishly trust her again, simply so he wouldn’t have to be alone any more.

It was uncomfortable to hold the stiff woman on his lap because he desired her, and didn’t want to frighten her further with evidence of that desire. Her scent recalled a garden of blooming flowers, reminding him of Spring—and of life—but the tension in her body and the yellow in her aura reminded him that she wanted nothing to do with him. He had a long journey ahead of him to win her, as well as no idea exactly how he could do that. He would make Marcos share his secret.

Specter clattered down to the marble of the courtyard, neighing in triumph at yet another successful journey to and from the surface. His stallion enjoyed the exercise and didn’t get it enough, since Morbidon liked to travel in his dragon form. This time, he’d chosen his human form in an attempt to avoid further frightening Febe, but he’d failed miserably.

Febe sat frozen on his lap even after the horse finished his victory prancing. Her fear never abated, and the steel hard muscles in her back never loosened. They sat astride the shifting horse awkwardly for a moment as Morbidon wondered what he should do next.

His steward came to his rescue, floating over to them as Febe turned to regard the ghostly man with a blank expression. The terror in her eyes had faded to an almost trancelike calm that Morbidon didn’t like at all. She’d retreated within herself, her fear solidifying into a knot that didn’t look like it would ever unravel.

His steward bowed. “My Lord, shall I show the princess to her chambers?”

“Yes, see her to her rooms.” At this moment, there was nothing Morbidon wanted more than to be away from his bride. He was uncomfortably aware that no matter how close he held her, she was so far out of his reach that even with all his power, there was nothing he could do to bring her closer. He hadn’t felt this helpless since he’d been a child watching his mother turn her face to the wall rather than look at him and his sister. He released Febe, quickly dismounting Specter and taking several steps away from the horse as his incorporeal groom rushed up to hold the stallion’s reins.

The steward held up a hand to Febe to help her off the tall stallion. She stared down at the hand blankly, perhaps unaware that it would have substance in his kingdom, despite its appearance. Or perhaps, she was simply so far gone that she didn’t even notice it.

To Morbidon’s relief, she finally reached out and placed her palm into the steward’s hand, allowing him to help her slide off Specter’s back. She didn’t even glance back at him when the steward bowed once more to him and then motioned for her to follow him into the palace.

For a moment, Morbidon had been afraid he’d broken her so completely with fear that she’d never recover. If a part of him wasn’t still so certain that she belonged to him and that he needed her, her behavior would have convinced him that he’d made a serious mistake in bringing her here. Perhaps I should have taken one of the other sisters in her place. Yet neither of the other sisters had appealed to him the way Febe did. In fact, he’d yet to meet another soul that had ever appealed to him the way Febe’s did.

Instead of retiring to his palace as his horse was led away, he paced in the courtyard, unwilling to be caged in by walls in his current mood, even the grand walls of his own design. He waited for his reaper servant to return with Marcos in tow.

 

Marcos clutched Febe’s pack to his chest as he rode behind the reaper, suspiciously eyeing the scythe that arced over his head. Febe had demanded his companionship as a condition of her agreeing to marry Morbidon, but that didn’t mean the god of the dead had to honor that condition. Still, in everything he’d heard about Morbidon, the god did have some notion of honor. Marcos just hoped it extended to keeping his word to Febe and not just killing Marcos outright. After all, Morbidon suspected he’d been trying to seduce Febe away from the god.

The worst part was that Marcos hadn’t been entirely unaffected by her. The idea of spending more time in her presence was disturbing, given that she was to be married to the god of the dead. He hadn’t expected the little mouse to turn to him with so much trust, but when she had, it had kicked his protective instincts into high gear, giving him the strength to face down the god that terrified him. Now, he had the image of her wide, frightened eyes etched into his memory, appealing him to fight for her—to protect her. There was something about that vulnerability that called to him in a way that even Eldora’s fiery independence had not.

When the reaper landed in the center of a shadowed courtyard lit only by guttering torches of blue flames in the middle of a dark underworld kingdom that Marcos had hoped not to visit for a long time yet, he found the god himself awaiting their arrival, a flickering blue flame hovering beside him without even the illusion of a torch to hold it.

Marcos dismounted as soon as the reaper’s horse stopped moving, and the beast stamped its hooves a few times before its rider kicked it back into motion. Animal and rider took off into the air, heading back to the surface to no doubt continue their endless work. That left him alone with Morbidon, who was watching him through the shadows cast by his black cowl.

Marcos bowed awkwardly. He’d only had a few conversations with the god, and they had all been essentially Morbidon giving him orders. All except for the first conversation, which he didn’t want to relive. “My Lord.”

“Marcos.”

It was strange to hear his name spoken so frequently now that he’d gotten it back. Ironically, he had the god who had killed him to thank for returning his true name to him. He’d been “Farmer” for so long that he’d almost forgotten what his name had been before. This, at least, put him in Morbidon’s debt, which was not a comfortable place to be. “Was there something you needed, milord?”

“Tell me how you won her trust?” Blue light limned the robed figure, deepening the shadows beneath his cowl so that Marcos couldn’t even see his lips moving. It was an eerie reminder of the wraithfire that precipitated the transformation of the god into the Dread Reaper.

Clutching Febe’s pack in one hand, he held his other hand up, eyeing the god for any sign of offensive movement. Not that Morbidon couldn’t simply smite him with the wave of a hand, or perhaps even a thought. “I swear, milord, nothing happened between us!”

Morbidon tilted his head to one side as if to regard him from a different angle. “You are drawn to her. Do not deny it. I can see it in your aura. The red of desire trickles through your soul like spilled wine when she is near you.”

Marcos dropped his gaze to the marble tiles beneath his feet. “It doesn’t mean anything. Nothing happened between us, and I swear on my honor that nothing will!”

“I believe you. But you have earned her trust, and she does not fear you as she does me. I wish to know how you’ve done it. I would have her turn to me when she is afraid, rather than be the one she fears.”

He struggled for a moment to find words to respond to Morbidon. The god was actually asking for his advice. It was a strange and uncomfortable position to find himself in, but if he could help Morbidon win Febe over, perhaps his life would be fully returned to him, and he would no longer be trapped in the Underworld under the god of the dead’s control.

Of course, that meant that he’d be leaving Febe behind, but that was probably a good thing. Her vulnerability was dangerous to his peace of mind. “It would help her to see your face.” It was the first bit of advice that popped into his head, but as soon as he said it, he realized he was right. One of the things that made Morbidon so frightening was how his face was always obscured so it was difficult to read his expression.

The god touched his cowl, his long fingers stroking over the fabric as if loath to part with it. “Are you certain that would help?”

Just then, it occurred to Marcos that Morbidon might have a truly monstrous visage that he was hiding behind the cowl. If that was the case, then revealing himself to Febe might seriously backfire, but he had no idea how to express that without insulting the god. “I believe she would be more comfortable if she could better read your mood. If she can’t see your face for some reason, then perhaps you could give her more clues to how you’re feeling in other ways.”

Morbidon suddenly reached out and grasped hold of Marco’s shirt to lift him off his feet until they were eye-to-eye. “Explain these other ways! I would have her feel comfortable here. No one will try to assassinate her here! No one would dare bring harm to her.”

Due to his position and the way the blue light shifted to follow Morbidon’s movements, Marcos got his first close-up glimpse of what was under the cowl. The god was far from deformed or monstrous, and if Febe were the vapid type of girl to appreciate beauty over substance, revealing his face would probably win her over easily. However, from the things Marcos had heard about Febe, and his own observations, it would take much more than a pretty face to win her. “The first step you need to take is to show her your face.” Perhaps that will help her forget the monster you become. Though I doubt it! Who could forget that? “If you want her trust, you need to earn it, and you can start doing that by putting your trust in her.”

Morbidon released his shirt, dropping him back to his feet. As he regained his balance, brushing his hands down his shirt to smooth it, Marcos reflected that the other man had shown no sign of effort lifting his significant bulk one-handed off the ground. It was a sobering reminder of just who he was dealing with, as if he needed one. It was little wonder Febe feared Morbidon so much. It was an appropriate response. He would have to tread very carefully with his advice. If he made a mistake or gave bad advice, he had no idea what the god would do to him in retaliation.

Morbidon’s attention had thankfully strayed from him, his head turning towards the castle where a ghostly figure stood watching them. Unfortunately, Marcos hadn’t been dismissed, so he assumed that Morbidon still wanted information, which meant if he ever wanted to get away from this conversation, he had to bring the god’s attention back to him. “Milord?”

Morbidon glanced down at him, his sublimely handsome features cast back into shadow again. “You said the first step.” Again, his fingers stroked the cowl, clutching the edge of it for a moment before his hand dropped. “I assume that means there are more.”

Marcos held up Febe’s pack. “I guarantee she’ll be happy to have this back, and it gives you an excuse to see her again. Don’t have one of the servants take it to her. Deliver it to her yourself.” Febe would be worried about her book. Having Morbidon return it to her might make her more receptive to him. It was worth a try.

Morbidon took the offered pack, holding it away from him by the strap as if it were filled with diseased rats. “You think I should wait on her instead of ordering my servants to do so?” His tone shifted from skeptical to thoughtful as he stared at the pack dangling at the end of his long arm.

Marcos threw up his hands in a stopping gesture. “Well, no, I wouldn’t go that far! Just this one del—”

Morbidon snapped the long fingers of his free hand as he stared at the pack. “Of course! The more she sees me, the less she will fear me! From this moment on, none shall serve my bride save for me!”

With the situation spiraling quickly out of control, Marcos tried to mitigate some of the damage. “Ah, that might be difficult, milord! Febe is a princess. She’ll need a lady’s maid at the very least. Unless you can perform arcane rituals with hair styles and hairpins, and you understand all those powders and creams and unguents that princesses wear.”

To Marcos’s dismay, it seemed that Morbidon was considering these obstacles, tapping his chin with his finger as if he were ticking off a list of things he’d need to learn to allow him to be the sole caretaker of his wife. That would be catastrophic. “Little steps are the best—most guaranteed—way to get a woman to trust you. She won’t have a chance to grow comfortable with you if you’re never out of her sight!”

The god returned his attention to Marcos, clenching his free hand into a fist. “How can she possibly grow comfortable with me when I’m not there? Now you’re just playing games with me, peasant!”

How to say this without offending him? “If you’re hovering over the princess, she’s going to feel like a captive. She needs her own space, and she also needs to see other faces besides yours—and mine,” he hastily added in the hopes of heading off any lingering suspicions Morbidon might have.

Morbidon slung the pack over one shoulder and crossed his arms. “In all this tiptoeing around my bride, when do I get the honor of her company?”

How can a god be so ignorant of these things? “Dates are probably the best way to win her over and spend time with her. But they have to be the right ones. Take her to the nicest parts of your… kingdom.” If there are any.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 9

Author’s Note: Not a lot of notes to add this time. I’m having fun with this plot, but the prose is killing me for some reason. I know exactly what I want to say, yet it just isn’t coming out to my satisfaction. Still, I know better than to rework a single chapter over and over again before finishing the story, so out it goes, Chapter 9. I hope you all enjoy it. Oh, yes, and for those of you familiar with the myth of Hades and Persephone, the similarity is completely intentional. 😉

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Chapter 9

Nestled within the fold of two mountains fighting for space lay a sheltered valley where enough soil existed for the land to support a forest of trees and a large lake. There might have been magic involved, because just at the entrance to the valley, the temperature changed and the snow ended, revealing grass and moss and the new buds of spring on the trees. After fighting the snow and ceaseless wind, Febe saw the valley as a single slice of paradise in that landscape, and she rushed forward despite her exhaustion, pushing past Marcos.

The ground just beneath her began to tremble as her shoe first crossed from the snow onto the new spring grass. Febe took a hesitant step back and then another. Marcos shouted a warning, and then his arms pulled her against his chest before tossing her back onto the packed snow trail where she fell to her knees, the snow instantly soaking her trouser legs. She jumped to her feet, turning to him to ask why he’d done such a thing, the words never making it past her lips when she saw that he wore an amulet that glowed with a silver-blue fire. She was about to ask what was going on when the ground split apart with a deafening crack, only a few steps away from where she’d stepped on the grass. Marcos pushed her further back, blocking her with his big body from the growing fissure as the crack speared towards them, now splitting the snow-laden earth.

Febe clung to Marcos’s hard bicep as she peered around him at the gaping chasm that blocked their path. A massive warhorse bearing a robed and hooded rider leapt out of the opening in the ground. Febe wanted to run, but her frozen legs kept her in place, though her entire body trembled with her fear. Her grip on Marcos tightened, and she pressed against him as if he could possibly protect her from the god of the dead.

The time had come for her to face her future husband.

She caught only a glimpse of Morbidon’s features before she pressed her face against Marcos’s arm. This time, the god wasn’t wearing a bone mask or even armor, but somehow he looked even more intimidating in a flowing black robe with a cowl casting his upper face into shadow. Of his lower face, the cowl revealed only a strong, square jaw and lips that were tight with disapproval as he turned his attention from her to Marcos.

“You were to summon me when you retrieved my bride.” His voice had the hollow sound of a tomb door closing—deep, resonant, echoing, and absolutely terrifying.

Febe shuddered against Marcos, before the meaning of the god’s words sunk in. She gasped and pushed away from him, staring at him in distrust and dismay, almost forgetting the presence of the god of the dead as his magnificent warhorse pawed the frozen ground and snorted clouds of warm breath into the chilly air. “You serve Morbidon?”

“You needn’t speak my name with such horror, woman!” The god’s voice lashed out at her, brittle with anger.

Febe flinched, shifting further away from the horse, and despite her feeling of being betrayed by Marcos, she returned to his side, sidling behind him as Morbidon’s lips tightened even further until they were nothing but a thin line slashing across his swarthy skin. When she clutched at Marcos’s arm, silvery-blue flames rose from Morbidon’s robes.

“My Lord, I would have summoned you when we’d had a chance to rest in the valley. It took some time getting—“

Morbidon slashed an impatient hand through the air, trailing blue flames in its wake. To Febe’s horror, the flesh on his hand was peeling away beneath the burning flames, revealing bone as white as the snow beneath them.

“I’m not interested in your excuses, peasant. I sent you to retrieve my bride, not to seduce her.” Morbidon’s final words were hissed out in what could barely be called a human voice. His now bony hand clenched in front of him and his horse neighed, tossing its head as if it was disturbed by his anger.

Marcos glanced down at Febe, who was trying to hide completely behind him now. His eyes met hers and she saw the sympathy in them. If she wasn’t so afraid at the moment of the menacing god, she would have kicked him in the shin just for daring to pretend he had any softer emotion for the person he’d been sent to collect like some prize. She wished more than anything that she had a bunch of traps at that moment to hide behind instead of this untrustworthy man. Perhaps little mouse is an apt nickname for me. She frowned in self-disgust, searching for the courage to face the god without the help of the man who’d been lying to her.

Marcos gently detached her white fingers from his sleeve, taking her frozen hand in his large, warm grasp so that he could draw her back out to stand at his side instead of behind him. “I have done no such thing. If you’d take notice, your bride is frightened, not in love.” To Febe’s surprise, he leveled a glare upon the monstrous apparition in front of them—the god of the dead now fully skeletal and burning with blue flames, his tight lips having peeled away to reveal the death rictus of a skull. “It’s no wonder she views you with such fear, for even I tremble in your presence.”

There was a chiding note to Marcos’s tone that Febe couldn’t believe he’d dared to add when addressing Morbidon. Marcos hadn’t been lying about trembling though. She had felt the tremor of his muscles beneath her grip and even now, his hand around hers wasn’t so steady. Yet he faced the god and dared to censure him as if he couldn’t be wiped out of existence for the simple act.

This is the kind of courage I need. He faces Morbidon with fear, yet still stands tall!

A long moment of silence fell. Febe didn’t dare look in Morbidon’s direction again after seeing the horrifying reaper aflame. She kept her focus tight on the weave of Marcos’s wool tunic, just visible beneath the furs that covered his chest and most of his arms.

The sudden sound of Morbidon’s voice caused Febe to jump, realizing that she had almost gone into a trance waiting for the blade of the reaper’s scythe to fall upon her. “My bride has given you a chance, yet has not extended me the same courtesy.” The hiss was gone from Morbidon’s tone. It had returned to that deep, arrogant voice that he’d used when he’d pretended to be a mere necromancer in her mother’s court.

Now’s the time for courage! Though she still didn’t feel any, Febe dared a glance at the god and saw to her relief that he was back to flesh and blood beneath the robes, and the fire had died away, though his lips were still merely a thin slash. She wondered if he was even capable of smiling, or if anger or disapproval were his only expressions. “Why didn’t you come for me yourself?” She barely whispered the words as she returned her focus to Marcos’s sleeve. She hadn’t intended to say them aloud. The fact that Marcos tightened his grip on her hand in warning didn’t make her feel any more confident about the fact that she had dared to utter them.

Another long silence fell as if the god was considering her words, or perhaps he hadn’t heard them, which would have been preferable.

Then he spoke, revealing that he’d heard her just fine. “You ran into my sister’s arms seeking your escape from me. Would you have preferred I razed her temple simply to retrieve you?”

She shuddered, though his tone had been as calm and reasonable as she’d ever heard it. “Could you have done that?” She unconsciously sidled back against Marcos’s side, though she didn’t note it until after his furs tickled her cheek. When he put a heavy arm around her shoulders to shelter her further, a growl from the god of the dead raised the hair on the back of her neck, but she remained beside Marcos, cursing her own lack of courage. Had she been Eldora, she would have been standing before the god with her chin lifted and a seductive smile on her lips, trying to manipulate the monstrous creature as Eldora had manipulated so many men and women in the past. Instead, she was cowering against another man, one she had no reason to trust, yet she couldn’t find the strength to leave his embrace and face Morbidon even as she dared to question him. Her mother would be furious at her behavior. Isa would never have sought shelter in a man’s arms.

Morbidon’s voice was a growl as he answered her. “I could have, but I do not kill without reason. Instead, I sent my servant to return you to me peacefully.” His tone was cold and brittle, and Marcos tensed against her side, his arm pressing her closer to him.

I don’t want to be “returned” to you! She wanted to scream the words at Morbidon, but this time, she managed to keep her thoughts behind her lips. He was obviously already aware that she didn’t want to marry him. He also obviously didn’t care what she wanted. All her protests would do, would be to further anger him. She had to decide whether she should use what little courage she had to face her betrothal and honor her mother’s bargain, or face the monster that wanted to enslave her in matrimony and tell him she would never agree to such a fate.

She recalled Marcos’s words about making a choice. This moment was where she had to make it. If she angered the god by denying him, she had no idea what would happen next, but if she agreed to the marriage—though the very thought of intimacy with such a creature made her ill—there was hope that she could influence him at some point. Then she might even have the power to usurp her mother and her sisters and free Barselor from the burden of their endless infighting.

Febe was hopeless when it came to men. She had no idea what to do or say to them, but Marcos had already said he would help her. Though now she knew that he had been working for Morbidon and not her sister, his intention had never changed, so technically, he hadn’t been betraying her. She’d always known that he’d planned on taking her back to marry Morbidon. However, if she were to return to Morbidon’s kingdom with the terrifying god, then she didn’t want to be alone amongst the dead. Given Morbidon’s obvious suspicions about her relationship with Marcos, her next request might be risky, but it was the only way she could work up the courage to do what she must. “I will willingly return with you to your kingdom and marry you, but you must grant me one request.”

“Are you making demands of me?” Since Febe didn’t dare look at him, she couldn’t read his expression, but his tone sounded surprised. Surely he doesn’t expect a wife to be as obedient and unobtrusive as his servants? Yet, he was male and a god, so perhaps he expected exactly that.

“If you want a wife and not a slave, then you will learn to give on occasion instead of always taking.” She trembled, despite the firmness of her tone.

Marcos squeezed her in encouragement. He was watching Morbidon, so perhaps what he saw in the god’s expression was enough to convince him she’d made the right decision in standing firm.

To her surprise, the god actually sighed. “Very well, make your request.”

“I won’t return with you to the Underworld alone. I need a companion.” She looked up at Marcos’s face, just as he turned his attention from Morbidon to her. His eyes widened when they met hers, and he slightly shook his head. She ignored the warning. “I want Marcos to be that companion.” She risked a glance at Morbidon to see how he was taking the request. Her heartbeat stuttered when she saw blue flames crawling along his robes again.

He was silent for a long time as the wind kicked up around them, whipping tiny flakes of snow into a whirl that left them all untouched. Marcos stood tense against her, though he hadn’t dropped his arm and pushed her away when he realized her intent, despite the fact that it might have put him in danger. He’d still stood with her. He was almost as much a stranger to her as the god they faced, yet she felt comforted by his arm around her and the implicit support it carried with it.

When Morbidon spoke, his tone was reluctant, but the terrible hissing of rage hadn’t returned. “Very well. I will allow you this…companion, as long as you agree to be a proper wife to me. You must swear that you will never attempt to run away again, or your companion will suffer dearly for it.”

Febe didn’t have any doubts about what he meant when he said “proper wife.” She shuddered at the thought of sharing the monster’s bed and pushed down her gorge at the very idea that he would touch her. Yet, her only other option was to tell him she would never accept him and deal with whatever came of that choice. She didn’t think it would be a good alternative. She would have to find the strength to endure, as she had endured all her life in her mother’s castle. “I agree to those terms…” She glanced up at Marcos, swallowing as she realized that she hadn’t even bothered to consult him. If he says he doesn’t agree—

Marcos met her eyes. Then he nodded, the movement so slight that she might not have caught it if she wasn’t watching him closely, but the brief squeeze around her shoulders was answer enough. He might not be happy about being put in the position she’d put him in, but he was in agreement with it.

“Then we are in accord.” At Morbidon’s words, his horse suddenly surged forward, charging right at them.

Marcos shoved her out of the way, but the horse followed her path as she stumbled back. Before she could fall or be crushed beneath pounding hooves, a hard arm swooped out and captured her around the waist, pulling her onto the horse’s back and—to her horror—settling her onto Morbidon’s lap as the animal spun around and thundered back towards the chasm.

A brief flash of Marcos’s wide eyes and gaping mouth rushed past her before the horse plunged into a darkness so all-consuming that Febe saw nothing but black, yet she remained uncomfortably aware of the solid arm holding her secure as she traveled with the god of the dead down into the Underworld.

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 8

Author’s Note: I had a lot of fun writing this chapter. In it, Morbidon returns, allowing me to get deeper into his character. Let me know if you have any comments or suggestions. I love hearing from you guys!

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Chapter 8

Though Marcos hadn’t waited for Febe to make her decision to follow him, she remained glued to his trail in the snow, rather than striking off in another direction in a fruitless attempt to run. He knew the princess had no other options at the moment, but he’d expected that she’d try to run if she thought she had a chance. He didn’t blame her. He was also conflicted about the path he was taking. Not the physical one, although their progress was slow because he made certain his trail was easy for her to follow without getting buried.

He’d been exaggerating when he’d told Febe that the people of Barselor were suffering under Morbidon’s wrath. If anything, Isa’s more dictatorial rule had been scaled back once she’d been resurrected as a lich, allowing greater freedom to the commoners than they’d had since Isa’s mother had died and passed the kingdom onto her. Of course, that was only the beginning, and Marcos hadn’t been allowed to hang around waiting to see what would happen next, but it had been clear that Morbidon wasn’t holding Febe’s defection against the innocent people of Isa’s kingdom.

Still, he didn’t feel too bad for lying to Febe about the situation, because it could very well become true if she angered Morbidon again. The god was unpredictable, as Marcos had discovered when he’d confronted Morbidon. He’d expected the necromancer to fight him, and he’d even suspected he might lose, despite the training he’d received during his mandatory service in Barselor’s military, but he’d never expected the necromancer to kill him in such a manner—so casually, as if life was meaningless. If Morbidon thought nothing of those who got in his way, and he decided that the people of Barselor were an effective means of bringing Febe to heel, then there was no reason to expect him not to use them.

Marcos’s dilemma came whenever he took a moment to consider Febe as a person, rather than a spoiled princess. She was clearly terrified of the role she’d have to play and honestly, he couldn’t see her playing it successfully. Someone like Eldora had a chance of doing exactly what he’d suggested and seducing Morbidon into compliancy, but despite Febe’s uncanny ability to stay alive in the face of countless assassination attempts, she was painfully innocent in other matters. An ordinary man would roll right over her. Morbidon would destroy her independence.

Perhaps I can help her in some way. He didn’t know the mind of a god, but he felt that he might be able to offer her some insight on how to deal with a man, and apparently, despite his most depicted form as a bone dragon, there was a man beneath the surface of the god of the dead.

He glanced over his shoulder at the woman behind him. She didn’t look up when he paused, staring down at her feet as she took each step carefully to avoid slipping on the packed snow. I’d better be careful not to forget who she is, and more importantly, who she belongs to. Whatever lessons he offered to give her must be completely platonic, and he realized to his surprise that it wasn’t only for her sake. There was something charming about her innocence, especially given his knowledge of her past and the comparison to her sister. Febe was as different from Eldora as the night was from the day. He’d loved Eldora, and had paid with his mortality for that love, leaving him with a sense of anger and betrayal towards the woman he’d once sworn devotion to. Febe was even more dangerous. Morbidon had sent him to Vivacel’s temple to recapture Febe, not to win her heart. The last person he’d want to anger was the god of the dead.

 

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Morbidon lounged on his throne, unaccountably bored with his duties as ruler of the Underworld. Usually, he enjoyed this part of his job as much as he could enjoy anything, but ever since his bride had run away rather than marry him, even passing judgement on souls had lost its appeal.

He propped his head on his fist and glared down at the handful of souls facing him, their ghostly eyes wide with fear and awe. Though he’d schooled his expression to the appropriate response for their crimes, his heart really wasn’t into punishment at the moment. Nor was he really seeing the souls, beyond noting that they fidgeted beneath his gaze and glanced at each other as if one of them would be able to predict their fate before Morbidon pronounced it. It was the standard fare for a soul judging. No soul ever came to him completely innocent except for those newborn souls which he sent right back into the world of the living for another chance.

“My lord?”

Morbidon lifted his head at the sound of his steward’s voice, coming slowly out of his reverie. “Hmm?”

The man bowed in apology for interrupting the judgement ceremony. “You have a…visitor.”

Morbidon narrowed his eyes on his steward. If he didn’t know better, he would say that the man was sweating. The problem with that was that souls didn’t sweat, not even the ones who had to face him for judgement. “Who has dared to intrude on my domain without invitation? Has another fool come to steal back his lover’s soul with music?”

His steward swallowed, and there was no doubt now that he was sweating—ghostly beads popping out of his equally translucent forehead. “No, milord, ‘tis no mortal visitor.”

Morbidon stiffened, every muscle clenching in annoyance. He rose to his feet, his movements jerky and lacking his usual grace. His reapers dropped their hands to the hilts of their swords, but he waved them away, gesturing for them to herd the souls waiting to be judged out of the throne room. Then he turned his attention back to his steward, who was twisting his fingers together, his gaze darting around the throne room rather than meeting Morbidon’s eyes. “Is the visitor my sister?”

The steward bowed low. “Yes, milord. Lady Vivacel awaits you in your mourning room.”

His sister had not only entered his kingdom without his knowledge, but now she was installed in his sitting room, one he had named as a lark when he’d first created this kingdom. Despite the pun of a name, it was still his personal sanctum, the place where he went to be completely alone. The last thing he wanted to defile that space was his sister’s vibrant energy. “Did you direct her to that space?” He couldn’t keep the harshness out of his tone, though he wasn’t yet ready to condemn his servant. After all, no mere soul could stop Vivacel from doing whatever she wished.

His steward shook his head, the sweat now pouring down his face. “No, milord! I begged her to attend you in the throne room, but she would have none of it! She insisted on seeing you in your private chambers.”

Morbidon growled and clenched his fists in rage. Then he took several deep breaths to calm himself. He would not allow his sister to play his emotions so thoroughly, as she’d always done for her own amusement. He dismissed his steward, who floated away with a relieved expression. Once the man was gone, Morbidon braced himself to counter Vivacel’s energy. This was his kingdom, where his power was the greatest. He could expel her by force if he wished it. The fact that she knew this, and had still come to him, was enough to compel him to hear her out.

He didn’t bother with stalking through the long corridors of his palace, unconcerned with striking fear and awe into the hearts of the souls that drifted through the place. He had more important things to do at the moment, though it wouldn’t do to forget to maintain his image for too long. Despite their fear of him, the souls relied on him for guidance and judgement. After all, he wasn’t just the one who punished them, he was also the one who decided when that punishment had ended and freed them back into the living world. Some souls came to him lost and seeking a better path, and Morbidon could give them that, reading their auras the way a scholar reads ancient tomes.

This time though, he simply dematerialized from the throne room and manifested in his mourning room. He was instantly repelled by the feeling of Vivacel’s energy mucking up the serenity of his sanctum.

She turned at his arrival, abandoning her study of a funeral tapestry covered in cobwebs. Her upper lip was curled in distaste, but her expression changed to a warm smile that Morbidon didn’t trust for a moment. “This place is utterly depressing, brother. You surely can’t hope to bring your bride here?”

As usual, her comment struck a nerve he hadn’t even realized he had. He crossed his arms over his chest to hide his clenched fists, pushing the anger back down until it was deep inside him where it belonged. Calm. I must always remain calm. I will not become my father. “This room gives me comfort. I will prepare appropriate quarters for my bride when I bring her here.”

Vivacel chuckled, flipping her thick hair over her shoulder. “Are you sure you even understand what appropriate quarters are for a mortal like the princess?”

An image of Febe, his runaway bride, flashed vividly in his mind. In fact, thoughts of her were never far away. Her aura, riddled with fear, but still strong and plotting—the different shades of pink like colorful blossoms adding warmth to the darkness. She was intelligent and determined, but still unhardened by the life she’d been forced to live. Lovely and vulnerable. She would desire a place of her own. A sanctum that suited her, as his suited him. “I will make her a laboratory so that she can tinker with her machines in peace. That should please my bride more than any floral bower or silken grotto ever would.”

Vivacel’s smile faded as a brief flash of genuine respect crossed her face, before it was gone again behind another falsely sweet smile. “Surprisingly perceptive of you, Morby.” She turned and glanced around the room as he ground his teeth at the childish nickname. “But where is your lovely bride now? Surely, you’ve recovered her.”

The buried rage boiled up to the surface, darkening his swarthy skin with streaks of black. He looked down at his wrists, exposed by his robes as he lifted his hands. The darkness spread across the expanse of flesh and peeled it away to reveal his bones. When he lifted his gaze to glare at Vivacel, he knew that the transformation was probably complete, revealing the full form of his reaper. His bones scraped together as he pointed a knobby fleshless finger at her. “You have stolen her from me, and now you dare to come mock me with her absence?”

Unlike most people who would recoil at the sight of his reaper, Vivacel only stepped closer, until the bony finger he pointed in accusation nearly touched her. An expression of deep sadness and regret darkened a face that was usually glowing with life energy. “Dear Brother, as always, you mistake my intentions.” She shook her head at him, clasping his fleshless hand in her warm grasp. “I want to help you.”

He snarled, yanking his hand away from her. “You want my power! As you have always coveted it and tried to steal it!”

Vivacel’s eyes lowered as she sighed and stepped away from him. “I only want you to be happy. I fear that our father’s influence only grows stronger inside you. I would have you find peace so that we could become true siblings again and not the rivals you have made us.”

I have made us? Are you mad?” Wraithfire flickered over his body in the wake of his growing anger. “You’ve done this to us! Ever since Tolmac brought us to this world, you have sought to undermine my power and influence for your own gain!”

She stepped away from the silvery-blue flames that licked at the dour shadows of the mourning room. “Everything I have ever done has been to protect you and this world from a return of our father’s evil. You are not in control of yourself, Morbidon! You never deal with the anger inside you, but you cannot bury it. You must bring it out to heal it.” She took another step away from him, though he didn’t believe for a moment that she feared him. No matter how angry he’d ever been with her, he’d never struck out at her. As much as he wanted to hate her, he still loved his twin with whatever remained of his heart, and the worst part was that she knew it and manipulated him with that love as she manipulated everyone.

“My anger is out now, Dear Sister! I do not see you healing it.” His bitter words lashed the air between them.

Vivacel shook her head, her false sadness only infuriating him more. She’s fooled me before with her “compassion.”

“I cannot heal you. I have tried before.” She clasped her hands in front of her silver gown. “It took many centuries for me to heal myself and eradicate the voice of our father from my mind. You need something different than the meditation that I used to aid me.”

She wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know. She’d chosen meditation to heal from their violent spawning and the loneliness and despair that had arisen from simply being born as what they were. He had chosen to bury his anger and resentment and to make his loneliness and despair his mantle, a cloak to shield him from the mortals that would never accept him or love him. Perhaps his way wasn’t as effective as her way, but he’d grown very powerful because of it. He’d carved out a place for himself in this world, guiding and judging the dead and gaining power from their souls in return. “Why have you come here? If it is not to return my bride, then I have no use for your presence.”

She sighed, her gaze going to the wraithfire that still burned around him. “This is not a man that Princess Febe will ever be able to love, brother. Do you not understand this? Why take a bride now, when she will only see this monster and live in fear of you?”

Another nerve struck. The fire burned brighter, drowning out the gentle glow that always emanated from Vivacel’s skin. “I would never hurt her!” He slashed a fleshless arm through the air, trailing flames. “I will protect her from those who would.”

Vivacel pulled a lock of her hair through her fingers and began fiddling with the ends. “I want to believe that. I really do.” Her forehead wrinkled as she frowned at him. “But can you change enough for her?”

He’d had enough out of his sister. She’d already stolen Febe from him and now she dared to interrogate him in his own kingdom about his fitness to be a husband to the mortal he’d chosen. He was a god. There should be no question of his suitability for a mere mortal. “Return Febe to me, or I will send my reapers down upon your temple en masse.”

Her eyes widened as her fingers clenched around her hair. “You have no power there!” She didn’t sound wholly convinced. Her statement ended as if she were making it a question.

“You think I didn’t know about that temple of revenants? I’ve always known. I allowed you to have your little sanctuary, but you’re not as powerful as you believe yourself to be. Those souls have cheated my reapers for long enough. I will send every last bit of my power behind my reapers to claim them unless you return my bride to me immediately!”

Vivacel chewed her lip, flipping her hair back over her shoulder. “Perhaps I would. If I had her. But she has run away from me as well.” She sighed heavily. “She doesn’t trust me anymore than you do.”

She could be lying. For the first time since they broke out on his body, the flames faltered, sinking back into his bones until only tiny tongues of blue fire licked the surface of his robes and fleshless hands. “You would not have let her go that easily. Not from your own temple.”

Vivacel’s expression was unreadable as her gaze dropped to the waning wraithfire. “I allowed her to leave because I will not force her to do my bidding.” She met his eyes again, her own glowing silver. “You must not force her, either. You will never win her that way.”

He clenched his fist as flesh began to form over it again. “She will learn to be a proper wife in time. Until then, I will make this kingdom her home and prove to her that she can be happy here.”

Vivacel’s smile was sly. “Perhaps you won’t have as much time to convince her as you think.”

He knew that smile well, and it usually meant that his sister was winning whatever game she was playing against him. “What have you done? Your temple will soon be in ashes if—“

She held up her hands. “You can hardly blame me, brother! It’s not what I’ve done. You were the one who sent an honorable, attractive, compassionate man to recapture your bride.” She ticked off the qualities on her fingers as she listed them. “Did you deliberately choose someone to steal her heart before you could even begin to earn it?” She chuckled at his stunned expression. “If so, you couldn’t have made a better choice.” She tapped her lips with a forefinger. “I wouldn’t mind having that man for myself.”

Morbidon struggled to bury his shock, irritated that Vivacel had been witness to it. He hadn’t even considered such an idea. He had very little experience with mortal emotions, since mortals had shunned him since his birth, always treating him as different. Whereas Vivacel had used her power to learn more about the humans who’d turned away from her, he’d used their fear to bolster his own strength and commitment to becoming the god he now was. Yet, he clearly had a handicap when it came to predicting mortal emotions. If what Vivacel was implying was true, then he’d made a serious miscalculation. He’d sent the revenant, Marcos, to fetch his bride, not steal her from him. He didn’t think the man was dishonorable enough to do so on purpose, but that didn’t mean the princess wouldn’t develop feelings for him. “If you have nothing more to tell me, I’m done with you, Vivacel.” He cut the air with his hand, now fully fleshed again. “Leave my kingdom.”

Her smile disappeared. She took a quick step forward as he turned away, dismissing her as he pondered what he should do about the situation. I can track Marcos with the amulet—

                “Morbidon, wait!”

He jerked away from her touch on his arm, spinning back around to glare at her. “Haven’t you done enough? What more do you want with me?” If she’d come here solely to wound him, she done an excellent job of it.

Yet there was a sheen of unshed tears in her eyes. “You need to learn to trust me! I didn’t come here to hurt you! You’re my brother! I love you, and I only want you to find the peace that I’ve found!”

He wouldn’t allow her display of false emotion to soften him. He’d fallen for her tricks before, right before she’d stolen away souls that had rightfully belonged to him. She played him as she played any mortal. To Vivacel, other people were game pieces on a board, all of them expendable for her pleasure. “I have business to attend to. If you don’t leave now, I will force you out of my kingdom.”

“I can help you! I know how you must handle the princess. If you storm in there and treat her with anger, you will only push her farther away from you…and farther into the sheltering arms of your own servant!”

With a growl, Morbidon marshalled his considerable power and formed it into a ball of dark energy. He swung it towards Vivacel, who gasped and tried to pull away from it. It struck her, swallowing her light as it encapsulated her. Her screams of outrage were muffled as the ball dematerialized, remaining only as a shadow in the already dim room. Then it shot up towards the ceiling in a rapid ascent to the surface world, trailing shouts and pleas from the goddess of life.

Morbidon shrugged off the excess aether, grounding it back into the Underworld to be used by his servants. Vivacel hadn’t fought him too hard. She would be rattled by the ejection from his realm, but unhurt and no doubt highly irritated. Still, he had warned her. Now, he had more pressing matters. Somewhere out there, he had a bride to fetch. He’d been too cautious in claiming her. Now that he’d put Vivacel more firmly in her place, he wasn’t worried that she’d be quick to interfere when he went to collect Febe even if it was close to her own temple.

As for Marcos… his fate will depend on what I see in Febe’s aura when she is with him.

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!

Morbidon’s Bride: Chapter 6

Author’s Note: It’s been a busy two weeks, and I’ve still got a busy month ahead! I’m pretty surprised that I’ve been able to get this chapter finished in time, but here it is. I’ve had to tweak it several times, and it ended up being a bit longer than I’d intended, but I’m happy with where it’s at now. For the moment. 😉 Enjoy. And as always, please feel free to like and comment. I’d love to hear your thoughts, even your critiques (as long as they aren’t abusive 😉 ). Thank you all for taking the time out of your day to read this! You all are helping me bring my stories alive.

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Chapter 6

Febe remained uneasy after her walk in the garden during the blizzard that raged beyond the wards. She could certainly dismiss the brief glimpse of a man standing among the howling wall of white. There was no reason for a man to be this far up into the mountains. She’d been told that this Temple to Vivacel was a place for women. Although this special temple was forbidden to men, Vivacel wasn’t like Isa. According to her followers, she loved men as much as she loved women, and she had other temples where men served solely as priests of Vivacel. Yet here, no man could pass beyond the outer wards, and few men could withstand the harsh temperatures outside those wards. Febe must’ve been imagining things.

Cycles passed and Febe’s work upgrading the facilities was enough to consume her attention. She still couldn’t relax enough to act on the friendly overtures of the other women. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to trust another person. True sisterhood was a foreign concept to her.

Her discomfort with the others was what found her once again seeking the solitude of the garden. It sat on the side of the temple that faced out into the frozen stillness of the mountain landscape beyond the wards, within view of the temple approach. The women of the temple seemed to rarely linger in this garden, perhaps because there were no walls to blind them to the starkness of the world beyond their sheltered temple. For some reason, Vivacel had left this window open to the bleakness outside. Febe wondered if she’d done it to keep the women here. From what she could see of the snow-covered peaks, there was really nowhere for them to go.

She shook her head at that discouraging thought. As far as she knew, she was the only one who wasn’t wholly content in this temple. Even her discomfort came from her concern about whether Vivacel could be trusted. If she’d been as secure in her faith as the other women, she probably would have been able to make a nice home here from the start.

Instead, her gaze constantly scanned the horizon, searching for some means of escape from an uncertain future with a goddess dictating her fate. For once in my life, I’d like to decide my own destiny!

Despite a raging blizzard the night before, the angry winds were now silent, Zephrona’s breath seen only in occasional low-lying flurries that swept the carpet of snow blanketing the craggy mountain peak. Those flurries probably weren’t any fiercer than the gentle eternal breeze that carried the fragrance of flowers into and around Vivacel’s temple. When Febe’s gaze landed on large tracks marring the pristine white coat of snow near the craggy peak, she jumped to her feet and approached the ward, squinting to try and bring the tracks into focus.

Though she had little experience in this sort of thing, she suspected that the blizzard the previous night would have covered up any old tracks. These must be new. They stopped well beyond the approach to the temple, but it appeared as though someone had walked up, studied the temple, and then turned around and made a second set of tracks leading away from the temple. Those tracks disappeared between the stone face of the peak, which suggested that there was an opening that wasn’t visible from Febe’s vantage point. This entire time, she’d believed that the temple was surrounded by stone. Now she knew that there was a way out.

Excitement fizzed through Febe’s blood. Though they were a distance away, the tracks looked like they could have been made by a human. She hadn’t seen any other large animals beyond the temple. In fact, she hadn’t seen any animals anywhere near the temple. Within its walls were small animals such as rabbits, rodents, and cats that Vivacel’s followers allowed to prosper as long as their numbers remained balanced. Those tracks couldn’t have been made by anything that small and still be visible to Febe from where she stood by the ward.

Febe considered what this meant for her. She’d been abandoning escape plans because she had no idea where to go if she did leave the relative safety of the temple behind. She couldn’t just wander aimlessly on the mountain looking for a path down. Eventually she’d run out of the supplies she’d been secretly pilfering, or she’d freeze to death because the rat-eaten furs and blankets she’d managed to dig up in the bowels of the temple’s extensive underground storage tunnels would not keep her warm enough to face long exposure.

But if there were other people nearby, she could follow their tracks to find them. They’d made it up to the mountain, and had not approached the temple asking for supplies to continue their journey, so they must have some means of surviving. Even if they were men, the priestesses would have supplied them generously, rather than allow them to die on the mountain.

What if it’s the necromancer and his men? What better reason for them not to approach Vivacel’s wards? The fact that Morbidon’s servants could be the ones just beyond the reach of Vivacel’s magic was enough to give Febe pause in her escape plan. It was one thing to approach tired pilgrims or even unknown travelers, and quite another to find herself back in the clutches of the very nightmare she was trying to escape.

Who else would come this far? Who else would know of this place? Vivacel had reassured her that Morbidon would never find her here. Could it possible that the goddess was wrong?

There was only one person who could answer these types of questions. Febe turned away from the ward—and the tantalizing hint of freedom beyond it—to seek out Lengala.

Up until this point, she’d been very careful about what topics she’d brought up with the head priestess. Lengala made her nervous. The ageless woman reminded her far too much of a kinder, softer version of her mother. They weren’t the same temperament, but they seemed like two sides of the same coin: cunning, powerful, manipulative. Lengala ruled her people through gentle persuasion rather than fear, but no one questioned that she was in charge, which made Febe suspect that there was hard steel beneath the surface of the head priestess.

Febe’s soft-soled shoes were barely audible on the cream-colored marble floors as she entered the vast temple and made her way to the nave. Vivacel’s influence was clearly evident within the walls of the temple as greenery sprouted from every alcove and a massive ash tree dominated the center of the nave, just before the cella that contained Vivacel’s statue and altar. The canopy of the tree spread beneath a huge domed ceiling made of glass so clear that the sun’s rays filled the room, reflecting off the cream and white marble.

When storms hid the sun from Vivacel’s temple, a false sun glowed just beneath the dome to provide the same brightness. Now, in the natural light, it was dormant—a simple globe of silver with runes glowing on its sides.

Lengala was within the cella—as Febe had been told by a passing novitiate that she would be. The priestess stood before Vivacel’s altar, holding a silver goblet aloft to the statue of the goddess. Realizing she was in the middle of a ritual offering, Febe checked her steps and retreated back around the trunk of the ash tree, taking a seat at the base of it to wait for Lengala to finish.

Febe had never been pressed into joining the worship of Vivacel. For that, she’d been grateful. Growing up, she’d had to sit through far too many services for Zephrona and had never understood the purpose of them. She was no more eager to worship Vivacel than she had been to worship the goddess of the wind.

Lengala began chanting in a language Febe didn’t understand, but the hair rose on the back of her neck as the priestess’s chant steadily increased in volume until she was almost shouting the words. The sun seemed to glow even brighter as she chanted, and the air grew thick and heavy, as if the light was coalescing around them, suffocating Febe as it pressed against her skin.

Then silence fell, and Febe slumped against the tree, realizing that she’d been tensing against the force of Vivacel’s presence as all her muscles ached. She breathed out slowly, feeling light-headed as sparkles of light danced before her eyes.

“The goddess seeks to cradle you in her light, but you fight her touch.” Lengala’s voice was gently chastising as she stepped around the tree trunk and stood before Febe.

Febe swallowed and climbed to her feet, pressing a hand against the trunk for support as her shaky legs took her weight. “I’m not comfortable with being cradled.” She’d blurted out the words without examining them first. It was an unusual lapse, and one she instantly regretted, as it revealed far too much about her.

Lengala’s expression changed from chiding to sympathetic. Febe wondered if it was real emotion, or a mask like her mother had perfected. “I understand, child. Not everyone is ready to receive the goddess’s love when it is offered.” She held out a hand to Febe. “She will be here for you, when you’re ready.”

Febe glanced down at Lengala’s hand. It didn’t waver as a moment passed, and then another while Lengala stood patiently holding it out for her to take. Finally, reluctantly, Febe placed her hand over Lengala’s palm. The other woman closed her fingers around Febe’s hand and turned to lead her out of the nave.

Lengala didn’t release her hand as they walked past the columns and out into the entry hall of the temple. “You’ve come to ask me a question.”

Febe felt like a little girl as she walked hand-in-hand with the older woman. She vaguely recalled her nanny leading her about in such a fashion, but it had been so long ago that perhaps that comforting memory had only been a dream. “I wondered if you ever get pilgrims here who weren’t brought to you by Vivacel.”

Lengala glanced at her, her expression giving away nothing. “Occasionally some make the climb to the peak, though very few can handle it, and even fewer know the location of this temple. It was built here to hide it from Morbidon’s underworld gaze. He detests revenants.”

Febe shuddered at the mention of the god of the dead’s name. The name of her betrothed. “But some people know enough to come here?”

Lengala nodded. “Vivacel reaches many worshippers through her temples below. Some are guided here by her hand, some by the priests and priestesses who serve her. They send those they believe will most benefit from being here.”

“Do any others come here? Maybe by accident?”

They’d almost reached Lengala’s office by this time, and the priestess finally released Febe’s hand, stopping and turning to face her. “There are tribes that make their home in sheltered valleys nearby. Occasionally they explore this far, but rarely do they approach us. Some fear us, but most simply respect the goddess enough to avoid trespassing without intent to worship.” Her pale gaze was steady on Febe’s face.

Febe tried to keep her own expression neutral as excitement filled her. She’d been worried that the tracks might have been from Morbidon’s servants, but Lengala had said that the temple was hidden from him. If his servants knew about it—and he truly hated what Vivacel’s followers were doing here—then surely he would have sent minions to destroy it, which meant the tracks were probably from the local tribesmen. Even better, there were sheltered valleys nearby that must have resources to keep her alive and maybe even people who would help her make her way back to civilization. If she could escape to one of those tribes, she might be able to find a way to forever avoid both the god and the goddess and their plans for her.

Febe asked more questions about the general area, trying to make it seem that she was only making friendly conversation. She feared that Lengala might still be suspicious, since the priestess’s eyes had narrowed on her more than once, but Lengala provided the information without any hesitation. By the time they’d finished their tea within Lengala’s well-appointed office, Febe’s determination to escape had solidified into a full-blown plan. It would dangerous, and the odds of her simply dying of exposure or starvation were very high, but it was worth the risk if it put her destiny back in her own hands.

Unwilling to wait until any potential tracks were swept away by another storm, Febe put her plan into motion as soon as the dinner bell rang. Normally, she would collect a tray and return to her room to eat it. She wasn’t the only one who did so, avoiding the raucous crowd in the dining hall, so no one had discouraged her from it, which worked in her favor this time. As soon as she got back to her chamber, she pulled her pack from beneath her bed and placed the bread from her tray into it beside the dried meat, fruit, nuts, jars of preserves, and loaves of travel-cake she’d already packed. She felt only mild guilt about stealing the food. She’d done worse to preserve her own life and freedom in the past.

She poured her goblet of water into her waterskin and added that to the pack, grateful that carrying water was a commonplace occurrence among those who worked the fields and gardens surrounding the temple.

A full pack and layers of clothes and furs in place, Febe took a deep breath and braced herself, wrapping the woolen scarf she’d found in a trunk in the storage rooms tighter around her lower face. The scarf smelled musty and old and within her room, the heat was stifling, but she expected she would soon be grateful for any heat provided by her collection of discarded clothes and blankets.

She opened her door and peeked out into the corridor. As it had been when she’d returned with her tray to her room, it was silent. Anyone who ate in their room was closed behind their heavy wooden doors, meditating, or reading, or praying to their goddess. She was certain Lengala would be safely ruling over her followers in the dining hall as she’d been when Febe had collected her tray from the servers.

Despite her certainty that the rest of the temple was empty, she feared that eyes followed her as she made her way through the corridor and out into the empty nave. She remained in the shadows cast by the marble columns that surrounded the nave and separated it from the aisles on either side as she headed down the aisle running alongside the nave, avoiding the gaze of the silver statue of Vivacel, fearing that the goddess might be able to actually see from such a thing. Fortunately, she didn’t feel the weight of the goddess’s presence as she had earlier during Lengala’s ritual.

The entry hall was also empty, and the huge double doors that opened out onto the temple approach loomed before Febe—a challenge, daring her to seize her own fate and freedom. The door was heavy, and she was sweating beneath the many layers she wore, but she still managed to get it open enough to slip past it and out onto the temple approach.

Unlike the rest of the grounds, the front of the temple was relatively austere when it came to growing things. Just a few simple trees dotted the grounds inside the wards. Beyond them stretched the carpet of snow, blank and blinding even in the setting sun, except for the tracks, which had remained clear despite the small flurries.

Sighing in relief that she’d have a path to guide her, Febe set out, wincing as the ward passed over her and thrust her into the icy air and unforgiving winter.

*****

Lengala stood in her office, staring out the window as the small figure struggling to forge its way through the thick snow. She will probably die out there.

She will live. She follows my plan.

                Lengala bowed her head, pushing away her pity for the young princess. As you will it, My Goddess.