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Today was the day. Two months after her wedding to King Dominick, Erika was to be crowned Queen of Dulcinea.

Her handmaiden, Sara, laced her corset and helped her into her voluminous dress, which had only been finished that morning. The fabric was the softest Erika had ever felt, but the stitching was subpar, and she frowned as she examined her right cuff.

“Milady?” Sara said timidly, noticing her expression.

“I’ll need to speak with your seamstresses once this is all over.”

“Yes, milady. I’ll arrange it, milady.”

“You don’t have to call me ‘milady,’ you know,” Erika sighed. She’d said it many times before, but perhaps this time she would get a different answer.

“But I do, milady. That’s the way it’s done, milady.”

Perhaps not. “Certainly not after every sentence.”

“Begging your pardon, milady.”

Erika suppressed another sigh as Sara buttoned the final button and began fussing with her skirts instead. “Could you get me a glass of water, please?”

“Yes, milady.” Sara ducked into a clumsy curtsy and then scurried out of the room. She was still very young, only fourteen, and clearly very nervous about her position. She was from the orphanage in Chesley, and flinched at sudden movements; Erika had already talked to Dominick about investigating the orphanage’s practices.

Dominick appeared in the doorway, grinning. He was dressed in a similarly showy style that Erika didn’t think suited him at all. “Are you alone?”

“Yes.” Erika smiled, already tired, though her day was far from over.

“Aren’t you looking forward to it, even just a little? Julian and Anneliese are here.”

They’d arrived last night, and she had barely had time to greet them before heading to one last etiquette lesson before bed. “I’m just a bit tired, that’s all.”

Dominick hugged her delicately, careful of the lace and frills. “You look lovely.”

Erika rolled her eyes.

“What’s wrong? Don’t you like it?” He knew next to nothing about dresses, except how to get them off.

“Well... The stitch work is a bit shoddy, and the pattern seems unnecessarily complicated... But maybe that’s just how things are done here.” Her eyes strayed to Dominick’s neckline and she tugged his collar up, firmly hiding the hickey she’d left there last night. He chuckled and kissed her hand; they both knew if their lips met, they would have trouble getting to the ceremony on time.

Sara reappeared with a pitcher and a glass, and Dominick stepped back regretfully. “I’ll see you in an hour, lass.”

Erika nodded and he left, nodding at Sara; she flushed scarlet and fumbled into a curtsy, rising out of it long after he’d disappeared. Her hand shook slightly as she poured a glass of water and handed it to Erika.

“Are you afraid of him?” Erika asked curiously, taking a sip. She was thirsty enough to gulp it down in one, but that was not how a queen behaved.

Sara tensed. “Not very, milady.”

“He isn’t anyone to be afraid of. He doesn’t bite.” Unless you ask nicely. Erika smirked into her glass and took another sip. She froze as an unsettling thought struck her. “Was he was different before?”

“Milady?”

“Before he met me, before he went to Aurelia, was he different? Did you hear anything like that?” She hadn’t actually known him that long, she realized. She loved him so dearly, but perhaps she didn’t really know him...

“Oh, no, milady.” Sara shook her head vigorously, her messy auburn curls bouncing. “But he is a very great man, isn’t he, milady? You are so very lucky.”

Erika smiled, relaxing. “He is, isn’t he?”

Sara nodded happily. “Come, milady, we must get downstairs.”

Erika hesitated, then drained the glass in one gulp; Sara looked almost impressed. “Well, then, if we must.”


 

Three floors below, in front of several hundred nobles, sat the royal family of Aurelia, the Beaumonts: Genevieve, Anneliese, and Julian. The only other person in the front row was Dominick’s fifteen-year-old brother Oliver; Dominick would not be joining them, as he was the one presiding over the coronation.

As Anneliese held Julian’s hand in her lap, she could not be happier with how things had worked out. Aside from being kidnapped, that is, but that had been two years ago, and she did her best not to think about those awful days and the strange things she had seen then. The horse hardly crossed her mind these days.

Julian was chatting quietly with Oliver, or trying to; Oliver seemed to both want to talk and to be invisible.

“How are the vineyards this year?” Julian tried.

Oliver stared at his shoes. “I don’t know. I haven’t learned much about the vineyards yet.” I don’t really have to, he did not say. Because I won’t be king. It doesn’t matter what I learn.

“I have!” Julian said eagerly. “You grow seven, sometimes eight, different varieties of grapes in this region, in some others as many as thirteen—”

“Ah, Julian?” Anneliese said gently, noticing as Oliver squirmed in his seat. “ Technically you aren’t a tutor anymore.” She hated to tell him off his teaching—who knew a man could know so many things!—but they were guests in Oliver’s home and it wasn’t fair to him.

“What? Oh, yes, of course.”

Anneliese kissed his cheek, sending a small hush through those sitting behind them, and the overall babble in the hall seemed to grow louder. She nudged her husband. “Never at a loss for words,” she whispered, and he grinned.

Suddenly the hall fell silent and everyone twisted in their seats to see King Dominick Christoph Rodrigo Olivier Von Brandt striding up the aisle looking cool and composed in  full regalia. He inclined his head cordially to the first row, then took his place on the platform facing them, staring serenely at the door he’d just come through.

“Why didn’t Erika just come in with him?” Anneliese whispered to Julian.

“It’s a traditional part of the ceremony. Some speculate it began because dressing took longer than planned, but it continues even after that is no longer the case,” he answered automatically.

Anneliese nodded and squeezed his hand. She wondered how long they would be waiting, and if Erika had done her own gown. Probably not, as she had her own staff now, but her attention to detail was exquisite, and anything less would probably upset her. She wondered, too, if Erika would give the palace seamstresses any lessons. How funny that would be, the queen giving lessons! She grinned to herself as her gaze drifted to the ceiling; she thought she recognized Aurelian granite—yes, there were the flecks of fool’s gold.

A quiet buzz of conversation began to pick up, until the doors opened once again. The silence that fell was absolute, and Anneliese thought she knew why: This was the first time any Dulcinean outside the palace staff would see Erika, and as she took her first measured step into the room, Anneliese thought she could feel the impending gossip swell around her.

“Well, she’s not very pretty,” came a ringing, nasal voice. “Bit skinny, too.”

Anneliese saw Erika’s steps falter and a flicker of panic on her face. For a second, all eyes flicked to Dominick, whose serene smile had hardened, but he ever so slightly inclined his head to encourage Erika forward.

Erika took slightly longer, faster steps, trying to keep her face blank as she all but hurried to the platform. No more comments rang out from the crowd, but the tension remained. Who would be so bold as to insult their queen? Erika took her place beside Dominick, an uneasy half-smile on her lips.

“People of Dulcinea and of Aurelia,” Dominick began; the tension wound higher and the crowd stirred—were they not ladies and gentlemen? “I bid you welcome. We stand here today to crown the new Queen of Dulcinea, Erika of Astraea.” He stepped to the glass case in the center of the platform. “These objects are symbols of power within this realm. On my command, I will pass them to her, and thus the power will also lie with her.”

Dominick’s words seemed to carry a sense of menace, although there was nothing in his tone or expression or indeed the words themselves to suggest such. He raised the lid of the glass case, nodding slightly to Erika, who took her cue to kneel with some difficulty, owing to her voluminous skirts. “Formerly, these objects belonged to my mother, Queen Katharine.”

He extracted a fine, thin sword and held it out, hilt first. “As queen, you must be the protector of your nation. Erika of Astraea, will you take up arms to defend your land?”

“I will,”  Erika said clearly, despite the slight tremor in her voice, and she took the saber in her trembling right hand.

He reached into the case again, this time withdrawing a silver filigreed scepter topped with a large, purple gemstone. Anneliese glanced at Julian—had he ever seen such a stone before?—but he was frowning at it as though confused.

“As queen, you must bring wealth to your nation.” He held the scepter in open palms, offering it to his wife. “Erika of Astraea, will you do everything in your power to assure the prosperity of our land?”

“I will,” Erika said, more firmly, and she took it the scepter in her left hand.

Dominick reached into the case a last time, lifting out an ornate silver crown embellished with more of the strange, deep purple gems. “Erika of Astraea, will you pledge yourself to your citizens and their just rule?”

“I will,” said Erika, and he placed the crown upon her head. He bent to help her up, and turned her gently to face the crowd.

“People of Dulcinea! I present to you Queen Erika Von Brandt!”

The audience rose and bowed, some dropping right to their knees and others merely bending at the waist. Julian and Oliver bowed deeply, Anneliese sinking into a dainty curtsy, but as an equal monarch Queen Genevieve simply bowed her head.

Erika smiled blindly through her mounting panic. She forgot what was supposed to come next! Where did she go? Did she stay on the platform and everyone else left? The crown was heavier than she had thought it would be, and the scepter and sword seemed in danger of slipping out of her sweaty hands. She glanced wildly to Dominick; he put a hand on the small of her back and gave her a little push, so she guessed she was supposed to exit the hall. She held her head high and tried to take slow, stately steps, staring blearily into the corridor beyond the doorway. She stepped through, and once she was clear, the heavy stone doors swung shut behind her.

Sara bobbed hesitantly to the right, a little out of breath. “This way, milady,” she said, leading Erika down the corridor a ways to a sitting room.

“Milady!” Sara exclaimed, barely catching the sword and scepter as they slipped from Erika’s numb hands. She set them on a table, seeming afraid to touch them.  “Sit down, milady,” she urged, steering Erika into a chair, and gingerly lifted the crown from her head before it could fall to the floor. She set it near the sword and scepter and hurried to the sideboard. “Here, milady, I’ll get you some wine.”

Erika couldn’t raise her hand to accept the glass and Sara hovered anxiously, wringing her hands. “Milady? Are you ill? Should I fetch a doctor?” She jumped as Dominick entered, followed by Oliver and the Beaumonts. “Milord, something is wrong!”

Sara backed away with huge, fearful eyes as he knelt before Erika. “Erika? Lass, are you alright? Erika!”

“I’m tired,” Erika managed in a nearly inaudible whisper. She did not move—she didn’t think she could move—but she felt as if she were swaying.

“Can you walk?”

She tried to nod, but wasn’t sure if she managed it; he helped her to her feet, keeping an arm firmly around her waist. She tried to say “I’m sorry” as she passed a stricken Anneliese but her lips wouldn’t move; and then Dominick was half-carrying her through the corridors and up staircases until they came to their bedchamber. He kicked the door shut behind them.

“Are you hurt?” He asked as he set her on a divan. He knelt behind her and began unbuttoning her gown. “Is your corset too tight? Erika, please say something. Anything.” He unlaced her corset and she took a deep breath. “Was that it?”

She shook her head, her thoughts clearing somewhat. She began pulling the pins from her hair. “I’m just so... overwhelmed by all of this. I don’t know why it hasn’t hit me before, but how am I supposed to go from being a peasant to a queen? Sara’s calling me milady every other word, people are bowing to me... I don’t deserve this.” She buried her face in her hands, remembering as she did so that her face was painted and powdered. Oh well.

“What are you talking about? Of course you deserve this. You’re more noble than any of them.”

“No—” Erika began, lifting her head, but Dominick continued, standing up and beginning to pace: “You were an indentured servant. You worked your fingers to the bone, and you didn’t have a penny to show for it.”

“You’re making me feel worse ,” Erika choked, tears clogging her throat. “I’m not noble. I’m a sham.”

“What are you talking about?” Dominick knelt in front of her, taking her face in his hands, but she pulled away.

“I can’t tell you,” she whispered. She had promised herself that she would take this to her grave. She couldn’t tell him, especially not today, not after he’d just crowned her queen of his country!

“You can tell me anything,” said Dominick, confused.

“I don’t want to. Please, I’m so tired. I just want to go to bed.”

“But what about the festival?”

“I need to lie down.” She struggled to stand up, but the weight of her skirts was too great and she pitched backwards; Dominick caught her and helped her stand, looking more concerned than ever.

“Do you need me to help you change?” he murmured. Erika nodded rather stiffly, and he set to undoing more buttons. “I had dreams of tearing this off of you tonight, you know.”

“Did you?” Erika’s body surged with heat. “I’m sorry to ruin it.”

“Don’t say that,” he said, taking her dress and draping it on the divan. He turned her around, brushing her long hair aside, and set to fully unlacing her corset. “Perhaps we should have practiced the ceremony more. Did the crowd take you by surprise?”

“Not until the part where someone screamed that I’m not pretty enough for you.”

“That’s not what happened.” He managed to pull off her corset and tossed it on top of the gown. He hadn’t recognized the voice, but he would have sworn that he knew who she was... If the woman he was thinking of hadn’t been banned from the palace grounds for three years. Never mind the rumors that she was a witch. Never mind that. “What did happen is she just... loudly stated that you could be prettier and fatter.”

“Oh yes, because that’s so much better.” Erika rolled her eyes. “I’ll sleep in my shift, thank you,” she snapped, as Dominick made a move toward a wardrobe, and she climbed onto their bed, kicking off her shoes rather more violently than necessary. “Do you wish I was prettier and fatter, Dominick? Is that it?”

I didn’t say that, she did!” he said, and his voice almost cracked.

“If that’s what you wanted in a wife, then you should have married someone else!”

“Maybe I should have!”

Dominick stormed out and slammed the door behind him.

The sound seemed to echo, bringing Erika back to reality; she realized she was breathing hard, chest heaving and tears brimming in her eyes. It was not Dominick’s fault. He had not, in fact, said anything about her appearance. Erika was taking out her anger on him, from both the woman’s comment, and her own secret.

She sat for a moment, considering. Should she apologize right away? Did he need time to calm down?

There was a knock at the door and she straightened up. “Dominick?” she called hopefully.

Sara peered around the edge of the door. “No, milady, sorry.”

“Did you see Dominick?”

“No, milady.”

Erika slumped back on her pillows. “Oh, Sara, what have I done?”

“Milady?”

“We’ve been married two months, I’ve just been crowned queen, and I’ve already ruined everything.”

“Oh, milady, I’m sure you haven’t.”

“Maybe I should go after him.”

“But milady, you must rest! You nearly fainted!”

“I was not fainting, I am not the sort of lady who faints ! I—I just need a moment to cope. You try getting coronated and tell me how you like it, with everyone staring and dissecting everything about you!”

“I’m sorry, milady,” Sara whispered, staring at the floor.

“Oh, no, now I’ve done it to you too. I’m so sorry, Sara. I don’t know what’s wrong with me today.” Erika buried her face in her hands. “I really am ruining everything.”

“You aren’t, milady!” Sara said earnestly.

Erika slid out of bed. “Will you help me to get dressed?”

“Of course, milady, but—are you sure you’re not tired?”

“I’m very tired,” Erika sighed, walking to her closet, “but I have an obligation to my people to appear at this festival. It’s in my honor, after all. Was I supposed to change dresses? I don’t want to put that one back on—do you think people will talk?” There was a knock, and Sara answered the door as Erika began looking through her gowns.

“Princess Anneliese is here, milady.”

“Let her in,” Erika called. “Maybe she can help me.”

“Help you with what?” Anneliese asked, joining her in the closet.

“I don’t know what to wear to the festival.”

“Are you feeling better?”

“No, but it’s my duty.”

Anneliese nodded; duty called, and royalty answered. “What about this one?” she asked, pointing. The gown was made of heavy blue velvet and lavender silk, and, incidentally, happened to be the only gown in the closet that Erika had made herself.

Erika smiled. “Perfect.”

Chapter Text

In the dungeon under the palace of the Beaumonts, Jean Preminger sat in a cell.

He had been there for nearly two years, during which he had overheard a great deal of the goings-on in the country from the twelve guards stationed at various points outside of his cell. He had heard, soon after his imprisonment, that the girl Erika, the imposter, had been put up in the palace; Anneliese had begun mining operations for some sort of gemstone; Erika had left, for one reason or another; and, after a long stretch, come back again to marry King Dominick in a double ceremony with Anneliese and Julian. Currently, the whole of the royal family was away for Erika’s coronation, with the palace being left to Mathieu Dubois, formerly the secretary of law on the Queen’s council. Preminger had once been head of that council, but no more.

He was not the same man that had been put into prison. Bereft of his powdered hair and silk breeches, one would hardly recognize him; but the real change had taken place on the inside. On his first night, and several nights after, he had paced his cell, ranting and rattling the bars. He had been ignored, of course, and gradually he had fallen into silence. He had not said a word in over a year.

“Here’s your supper,” said Hank, opening the door to slide a tray through. The other eleven guards had their hands on the hilts of their swords, but Preminger remained where he sat, on his cot several feet from the door. It was the same twice a day—they were taking no chances with him escaping. Hank shut the door with a clang; the guards visibly relaxed and resumed chatting casually with one another about what might be happening at the coronation.

Preminger stretched languidly and stood. On the tray was a boiled potato and a cup of milk, the same meal yet again; he had not expected anything different. He barely tasted it as he ate, and it crossed his mind that he still did not know why the Beaumonts had been so lenient. True, prison lacked any luxuries or entertainments, but he was alive, and it was more than he had expected, in those few rare moments he had given thought to what might happen if he were caught in his schemes. His thoughts turned now to his idiotic cohorts, Nick and Nack.

Born Nicholas and Alexander Schumacher, they has been orphaned at the age of five, and spent the next ten years in the orphanage of Slade, at which point they were kicked out to make a living as they would (primarily through thieving).

Five years later, Preminger happened across them on one of his biannual tours of the country (trying to pick his pocket at an inn), and on a whim he’d taken them back to Astraea and set them up with work in the mines, where they’d spent the next ten years discreetly skimming gold and contributing neatly to Preminger’s scheme.

The plan had been born from King Alphonse’s ill health and Preminger’s own greed. As the king sickened and wasted away, Preminger grew more confident that he would succeed. There were no talks of betrothal with any of the noble families or indeed anyone else, which meant that once money came to a head, the highest bidder would get the crown—and, of course, the princess, but he didn’t want her. Precious few knew it, but the kingdom’s finances had been rocky for ages, and Preminger helped that along with a few subtly disastrous economic policies that ironically only ever made the queen more dependent on him. When the king finally passed away, Preminger became the queen’s most trusted advisor and was consulted on nearly every decision. Had he been in the country when the mines ran out, he would be running it today, he was sure of it. Instead, he sat in a cell. He had manipulated the Beaumonts for a decade, and they let had let him live.

It was a pity he wouldn’t be returning the favor.

Chapter Text

After an hour of lacing, coiffing, painting, and powdering, Queen Erika Von Brandt was ready to end the festival celebrating her coronation. Anneliese had departed after helping to select her gown and make sure Erika was alright; she said she had to drag Julian away from the library so they could get ready, too.

Sara wrung her hands as Erika turned this way and that, examining herself in the mirror.

“Stop worrying, Sara,” Erika insisted. “You did everything perfectly. I’m just worried that this dress isn’t the right style.”

“You’re the queen, milady, you set  the style.”

Erika paused, considering. “Really?”

“But of course, milady.”

Erika squared her shoulders. “Alright, now I’ve got to go apologize to Dominick.”

“He may already be at the festival, milady,” Sara said, trotting along behind as Erika took off down the corridor. “We took a bit longer than we should have. Where are we going, milady?” Sara had never been in this part of the palace before.

“Wait here,” Erika said, stopping at a particular corner.

“But, milady—”

“Sara.” Erika gave her a stern look, then went around the corner, opening the third door on the left down the corridor.

“Who’s there?” Dominick shouted, coming out from behind a rack of costumes half-dressed in what Erika recognized as a constable’s uniform. “I told you never to come in here!” His gaze fell on Erika. “Oh. Hello.”

“I came to apologize,” Erika said, trying to decide where to look: the planes of his bare chest were distracting, as was his mussed hair and the flustered flush in his cheeks, and of course his eyes were out of the question, because his gaze was too intense. “I don’t know why I yelled at you. It wasn’t your fault, and I know that. I guess it was just the stress of the day.”

For a moment he was silent, and she was afraid he wasn’t going to forgive her; but then he had crossed the room in two long strides and thrown his arms around her. He crushed her to his chest and his mouth crashed down onto hers.

She broke away, giddy, and giggled. “I’ll have to get dressed all over again.”

“I don’t care,” he said, dragging his lips down her neck. “I’m sorry too,” he whispered into her skin, and she shivered.

“We’re going to be late to the festival,” she said regretfully, disentangling herself.

“Do we have to go?” Dominick sighed, releasing her and running a hand through his hair.

“It is in my honor, and I’d rather not go without you...”

“Oh, if we must.” His gaze lingered on her mouth. The paint on her lips had smeared; he tasted some of it on his tongue. “You look so beautiful.”

Her heart fluttered, and she had to remind herself that there were several thousand people waiting for her to make an appearance. “I’ll see you there, then?”

“Yes, I just need to change.”

“And we’re alright?” The other part of their argument would have to wait, and he wasn’t pressing it, at any rate. She doubted he would forget, but she hoped.

“Definitely.” He kissed her hand, and Erika walked a few paces toward the corridor.

She paused in the doorway. “Oh, and Dominick?”

“Yes?” he called from the maze of costume racks.

“I want to see the constable later,” she said, and she left.

Erika found her handmaiden waiting anxiously; upon seeing her, Sara gasped. “Milady!”

“The king and I made up,” she said, ignoring the hot blush in her cheeks. “Come on, we’ve got to fix this before we can go down to the courtyard.”

Sara was silent as they went back to the royal chambers. She wiped Erika’s mouth with a wet cloth and set to re-powdering the area.

“I do appreciate your hard work, Sara,” Erika said suddenly, grabbing Sara’s wrist as she reached for the lip paint pot. “But sometimes things happen. You understand that, don’t you?”

“Yes, milady. Of course, milady.”

“I wouldn’t want you to be angry at me. Or the king.”

“Never, milady.” Sara painted the queen’s lips, then fixed one of the silk flowers that had come out of place in her hair, frowning. “There. Barring another incident with the king, you’re finally ready.”

“Sara!” Erika gasped.

“I’m sorry, milady! I didn’t mean—” She clapped a hand over her mouth, aghast at her audacity.

“Oh, you are a little snarker, aren’t you?” Erika grinned. “That’s wonderful, I just knew you had it in you.”

“Milady?”

“It’s lovely to see your personality.”

Sara managed a smile, relaxing a titch. “Are you ready, milady?”

“Yes. Finally.” She winked and then led them down the corridor again, this time in the opposite direction, toward the front doors. “I wonder where Wolfie and Serafina have gone off to? I swear, if they have any more kittens, they’ll overrun both kingdoms.”

“M-Milady?” Sara said timidly.

“You don’t have to be afraid to talk to me, Sara.”

“H-How did your cat come to bark? I’ve never seen such a thing before.”

“Well... I don’t actually know. I didn’t find him until he was already grown up. Sometimes I’ve wondered if he was raised by dogs. Whatever the case, I love him just how he is.”

“Oh, of course, milady. He’s a sweet kitty, isn’t he?”

“Yes, very sweet... I hope I’m not the last one there,” Erika said, quickening her pace as she descended the last staircase to the foyer.

“You won’t be,” Anneliese called from the bottom of the stairs, standing near the door with Julian. “We were just wondering if we were.”

“Oh, thank goodness. I hope they haven’t started without me,” she said anxiously as they exited the palace. The evening was cool, and torches were being lit along the path as the sun sank below the distant mountains.

“Technically,” Julian piped up, “it can’t begin without you.”

“Really?”

“Of course,” Anneliese said confidently. “Julian knows the rule books front to back. Are you going to sing tonight?”

Erika nodded. “A duet, with Dominick. The first song we ever sang together.”

They came to the stage that had been erected yesterday, hung with heavy purple curtains and set with two thrones. Anneliese and Julian bid them goodbye, disappearing into the crowd to have some fun mingling where they were less well-known.

Erika and Sara climbed the few stairs, Erika settling into the throne on Dominick’s left, and Sara standing just behind, mirroring Sebastian, Dominick’s page. The crowd gave a half-hearted cheer, and Erika raised her hand to acknowledge them with just as much vigor. For their part, it seemed they were too interested in the wine and entertainment going on elsewhere to really care why they were gathered here, and that was fine with her. She tugged at her gloves nervously.

Dominick leaned over. “Are you ready?”

“As I’ll ever be,” Erika said, forcing her face into a small, neutral smile. Dominick nodded to someone she didn’t see, and suddenly there was a line queueing up at the bottom of the stairs, and the first nobleman was standing in front of her.

“Lord Tacito Segreti di Lucca,” he said, bowing. “I am most pleased and honored to meet you, Your Excellency.”

“You flatter me, milord,” Erika said, trying not to sound bored; he seemed pleased, at any rate, and stepped aside to bow to the king.

And on it went, the dark growing deeper as she met several hundred noblemen and women, and she grew more tired as each passed. Occasionally, Sara would give her bits of bread or cheese and wine. Finally, there were no more to greet, and Dominick patted her reassuringly on the hand as he stood up.

The raucous crowd fell silent at once, and the sudden silence sent prickles to the back of Erika’s neck; she felt quite awake now.

“If I may have your attention. There will now be a special performance by the queen and myself.” He nodded to Sebastian, who drew aside the heavy curtains to reveal a piano. Dominick helped Erika stand and then led her to it. He kissed her hand, then sat on the bench, looking at her for a cue to start.

Erika’s heart was pounding. Why did she think this was a good idea? This was so much more stressful than anything she’d done on her tour! Her audience was so much bigger, for one thing, and for another, she couldn’t just leave the town if they didn’t like it! And the song, though it meant a lot to the both of them, was still little more than a nursery rhyme... She took a deep breath and nodded to Dominick, staring over the crowd as he began to play.

The song was short, and the crowd was silent during the whole of it. When the last notes had faded from the air, Erika dared to look at their faces; and all at once, the crowd exploded with cheers and applause.

Dominick took her hand and led her in a small bow, then guided her off the stage, followed by Sara and Sebastian. “See? They like you.”

“They like my singing, at least.” And they had last time I sang here in Dulcinea, she thought, but she didn’t say that.

“My mother used to tell me that singing is how the soul communicates. So if they like that, then they like you .”

Erika grinned. “It’s all over, then. The worst is over.” She would have been skipping, if her skirts weren’t so heavy. “Now I’ll have a few days to be with Anneliese before she has to go back to Aurelia. Oh, Dominick, I’ve never been so happy.”

“I’m glad.” They entered the palace foyer; he kissed her hand and winked. “I’ve got to go get something, but then I’m coming to bed, lass.”

“I’ll be there, lad,” she said, giddy, and she took Sara’s hand to race up the stairs. Or, rather, she would have raced, if not impeded by her skirts. “I’m so glad I’ll be back in normal dresses tomorrow, Sara. I swear, it’s like this has weights sewn into the bottom. I don’t remember it being this heavy in the design.”

“You haven’t worn it often, milady. Perhaps you forgot.”

“Maybe I did,” Erika conceded, throwing open the chamber doors. “I’m so exhausted.”

“I’ll help you undress, milady,” Sara said, coming up behind her and setting to work on the hundred little buttons down the back.

Erika pulled pins and gems and fake flowers from her hair, letting them fall on her dressing table. She dipped a cloth in water and wiped the paint and powder from her face, and then Sara had her stepping out of her gown.

As Sara put it away in the closet, the king entered the room. “I can do the rest,” he said, and she blushed furiously.

“Yes, milord,” she said, staring at the floor as she hurried out.

“I’ll see you in the morning!” Erika called, and the doors swung shut.

Dominick set his satchel down, walking to Erika and cupping her face in his hands. He kissed her, but when she moved to put her arms around his neck, he pulled away.

“What’s wrong?”

“Is there something you want to tell me?”

Oh. That. “Dominick...”

“You can tell me anything, Erika. You know that.”

“I’m not supposed to tell you. I’m never supposed to tell you.” She tried to reach behind herself and unlace her corset, but her arms didn’t want to bend that way. Dominick sighed and turned her around, undoing the laces with practiced ease.

“Are you seeing another man?” he asked quietly.

“No!” How could he think that? But then, what was he supposed to think?

“Then what could possibly be so bad?” he asked, letting her corset fall to the floor.

She sank onto the divan, removing her shoes slowly. “Please, Dominick. I don’t want you to be angry at me.”

He slipped out of his coat and shirt and laid them on a shelf in the closet. “I don’t want to be angry at you, either. I love you.”

“I’m afraid you won’t love me anymore.”

“Have you been lying to me? Is that it? What could you possibly lie about? I already know you were a peasant.” He knelt in front of her, and took her hands, looking up into her eyes. “Please.”

“I love you. You know that I love you, don’t you?”

“Of course.”

A lump swelled in her throat. “As much as I love you, and believe me, I do... That isn’t—it isn’t entirely the reason I married you.” She let out a small sob and pulled her hands from his grasp, covering her face.

“I see.”

“My tour was so hard, you have to understand! A woman, traveling alone, trying to book performances... Sometimes ticket sales wouldn’t even cover what I paid to rent a hall! I wasn’t going to come back, you understand. I wasn’t going to be selfish and come back when I didn’t deserve you, or your country. I was going to be happy when I heard you were getting married. But it never came, and I started to think you were waiting for me, and I was so tired of working so hard to get by... I came back, and now we’re here, and you hate me.”

“I don’t.” His arms went around her and he hugged her close. “Don’t you see? I was waiting for you. I was looking for a wife for months before Genevieve contacted me, and it was a relief , because then I could marry for money, and not worry about whether I liked her or not. I would be helping a country and giving my people what they wanted in one. But it didn’t work out that way, did it? I fell in love, and I decided that I would wait. I guessed you were having troubles—I didn’t wish them on you, of course, but I figured it might end up to be harder than you thought, and I hoped you would come to me for help. And you did.”

“So... So you’re not angry?” she sniffed.

“Well... maybe a little disappointed that my love wasn’t strong enough on its own, but I know this isn’t a fairy tale and that’s not how it works. I love you, for better and for worse.”

She laughed softly, finally meeting his gaze. “And I love you.”

He stood up and stretched, crossing the room to pick up his satchel. “Now... do you still want to see the constable?”

“Oh, yes, please.”


 

Several corridors away, Anneliese fell back on her pillows, nearly melting into the mattress in aftermath of her ecstasy. Julian hovered above her, gently kissing his way up her shoulder.

“That tickles,” she giggled; his hair was hanging around his face, released from its usual ponytail. He smiled and rolled over, reaching toward the water pitcher on the nightstand, and took a long drink from his glass.

“Oh, Julian,” Anneliese sighed, tracing patterns on his back as he lay on his stomach. “Do you think anyone noticed we left the festival?”

“I hope not.”

“And if they did?”

“I hope they didn’t realize where we were going, or why.”

Anneliese stretched languidly. “I think Dominick and Erika would understand.”

“Undoubtedly.”

There was a movement outside the window; Serafina leapt lightly down from the sill, and then onto the bed, purring.

“Soon we may have more cats than citizens,” Julian observed, and Anneliese laughed.

“Are you worried about becoming king someday?” she asked after a moment.

“Not really... It won’t be for a long time. I don’t even have to think about it for some years yet. Unless the queen is ill and you haven’t told me?”

“Oh, no, nothing like that. Just... watching Erika today, I started to worry about you.”

“I have several years, at least, to prepare. I’ll be fine.” He kissed her on the nose. “Now get some sleep. You wouldn’t want to oversleep on one of the few days you get to spend with Erika.”

She nodded to herself, then turned over, getting comfortable.

“Good night, Julian.”

“Good night, Anneliese.”

Chapter Text

3 Months Ago

“Can I ask you something? You don’t have to answer. I may be overstepping a boundary.”

Anneliese marked her place in her book and set it aside. “What’s on your mind?”

Erika shifted her weight, thinking it may be better not to ask. But she was curious. “You and Julian don’t seem very... affectionate.”

Anneliese laughed, sounding tired and perhaps a bit sad. “That’s not really a question.”

“Sorry,” Erika said quickly. She twisted her engagement ring on her finger, a nervous habit she’d picked up on her tour. She’d been wearing it on her left hand since formally accepting Dominick’s proposal, and it still felt strange.

“You’re right, though.” Anneliese sighed, putting her head in her hands. “He’s very... careful with me. He wants to do everything by the book.”

“Don’t ever stray from protocol?” Erika asked, remembering back a year and a half ago when he’d tried to teach her how to be a princess.

“Yes, exactly. I don’t mind, really. That’s the man I fell in love with, after all. I just hope he eases up a bit after the wedding.”

“I don’t mean to make you feel bad! I’m just wondering if me and Dominick are the odd ones for being more... physical.”

“I don’t think there’s a real right answer for this. My parents were never very affectionate, but I know they loved each other dearly.”

“I’m sorry—” Erika began, horrified. How had they gotten here?

“No, no, don’t be. It was... four years ago, now, I think? It doesn’t hurt as much anymore,” she said, but her eyes remained fixed on her desk, staring at nothing.

“I’m sorry,” Erika said again. “I—I didn’t know him personally, of course, but I remember how things used to be. You used to order a lot more dresses, for one.”

Anneliese smiled. “Yes, things were a bit easier then. I’ve been looking over some of Preminger’s policies, and I’m sure he intentionally drove us into the ground, even without stealing from the mines.”

“Has he said anything?”

“Not a word in months.”

“He’s probably planning something.” Erika began twisting her ring again.

“What can he do? He’s under armed guard around the clock.”

Erika paused, looking for the words that would be mostly inoffensive. “This might sound... harsh, but I don’t understand why you didn’t hang him.”

“My mother insisted we didn’t. She said it was about the politics, but I think she’s still fond of him, after all this. Maybe she’s hoping he’ll redeem himself in prison.”

“That won’t happen.”

“I know it won’t.” She sighed, then laughed. “Just a minute ago we were comparing relationships, and now this.”

“It’s funny how that can happen, isn’t it?” Erika said, but she didn’t find the conversation funny at all. She tried to steer them back to something less painful. “Have you kissed him? Julian, I mean.”

Anneliese blushed. “He’s kissed my hand...”

Erika stifled a giggle. “That’s it? Dominick almost kissed me our first day together. He did think I was you, but still...”

“Apparently there are specific rules of courtship down in some old etiquette book, and he’s rather determined to go through every one.”

“I wondered why you didn’t get married while I was away. I kept expecting to hear an announcement.”

“I think he’s just nervous, because this is against custom. He’s trying to make up for it.”

“Probably. Dominick doesn’t seem to have that problem... I wonder why.”

“I think he cares more about love than anything else. I think you’ll be very happy together.”

“You really think so?”

“I do.”


 

Now

Anneliese was born royalty. She knew she had been pampered and coddled since birth; she just hadn’t given it much thought until befriending Erika and watching her try to adjust to life as royal.

Erika talked to and about her handmaiden often, something Anneliese found very strange. She’d never been especially unkind to any of her servants, but she’d never really given them much thought, either. She wondered if she should, and made a few half-hearted attempts to talk to Lisette, her temporary handmaiden for her visit to Dulcinea, but Lisette gave clipped, monosyllabic responses and she gave up. Perhaps she would try again with Charlotte, her regular chambermaid back home.

Anneliese had four days to spend with Erika until she had to return to Aurelia, and they wanted to make the most of them. However, when they’d sat down to breakfast alone together—Dominick had to draw up a few economic plans and Julian went straight to the library—they found they had little to talk about. After several halting attempts at conversation, during which they both lost their appetites, Erika suggested a tour of the palace.

“We’re friends, aren’t we?” Anneliese asked as they entered the north wing.

“Of course,” Erika said, but she didn’t meet her eye.

“I thought we’d have so much more to talk about,” Anneliese admitted, paying particular attention to the crown molding for no reason at all.

“Well, we didn’t spend much time together to begin with, and then I was away so long... It’s bound to be awkward, at first,” Erika said diplomatically. “Don’t worry.”

“Who’s that?” Anneliese pointed to a huge painting that spanned nearly floor to ceiling. Its subject was a regal man gazing down at them with a sort of serene wisdom astride a stately gray horse.

“King Christoph, Dominick’s father. He didn’t have that commissioned, you know; an artist just painted it for him and sent it along as a gift. Dominick said it took ten men to bring it inside. The people loved him.” Erika felt a bit sad looking at this painting; she’d never known Christoph, but the way Dominick spoke of him drew pangs in her heart.

“I never knew him, but I think my father did.”

“Dominick said something like that. I didn’t ask for too many details... It’s painful for him.”

“I understand.” Anneliese gave a heavy sigh, trying not to think of her own dead father. “Where’s Oliver? I thought we might see him.”

“In a lesson, I think, or else in the library. I don’t see him very often... I wonder if he’s simply very busy, or actively avoiding me.”

“Why would he do that?”

“Maybe he doesn’t want a peasant queen.”

“That’s too bad, because he has one.”

Erika smiled gratefully, and then her expression soured. “I don’t suppose there’s a chance you didn’t hear the woman yesterday?”

“I did, unfortunately. It was appalling.”

Erika paused at the window, trying to see her reflection. “I’m not too skinny, right?”

“No,” Anneliese said firmly, pulling her away from the window.

“And I guess if I’m not pretty, then you’re not, either... Sorry about that.” She tried to smile, like it was all a joke.

“Don’t let her inside your head, Erika. You’re beautiful. I’m beautiful. Julian tells me so every day, and I bet Dominick does, too.”

Erika nodded slowly. “That’s what Dominick said. Not that I’m beautiful—well, I mean, he’s said that before, of course, but—he said not to let her get to me.”

“Exactly. I’m sorry, but if you’re holding out for a one hundred percent popularity rating, you’re going to be sorely disappointed.”

“Really?” Erika asked desperately.

Anneliese nodded. “It fluctuates all the time. They thought I was crazy when I wanted to open the mines again, but once the geodes started selling, everyone flipped their opinion, and suddenly I was a genius. People can be... fickle.”

“So it’s not just me being... a former peasant?”

“That might be part of it, but I doubt it’s the only part. People will find any reason to dislike you. You just can’t take it personally. I mean, I’m sure you heard rumors about me, back in Astraea.”

“I did hear a few,” Erika admitted.

“And they’re ridiculous, aren’t they, now that you know me?” Erika nodded. “See? That’s that. You can’t believe what people will say about you.”

Erika nodded, simply to end the conversation. She still wasn’t quite convinced, but she did feel a bit better, and she smiled gratefully. She cleared her throat and gestured that they should keep walking. “Have you seen our library? I know Julian’s been there, of course.”

“I have! It’s wonderful. How did you build up your collection?”

“Dominick’s grandfather did most of it, and his father contributed a little.”

“I never knew King Rodrigo was a scholar.”

“He tried to be, I think. There’s never much time for a king to do anything.”

Anneliese nodded sympathetically. “We’re in a bit of a hectic time, but it won’t always be like that.”

“Hopefully,” Erika sighed. “Would you like to see him? King Rodrigo, I mean. Well, not him , he’s been dead for years—not to sound callous! I just meant—in one of the ballrooms there are portraits of a lot of the royal family.”

“That would be lovely,” Anneliese said, looping her arm through Erika’s. “Relax! I know what you meant.”

“I just don’t know how you always say the right thing. I’m so afraid I’m going to offend somebody and cause a political incident—”

“I’ll bet an etiquette tutor told you that.”

“Yeah. Bertram. I don’t think he likes me very much.”

“It sounds like Bertram should be a little less hard on you.”

“Dominick says so too. He talked to him once, but that didn’t help anything, so I’ve given up on that. I’ll just have to bear it.”

“Now that’s thinking like a royal,” Anneliese said approvingly. “Some people are always going to be unpleasant, and if you can’t get away from them—at court, that’s usually the case—you have to act like they don’t bother you.”

“That’s what I’m worried about.”

“What do you mean?”

“I meet my ladies-in-waiting next week. I’m sure they’ll  be perfectly lovely to my face , but I’d bet at least one of them will try to poison me in my sleep.”

Sara gasped, “No!” Then quickly added, “Sorry, miladies, I beg your pardon.” She stared at the floor, red in the face.

“I didn’t mean it,” Erika said quickly. She was lying through her teeth, but she didn’t want Sara to be upset.

“Dominick would never let that happen,” Anneliese said, staring at Sara like she’d never seen her before. “I’m sure he has someone very competent selecting these ladies.”

“Yes, Sir Victor. He’s very kind, Sara, remember? We met with him before.”

“I—I’ll guard you all night if I have to, milady. Nobody is going to hurt you,” Sara said fiercely.

“I’m going to be fine, Sara, I promise.” Erika pulled Sara into a hug, something she hadn’t done before. She let go rather quickly, seeing the look on Anneliese’s face—not disapproving, exactly, but definitely puzzled. “Now, Sara, I’d like you to go and see the seamstresses, like I asked you yesterday, remember? Anneliese and I are going to the ballroom.”

“Y-yes, milady,” she said, sounding shaken by her hug. She nearly ran down the corridor.

“What now?” Erika sighed, directing herself and Anneliese down the opposite way, toward the ballroom.

“I’ve been waited on hand and foot my whole life, and I’ve never talked to a servant like you do to Sara,” Anneliese said, frowning. She was beginning to feel very guilty.

“She’s the only friend I have here.”

“But—”

“I know Dominick is here too, but he’s very busy. There’s Oliver, but he’s not a real big talker, and he has all sorts of lessons, anyway. Besides, if I’m going to have someone follow me around everywhere, I might as well make conversation. I know it’s strange.”

“I’ve just never given much thought to my servants before.” Anneliese blushed and looked straight ahead. “Before we met, I’d never even thought that someone made my favorite dress.”

“You’ve always had servants. They’re part of your life. They weren’t a part of mine. I’m still amazed that I can have someone bring me food whenever I want it, or that I can tell someone my room is cold and they’ll light a fire. I don’t have to do anything for myself anymore. But then I have so many other things to do, so much to learn.”

“It won’t always be like that.”

“I know. But we weren’t talking about me, we were talking about you.”

“I just don’t know if I should try to talk to them, or—”

“Just be kind to them. I mean, I’m sure you are already. Don’t try to emulate me or anything, that’s stupid. I’m the one doing it wrong.”

“There’s not really a wrong when you’re queen, I don’t think.”

“That’s what Sara says. Here.” Erika pushed open the door to the ballroom. “Let’s forget about that for a bit, and I’ll introduce you to the family.”


 

Several corridors away, Sara was trying not to run. There was no need to hurry, she reasoned. Queen Erika was deep within the palace, with armed guards patrolling at intervals. She was very safe—and what could Sara do that they couldn’t? She was only fourteen. She had to relax.

But it was so difficult!

She shook her head. No, she was being silly. There was nothing to worry about. All the same, the sooner she was done with this errand—

Sara ran smack into somebody. Their hand shot out and caught her before she fell back on the floor; she looked up to thank them and apologize, but her breath caught in her throat.

“T-t-terribly s-sorry, milord!” she gasped, stepping back. Her chest felt bruised, but that hardly mattered when she’d just knocked into Prince Oliver!

“It’s alright, er... Sara, is it? I think that’s what Erika said.”

“Yes, milord.” She stared at the floor, and noticed that she seemed to have scuffed the prince’s shoes. She desperately wanted a hole to open in the floor and swallow her up.

“Sorry for running into you, I wasn’t paying attention.”

“It was my fault, milord.”

“Is that so?” He looked at her quizzically—not that she knew that, as she still stared determinedly at the floor. He sighed. “If you insist. In any case, I’m sorry if I hurt you. My brother says I’m built like a brick.” He waited, but she didn’t say anything. “Where are you going?”

“To see the seamstresses,” she whispered.

“Oh, you’re on an errand.”

“What else would I be on, milord?” she asked, daring to look up. He smiled.

“I dunno. I thought Erika might have had you taking some time for yourself while she’s with Anneliese. It’s a pity you’re busy.”

“Milord?”

Oliver raised a hand to rumple his hair. “We could do something.”

“What do you mean, milord?” Her heart was beating very fast.

“We can go exploring. I’ve lived here my whole life and there are rooms I haven’t been in. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Milord, the seamstresses—”

“They’ll still be there. I’m sure Erika won’t miss you, she’s busy with Anneliese.” He took her hand. “Come on.”

“If—If you insist, milord.”

He grinned and pulled her along down the corridor.


 

“And that’s Hroderich and Olivia, with little Ludwig and Rodrigo. Then Rodrigo and Marie, with Alvise, Dominique, and Christoph. And of course, Christoph and Katharine, with Oliver and Dominick. This is sort of the wall of families.” Erika looked at these portraits with a heavy heart. So many of these people were dead... Would Dominick continue the tradition of dying young?

“These are very small families,” Anneliese observed. “I thought mine was unusual.”

“I hadn’t thought about that.” Erika frowned. “You’re an only child, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. My mother had a few miscarriages and stillbirths, though.”

“I’m sorry.”

“That was a long time ago,” Anneliese said heavily. “Look, there’s one of Dominick.”

“He looks so handsome, doesn’t he?”

“Indeed... Are you going to be in here someday?”

“I’m supposed to sit for a portrait next month. I’m not looking forward to it.”

“Why?”

“Sitting still for hours, for weeks on end? That does not sound like my idea of fun.”

“It’s not so bad, I promise. Ask someone to read to you.”

“All I’ve been reading lately is history and law texts.”

“I can recommend a few novels, if you’d like.”

“That would be lovely.”


 

Oliver pulled Sara closer, putting his arm around her waist as they walked. She smelled wine on his breath and began thinking this was not a good idea.

She began to edge away. “Milord, I really should be getting back to my mistress—”

“Let’s go see the war room. Nobody’s been in there for ages.”

“I don’t know that you’re thinking clearly, milord.”

He let his hand fall from her waist. “I just wanted to relax a little with someone my own age.” He sighed, rubbing his eyes.

“I appreciate the thought, milord! But we mustn’t.”

“And why mustn’t we?”

“I’ve got to get back to—”

“Erika doesn’t even know you’re gone!” he said impatiently. “She’s with Anneliese!”

“You’ve been drinking, milord,” she said, wrinkling her nose. She’d always hated the smell of wine, and he was far too close.

“Only a bit. Otherwise I can never talk to anyone, I get too scared.”

“Scared, milord?”

“I don’t know why. I’m a prince, I’m supposed to be able to command a room! Or something like that, I never remember what.” He massaged his forehead. “I don’t know why I can’t.” He took a small bottle from inside his vest. “You won’t tell, will you, Sara?”

“No, milord,” she said solemnly as he took a drink and put it away again.

“Good.” He grinned. “Come on, let’s just go see the war room. Then you can get right back to your mistress. Please?”

She hesitated as he held his hand out, then took it. “Yes, milord.”

“Call me Oliver,” he said, pulling her close again. “Please?”

Sara’s stomach was fluttering. Prince Oliver was so handsome, and being so kind to her. She could hardly believe her luck.

“It’s just up here.” Oliver pushed open the door and guided her in. It was very dark.

“Shall I light a candle?” She fumbled with her pockets for her tinderbox.

“Nope,” he said, shutting the door, and the room was thrown into complete blackness.

“Milord? Oh!” Sara gasped, feeling lips near her ear, and then on her neck, and hands everywhere . “W-What—?”

“Shhh,” he murmured, placing his mouth firmly over hers. He maneuvered her backward, so that she sat on the table.

Sara tried to speak, to tell him that he shouldn’t, but she was feeling things she’d never felt before, and there were strange, indecent noises coming out of her mouth instead of words as he hiked up her skirt, and she didn’t know what was happening—

The door flew open and the room flooded with light. And then, a very angry “ Oliver!

“Dammit,” Oliver muttered, backing away.

Sara yanked her skirt down, horrified. “I’m so sorry, milord—”

Dominick held up a hand to her and she fell silent. He glared at Oliver. “Wait in the corridor. I’ll deal with you in a minute.”

Oliver trudged out, straightening his clothes, and Dominick turned to Sara. She quaked with fear, expecting fierce anger at the very least, but his eyes were almost pitying.

“Are you alright?” he asked, offering his hand to help her down, which she fearfully accepted.

“I-I’m fine, milord.” She tried to hold back tears.

“Where’s Erika?”

“In the ballroom with the portraits, milord. She sent me to the seamstresses, but I met Oliver—the young lord, I mean—and I was waylaid.” Her voice cracked. “Please, don’t tell my lady. I beg of you, my king. Don’t tell her why you’re sending me back—”

“Sending you back where?”

“T-To the orphanage, milord.”

“I’m not sending you anywhere,” Dominick sighed. “Please, continue your errand and return to Erika. I’m sure she must be missing you.”

Sara nodded and ran out of the room, nearly crashing into Oliver again. She did not stop to apologize or even look at him at all.

“Come with me,” Dominick said, shutting the door to the war room. He put his hand on Oliver’s shoulder and gripped it painfully tight when he tried to shake him off. He steered them toward a nearby sitting room and when he’d closed the door, shoved him toward the fireplace. “What is wrong with you?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” Oliver said calmly, staring into the grate. “I was only having a little fun.”

“You think assaulting a young girl is fun ?”

“I wasn’t assaulting her!”

“She’s too young! And so are you!” Dominick pinched the bridge of his nose and began pacing. “There are any of a thousand noble girls here right now, and you foist your affections on Sara?”

“I’m not foisting anything on her, she was enjoying herself!”

“You don’t like Sara! You don’t care about her! You’re using her because she’s here and it’s convenient for you!”

“You don’t know that! Maybe I love her!”

“You’ve never even spoken to her before! This just proves how much of a child you are!” Dominick grabbed Oliver’s shoulder and steered him out again, marching him to his room. His page, Sebastian, silently joined them on the way.

Dominick pushed Oliver into his bedroom. “You are confined to your room until further notice. You will have your meals brought to you. You will not have books brought from the library. You will have no companions except your tutors. Sebastian, notify the guard. Nobody in or out but teachers, and have two men at this door, and two outside watching his windows.” He shut the door and nodded for Sebastian to set off.

“You’re overreacting!” Oliver shouted through the door.

“Maybe so.” Dominick shrugged. “But I’m the king.”

“Yeah, thanks for lording that over me again.”

Dominick didn’t see the point in saying how obvious it was that Oliver was not fit for kingship. “And since our parents are dead, that leaves it to me to punish you.”

“I didn’t do anything wrong .”

“You can come out of your room when you admit that you did.”

“I hate you!” Oliver screamed, kicking the door.

Dominick said nothing as Sebastian came back with two guards. He left them there and took Sebastian with him.

“Do you think I’m overreacting?” he asked, striding quickly down the corridor toward no place in particular.

“Perhaps, but I don’t doubt that it will do him good.”

“Let’s hope so.”

Chapter Text

Erika went to bed and woke up alone. She wasn’t sure if Dominick had been and gone, or never come to bed at all.

Sara was unusually quiet as she helped Erika dress, as she had been ever since coming back from the seamstresses. Erika had tried, repeatedly and unsuccessfully, to learn what was wrong, but Sara wasn’t giving anything up. All in all, Erika had hardly had a worse morning, save for the one after her night in the dungeon.

As Erika was stepping into her shoes, the door opened, and Dominick walked in, looking exhausted, his clothes very rumpled. Sara gave a frightened squeak.

“Uh—Sara, why don’t you go check on breakfast?” Erika suggested, and Sara nearly sprinted from the room. She stared after her. “I don’t know what’s gotten into her.”

Dominick gave a very tired smile, sinking onto the divan and putting his head in his hands.

“What happened? Where were you last night?” Erika sat beside him.

“I slept in my study.”

“On purpose? Why? Are you upset about—?”

“You didn’t do anything.” He sighed heavily, lifting his head.

“You’re scaring me.”

“I don’t want you to be upset.”

“You’re making me very nervous, Dominick. Did something happen? Did Preminger escape?” Her heart was beating in stuttering bursts, so fast it hurt.

“No.” He took her face between his hands and kissed her forehead. “Do you worry about that?”

Of course she worried about that. “Right now I’m worried about you .”

He let go of her face and his hands fell limply in his lap. “It’s... It’s Oliver.”

“Is he hurt?”

“No, no, he’s fine. I just... I caught him yesterday, with... with Sara.”

There was a moment of dead silence.

“What do you mean, ‘with Sara’?” If he was saying what she thought he was...

“He was... kissing her.”

“HE WAS WHAT ?!” Erika stood up so fast she nearly knocked the divan over.

Dominick stood up too as Erika began to pace, her hands opening and closing on the air as though she longed to throw things—or strangle someone. “Erika...”

“How dare he! How dare he touch her!”

“Erika—”

“No wonder Sara’s been so quiet! And I sent her out again, when he could be roaming the halls! I’ve got to call her back—”

“Erika!” He grabbed her by the shoulders. “I’ve confined him to his room.”

“This is your fault, you know!”

He let go of her in surprise. “What do you mean, my fault?”

“You went and married a peasant, and gave him ideas, and now he thinks he can take advantage of my handmaiden, my friend —!”

“How can you blame this on me? I stopped them! Otherwise they would have done something far worse—”

Erika held her hands up in surrender, taking very deep breaths. “You’re right, you’re right. I’m sorry. I just don’t like the thought of him... groping her.” She shuddered. “I mean, how is a girl supposed to say ‘no’ to royalty?”

Dominick smiled. “You did. You may be the first woman to ever turn down a king.”

Erika blushed and rolled her eyes. “That makes it sound so impressive.”

“It was impressive.” He put his arms around her waist and pulled her close. “Forgive me, but by then I was far too used to girls swooning in my presence. You brought me down a notch.” He kissed her forehead, then the tip of her nose, and finally her lips.

Erika wanted to say that Anneliese was waiting at breakfast, and Sara would be back at any moment, but Dominick’s lips moved to her neck and she wrapped herself around him, forgetting everything else but his skin on hers.

In the corridor, Sara stopped outside the chambers to press her ear to the door; she didn’t want to catch the king and queen in a compromising position. Again. She’d done it three times before learning to stop and listen before going in. Luckily, they hadn’t noticed her any of the three times, as they were very much involved in something else.

From inside their chambers, Sara heard very busy noises, and sighed, deciding she should tell Princess Anneliese that the queen would be late. She wasn’t sure how to say why , but it would be rude to keep the princess waiting—they could take a very long time with these things. As she walked along the corridor, she remembered yesterday, when she’d made similar sounds, and her cheeks felt aflame with heat. She wondered if Dominick had told the queen, and how she had reacted. Well, she supposed she would learn soon enough.

Sara entered the dining hall feeling very small. She was not sure it was her place to talk to the princess, but it would be so rude to leave her wondering. Anneliese sat with her back to the door, playing with a napkin. Sara cleared her throat very quietly, and Anneliese looked around.

“Oh, hello, Sara. Where’s Erika?”

“The queen is... indisposed, milady. She was waylaid by the king.”

For some reason, Anneliese laughed. “Thank you, Sara. I was wondering what was keeping her. Please, sit down.”

“Oh, I couldn’t, milady.”

“I won’t bite,” Anneliese said lightly, gesturing to the seat across from her. “Please.”

Sara sat down cautiously. Anneliese’s smile faltered as silence stretched between them, and she began playing with the napkin again.

“Uh... Princess? How... How are you enjoying your visit to D-Dulcinea?”

Anneliese’s face lit up. “Oh, it’s wonderful! This is the first time I’ve been out of the country, did you know? I’ve hardly left the palace in Astraea... But that’s mostly because I’ve been so busy, working trade agreements and bringing in jewelers, people who know how to work with crystals, for the geodes, you know? Creating a new industry isn’t all fun and games.”

“I should think not, princess.”

“Please, call me Anneliese.”

“Yes, princess,” Sara said, and Anneliese laughed. Sara had a question she would like to ask, but it would surely be inappropriate... But would the princess mind?

“Something on your mind?” Anneliese asked, noticing her expression.

“It’s not my place, pr—Anneliese.”

“Try me.”

Sara swallowed, staring at the tablecloth. She felt bolder and braver every day. “I was wondering... if there was much resistance in your country when you wanted to marry Julian? I know many people here did not want Erika to be queen.”

Anneliese frowned thoughtfully. “I don’t know. Rumors and gossip don’t really reach me in the palace, you know? There was probably some, but that wouldn’t have stopped me from marrying him, even if I heard it. Besides, he’s not king yet. They’ll have plenty of time to get to know him before he’s anywhere near the throne.”

“Of course,” Sarah said hastily. “Long live the queen.” She wanted to ask about the events in Aurelia—she had heard many rumors, but never the story from her queen or anyone else—but she did not want to be impertinent.

Anneliese laughed again, and Sara looked up, finally getting a proper look at the princess; she gasped in surprise.

“What’s wrong?” Anneliese twisted around, looking behind her.

“You... You look just like Erika! Or... She looks just like you! But your hair...”

“Well, of course.” Anneliese frowned. “Don’t—?” she began, but she was cut off by the door flying open and Erika rushing in, patting her hair and adjusting her bodice.

“So sorry I’m late!” she said breathlessly as Sara sprang to her feet and pulled out her chair.

Anneliese grinned. “It’s alright, Sara here told me all about it.”

Erika sat down. “Did she?” she asked, raising her eyebrows.

“I—I said you’d been waylaid—”

Anneliese and Erika looked at each other and burst into giggles, and Sara tried to figure out just what was so funny. After a moment, their laughter faded, and Erika reached for the teapot.

“I take it Dominick isn’t coming to breakfast?” Anneliese took a bite of her toast, which was now cold but still delicious.

“No, he’s still working on those economic plans. Some people were very upset about our marriage, you know? It’s caused a whole mess of problems, but he says he doesn’t mind. I do hope he’s done today, though, so we can all do something fun before you leave. Is Julian in the library again?” Erika motioned for Sara to sit down and serve herself, which she did reluctantly.

“Yes, I think he’s researching something, but he won’t really talk about it. He’s being very mysterious.”

“That seems unlike him.”

“Doesn’t it? Maybe it’s a surprise for me. He talked about wanting to cultivate a new variety of rose for me once, maybe he’s looking into it.” She would not be at all surprised if he tried to follow through on such an outlandish statement.

“If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.”

Anneliese smiled, but she was beginning to worry. It was certainly a very sweet gesture, but she didn’t want him to go through all that trouble for her! Maybe they could stop by the library, and she could have a word with him... But if that wasn’t it, then what could he possibly be up to?


 

Julian sat in the library, surrounded by several open books and pages of notes written in his own special shorthand. He was currently poring over a large, illustrated mineralogy tome he’d pulled from the deepest part of the library, frowning in concentration as he examined its pages. He sighed and put the tome aside, leaning back and scrubbing his eyes with the heels of his hands. He picked up a small volume on Dulcinean history, hoping it would prove more useful. He was painfully aware of every sound, and the back of his neck was prickling, as though he was being watched. He wasn’t sure why he felt so guilty—he wasn’t doing anything wrong per se , but he was still very afraid of being caught.

The words in the book slipped through his brain like water through cupped hands, and he set it down again. He couldn’t concentrate. Perhaps he wasn’t meant to know this. Perhaps there was no mystery at all.

Julian put his head in his hands, exhaling forcefully. Maybe he should just ask Dominick about the gems. He would know, wouldn’t he? And they were friends, weren’t they? At least, their wives were friends... But had they actually sat down and talked to each other before? They’d been in the same conversation, yes, but Julian could not remember ever speaking directly to Dominick before. How very strange.

He stood up, gathering the twenty or so books from the table and replacing them carefully on the shelves. He had always had a great respect for books—in fact, it was because of a book that he was married. Had he ever told Anneliese the story? Maybe not... Thinking about her father was still so painful for her.

He didn’t feel the same way about his own parents, but he hadn’t been very close to them. They didn’t have much time to spend with him, for one thing, and they didn’t know what to do with a son who didn’t want to work— What’s the use in learning all that? they used to say. What good does it do to know the names of two hundred flowers when we can’t afford bread?

It had done him good when King Alphonse had picked him to tutor the princess! Julian frowned and shook his head. They didn’t know anything, and now they were dead. And he was a prince, living in a palace, with all the bread he could possibly eat.

Knowledge is power, Julian told himself firmly, leaving the library.

He would take a break from trying to unravel the gem mystery today. He would go into the gardens and try to name all the flowers, and for lunch he would have bread.


 

12 Years Ago

“What’s that you’re reading?”

Julian looked up, squinting against the sun. “It’s about flowers, sir.”

The man sat beside him on the stoop. “May I see it?”

“Be careful, I’ve got flowers pressed in the pages.” He handed the book over, studying the man. He didn’t look like someone from the village—his face and clothes were too clean and unwrinkled. But he was dressed very plainly, not in the style of the nobles that sometimes came through on their way to the palace.

“Did you collect all of these flowers yourself?” the man asked, turning the pages with the utmost care.

“Yes, sir.”

“Where did you get this book?”

“From Josué, sir. He was a scholar. You can ask him if you want,” Julian added, suddenly feeling very anxious. If the man thought the book was stolen, he would take it away.

The man paused on the page for Rosa centifolia .

“Where are your parents?” he asked suddenly, shutting the book. He handed it back, staring at Julian like he was seeing him for the first time.

“Working, sir.”

“Where do you live?”

Julian hesitated, then pointed upstairs. “Why, sir?”

The man shook his head and stood up, dusting himself off. “Goodbye, Julian. I’ll see you later.”

“Later? Sir, wait! Sir!” Julian scrambled to get up as the man quickly disappeared into the crowd.

Julian stood for a moment on the stoop, very confused. Had that actually happened? Had the heat of the day gotten to him? He went to the well for a drink, trying to clear mind. The more he thought about it, the more he was sure he’d imagined the whole thing.

That night, a palace guard arrived with a letter, and Julian began to cry, hugging his book as his father read it. The man had reported him!

His father read the letter and passed it to his mother, staring at Julian open-mouthed. His mother fell into a chair, clutching her heart, and stared at him too.

Julian sniffed and rubbed his eyes. “I didn’t steal it!” he shouted to the guard.

“No, that’s not...” His father ran a hand through his beard. “This is a letter from the king. He wants you to go to the palace.”

The king? The king?

“He wants you to tutor the princess. He’s waiting downstairs in a carriage.”

Julian didn’t move.

“Get up, boy! Go down there!” his father shouted, and he sprang up, still hugging his book.

Julian walked past them without a word, followed by the guard. A royal carriage sat waiting in the street, and the guard ushered him inside, shutting the door with a sharp snap.

Across from him sat the man, this time with a crown and better clothes.

“Hello, Julian. I’m King Alphonse.”

“Hello, sir,” Julian croaked.

“I’d like for you to teach my daughter about flowers. Would you like to do that?”

“I’m sure many people know more than me, sir.”

“Maybe so. But I’d like my daughter to have a friend, as well as a tutor. She doesn’t have any brothers or sisters, you know.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Would you like to be her friend?”

“I... I don’t know sir. I’ve never met her.”

The king laughed.

“I could teach her about flowers. But... what will happen when I’ve taught her all I know?”

“You can learn other things to teach her. There are always things to learn.” The king smiled kindly.

“I accept, sir,” Julian said. He was eight years old, but he knew this was the opportunity of a lifetime.

“Splendid!” said the king. “Now, if you’d like to say goodbye to your parents—”

“No, sir.”

The king raised an eyebrow and called out the window, “To the palace!”

The carriage jerked forward, and they were off.

“You can live in the palace, if you’d like.”

“I’d like that, sir.”

“We can take care of your family, of course—”

“That won’t be necessary, sir.”

The king’s eyebrows raised so high they nearly disappeared into his hair.

“Without me around, they should be fine, sir,” Julian said, staring at nothing.

This was a lie, and the king knew it, but he did not question it. “Well, in any case, Anneliese is waiting up to meet you.”

“I’m not really dressed for—”

“Don’t worry about that!” The king laughed again. “I’m quite sure she won’t care at all.”

For the rest of the trip, the king talked about accommodating him in the palace, but he barely listened. Finally, they arrived; standing on the front steps Julian saw a blonde woman—the queen, he assumed from her crown—and a small blonde girl in a pink dress bouncing up and down excitedly as she held her mother’s hand.

“Where is he, mama? I can’t see him!”

“Calm down, Anneliese,” the queen said, laughing.

A guard opened the carriage door and the king stepped out. Julian hesitated, suddenly afraid. What if she didn’t like him? He would have to go back to the village. Back to his parents.

“Come along, Julian,” the king insisted, and he climbed out, holding his breath.

The princess squealed and nearly tackled him with a hug, knocking his breath out. “Hello, Julian!”

“Hello, princess,” he gasped as she jumped away to hug her father.

“He’s perfect, papa, thank you!” Anneliese said happily, turning to Julian again, and he got a good look at her face. She was very pretty, and suddenly he felt very flustered. “Do you want to play a game?”

“Now, now, Anneliese, it’s time for bed,” the queen said sternly, taking her hand again. “And he’s here to teach you, remember?”

“Yes, I know, but I’m not in lessons all the time. We can play games too, can’t we, papa?”

The king nodded and the queen led Anneliese inside.

“Well?”

“I think I like her, sir,” Julian said timidly, and the king laughed.

“I was hoping you’d say that.”

Chapter Text

Julian wandered in the gardens for three hours. He could name everything he saw, and it gave him an enormous sense of satisfaction. When he finally went indoors for lunch, he had begun to think about the gems again.

He was absolutely certain they were not amethysts—at least, not normal amethysts. He had not ruled out the possibility of magic, although if he mentioned that to anyone, they would probably laugh at him. There was something about them... something very strange about their color and clarity that he could not put his finger on. He had told himself many times that he was probably fixating on nothing, but that hadn’t done much to deter him.

He went straight to the kitchens to grab some bread before heading upstairs for the library again. On his way there, he paused at an open doorway, recognizing Dominick’s back as he stared at a portrait. Julian guessed this must be the ballroom Anneliese had told him about. He cleared his throat, and Dominick started, looking around.

“Oh, hello,” he said, staring at the bit of bread in Julian’s hands. “Hungry?”

“Uh, yes.” Julian hastily took his last bite, wiping the crumbs from his hands on his breeches. “Who’s that?” he asked, pointing to the portrait Dominick has been looking at.

“My grandfather.”

“Ah, King Rodrigo! I’ve been reading about him.”

“You have?” Dominick asked, surprised.

“I’ve been reading up on Dulcinean history, in honor of the coronation—and general fascination—all the way back to King Hroderich, but I think Rodrigo may be my favorite. Of the historical kings,” he added quickly. “You’re more... current events. There aren’t books about you yet, I don’t think.”

Dominick laughed. “Not that I know of. A few scathing articles have been written lately, though.”

“People upset with your marriage?” Julian guessed, although it was hardly guessing.

“Oh yes,” he said cheerfully, beckoning for Julian to follow him out of the ballroom. “And I’ve gotten heaps of letters. Some of them from heartbroken women, or their angry mothers. But that’s been the case for the past few years. No one was very interested in me when I was just a prince, but once my father died and I became king, suddenly everyone cared about who I was going to marry.”

“How long did you look before Genevieve asked you to marry Anneliese?” Julian asked lightly. He was not jealous of something that had never even happened. He was not.

“Six months or so.” Dominick shrugged, opening the door to his study.

“Was there ever anyone you liked?”

Dominick was quiet for a moment as he sat behind his desk, which was piled with paper and parchment. “You won’t tell Erika?”

“Of course not,” Julian said, sinking into an armchair.

“There was one woman. She was very beautiful, but... she had a dreadful temper.”

Julian frowned. “I... Not to gossip, but I had heard that Erika has been quite—”

“Not like that!” Dominick waved his hand as though he could bat the sentence out of the air. “Yes, Erika has been a bit short with me lately, but she’s been under a great deal of stress—we both have—and she’s always so quick to apologize. No, this was something else.” He sighed, staring at his hands as he played with a quill. He glanced at the closed door and swallowed. “Can you keep a secret?”

“Yes,” Julian said curiously.

“This woman was... violent .”

Julian inhaled sharply but said nothing.

“She would get very angry if everything wasn’t exactly perfect. God forbid the tablecloth was the wrong color—I wish that was an exaggeration.” He sighed heavily. “She would hit things. The wall, the table... me.” He laid down his quill and leaned back in his chair, rubbing his face. “For awhile, I thought, ‘If I can just keep things perfect , it won’t happen anymore.’ I did the best I could, but she would still get so angry. I had to realize that it wasn’t my fault, and that I wasn’t doing myself any favors keeping her in my life. I ended things.” He stood up and began to pace. “It... It wasn’t pleasant. In the end, I had to have her arrested.”

“Where did you send her?”

“A private prison owned by some of my relatives in Spain.” Dominick barely repressed a shudder. “I can’t stand to think what would happen if she came back. I think she would try to kill Erika, at the very least, I really do.” He sat back down. “Do you think I was too extreme? I mean”—he swallowed past a lump in his throat—“she did threaten and make an attempt on my life.”

“Not at all. Honestly. You’re a king, you have to do what’s necessary to protect yourself and your people. She sounds like a danger to everyone, including herself.”

Dominick put his head in his hands. “Please, don’t say anything to Erika, or even Anneliese. Very few people know about her, and I’d like it to stay that way.”

“Of course,” Julian said earnestly.

For a moment there was a tense, awkward silence, as neither knew what to say. Julian had never been hit in his life, not even by his father, although he had been shouted at quite a lot. But he didn’t think that Dominick needed to hear that.

“I’m sorry for sharing all that,” Dominick began.

“Don’t be! I’m just not sure what to say about it. I’m very sorry, you know, but I don’t think that helps.”

“Thank you for listening. Like I said, there are only a few people that know. I rarely have a chance to talk about it at all.”

“It’s no problem, really,” Julian insisted.

There was another, somewhat calmer moment of silence.

“If you’re not too bored of hearing me talk, I was wondering if I could get your opinion on something else?” Dominick asked, fiddling with his quill again.

“These policies? I’m the first to admit that economics is not my strong suit, but I could give them a look.”

“Well, no, but if you’d like to look them over, be my guest.”

“I’m sure Anneliese would be willing, too, if you’d like. She has a better technical mind.”

“I’ll be sure to ask her. But that’s not what I wanted to ask about.”

“Right, sorry.”

“This is private, too, remember.”

“I usually assume people tell me things in confidence.”

Dominick nodded. “Well... Yesterday I caught my brother, Oliver... He was with a girl. Sara, Erika’s handmaiden? And they were... kissing.”

“Oh my.”

“I didn’t react very well.”

“He was... hurting her?”

“No, not exactly.” Dominick sighed. “But they’re both so young, and I wouldn’t put it past Oliver to use his position to coerce her.”

“Where is he now?”

“Confined to his room.”

“For how long?”

“Until he apologizes.”

“I see.”

“You think I was too hard on him.”

“I think you should tell Oliver what you’re telling me.”

“He won’t understand. He’s too young.”

“He just proved that he isn’t, didn’t he?” Julian shook his head. “I was fifteen not too long ago, and I remember what it was like.”

Dominick sighed again, laying his quill down. “You’re right. I think I’ll go and talk to him... Would you mind looking at these policies? I’ll ask Anneliese later, but a fresh perspective would probably do me good.” He stood up and stretched.

“Don’t you have a council or something to help you?”

“I do, but as many of them are angry, I’ve decided to leave them out of this.”

“Maybe you should travel with a guard,” Julian joked, but he half wasn’t joking and they both knew it.

“I have Sebastian,” Dominick said, nodding to a corner, and Julian jumped upon realizing there was a man standing there.

“Has he been there the whole time?” Julian asked as his pulse ticked back to normal.

“I left him here for a moment to go to the ballroom and it looks like he stayed put.”

“I haven’t moved an inch,” Sebastian said somberly, and Dominick laughed.

“Well, if you’ll look that over, Julian? Any of the papers on my desk are relevant—mind you don’t go rooting around.” He winked and beckoned for Sebastian to follow him out. “I’ll be back in awhile,” he called over his shoulder as he entered the corridor, and he fell into a leisurely, unhurried step. “That was nice of him to offer, don’t you think? I don’t know why I didn’t think to ask him before.”

“You’re very used to operating alone.”

Dominick nodded absently, trailing close to the wall to drag his fingers across the cool stone. His mother had often reprimanded him for doing this. Princes didn’t go around touching everything they could get their hands on; it wasn’t princely.

“You haven’t talked about Marisol in a long time.”

“I rarely have anyone to talk with.” Sebastian made a small scoffing noise. “You know what I mean. You were there, you know the whole story already.”

“I think the only one to truly know the whole story is you. I was a bystander.”

“Be glad of that,” Dominick said, shivering. He was ashamed that part of him still missed her, over three years later, after all she’d done. Who knows how many times he’d begun a letter to her, only to come to his senses and throw it in the fire.

“I’m never glad of anything.”

“Were you born this humorless?” Dominick grinned.

Sebastian’s expression remained impassive. “I believe so.”

Dominick shook his head, still smiling. “What would I do without you, Sebastian?”

“Die, of course.”

“I made it to Aurelia and back in one piece.”

“I think that was because of Hans. You know there’s a reason he travels without guards.”

“He’s certainly impressive in a fight, isn’t he? Remember when we fenced?”

“You nearly died because you wouldn’t yield.”

“Yes, well, I didn’t expect the stories about old Ambassador Bismark to be true .”

“You’re just stubborn.”

“I think being king did that to me. I was such a nice child.”

Sebastian’s mouth twitched, which was as near as he ever got to a smile. “If you say so.”

Dominick laughed, though he sobered quickly as Oliver’s door came into view. Two guards he recognized as Baldo and Willihard stood sentry.

“Wish me luck,” Dominick murmured to Sebastian as he opened the door. “Oliver?”

“Come to yell at me some more?” came a muffled voice from the bed; Oliver seemed to be laying with a pillow over his face.

“I wanted to talk to you.”

“Go ahead,” Oliver sighed, sitting up and setting the pillow aside. He hugged his knees as Dominick sat down.

“First off, I wanted to apologize for... reacting so strongly yesterday.”

When it became clear Dominick wanted a response, Oliver said, “Alright.” He stared fixedly at the wall.

“I understand wanting to be with someone, alright? Young as you are—”

“I’m not that young!”

“Maybe not, but you’re younger than I was when I first kissed a girl—”

“You don’t have to take that out on me.”

“I’m not bitter , alright? I mean, I have a wife now. I kiss her every day.”

“Yeah, I’ve noticed.” Oliver rolled his eyes.

“Well—”

Everyone has noticed. You know that, right? I hope you know you’re not being subtle when you’re groping her every chance you get.”

Will you just let me talk? It’s different! It’s completely different! I’m married . I’m not using a servant girl for a few minutes and then sending her on her way. You understand that’s wrong , don’t you?”

Oliver remained resolutely silent.

“Sara is a person, Oliver. She has feelings.”

“I know that,” he said stiffly, staring at the ceiling.

“I don’t think you do.”

“She’s the only girl my age here,” Oliver said, like he was pleading for understanding. “And it’s not like I can get to know her if she’s always with Erika.”

“You would have made a better use of ten minutes talking to her rather than trying to get under her skirt.”

“She likes me. I know she likes me.”

“You don’t know that. I mean, has she ever said that to you? Has she ever said the words ‘I like you’?”

“No, but—”

“Then you don’t know anything.” After a long, silent moment, Dominick stood up. “Are you ready to apologize and keep your hands to yourself?”

“Yeah,” Oliver said, standing up and stretching.

As they left Oliver’s room, joined by Sebastian, Dominick warned, “Erika is still upset, and I am not responsible for anything she may threaten you with, do you understand?”

“I—I guess?” Oliver said uncertainly, as though waiting for Dominick to say he was joking.

They came across Erika, Anneliese, and Sara coming out of the library; Erika stopped dead in her tracks and glared at Oliver.

“Hello, ladies,” Dominick said pleasantly, kissing Erika’s cheek. “I was hoping to run into you.”

“Good morning, Dominick,” Anneliese said politely. “And good morning, Oliver.”

“I was wondering, Anneliese, if I might borrow you for a bit? Julian said you might be able to help with the policies I’m working on.”

“Oh, yes, of course.” She turned to Erika. “Do you mind?”

“No, no, go right ahead. I’ll see you in, oh, half an hour for lunch in my tea room?”

“Perfect,” Dominick said. “That should be plenty of time. Julian is looking at them right now in my study. Sebastian can show you the way—I need to speak to Erika for a moment.”

Anneliese waved and left with Sebastian; as soon as she turned the corner, Erika said, “What’s he doing here?”

“He came to apologize.” Dominick nudged his brother.

“I’m sorry, Sara,” Oliver said, staring at the floor; Sara mirrored him, red in the face.

“You don’t have to forgive him,” Erika said quickly, still glaring.

“Thank you, milord,” Sara whispered. “I accept.”

“I’ve got a lesson,” Oliver mumbled, dipping into a small bow and then hurrying off, blushing furiously.

Erika stared after him until Dominick slipped his arms around her waist. “Please, dear, forgive him. Nobody was hurt. He’s just a stupid fifteen-year-old boy.”

“All fifteen-year-old-boys are stupid,” Erika said, sticking out her tongue.

“That is very true.” Dominick sighed. “I suppose I should get back to my study.”

“Do you have to?”

“The policies won’t write themselves.”

Erika pouted. “You’re so busy.”

“Yes, well, I’m doing the work twenty people usually spread between them.”

“I’m sorry,” Erika said immediately. She felt guilty every time she thought of all the damage she’d caused; her marriage was making her happy, obviously, but only a handful of other people seemed to support it.

“No, don’t you dare say that.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “How about we have dinner tonight, just the two of us?”

Erika grinned. “My tea room, eight o’clock?”

“I’ll be there.” He smiled and brushed his lips against hers. She shivered as he let go of her waist. “I’ll send Anneliese back soon, don’t worry.”

Erika watched him go feeling very forlorn, which Sara seemed to notice, because she said, “Shall we try to find Wolfie, milady? We’ve got half an hour before lunchtime.”

She nodded gratefully. “Where do you think he might be?”

“We could try in the kitchens,” Sara suggested. “I’ve seen him in there sometimes, begging for scraps.”

“Oh, Wolfie,” Erika laughed. “I could never break him of the habit.”

“He’s always given something. He’s very persistent.”

“That’s my boy.”

They walked in silence for a few minutes before Erika said, “I didn’t really get a chance to talk to you this morning—I mean, Dominick told me what had happened and then I got... distracted, and then breakfast—”

“If I may, milady,” Sara said quietly, “I would rather not talk about it.”

“Oh, of course. I just meant that I’m here for you, you know? Technically you are my confidante, but that doesn’t mean it can’t go the other way, too. I don’t want you to be afraid to talk to me.”

“I still am, a little,” Sara admitted. “But I feel braver and more comfortable all the time. I would just... rather not talk about it.”

“That’s good.” Erika smiled. “I won’t press it, I promise. I just wanted to tell you.”

“Thank you, milady. And if... If I may ask a f-favor?”

“Yes?”

“Please don’t hold a grudge against Oliver.”

“I’ll try.” Erika sighed as they entered the last corridor to the kitchens, and found someone standing there.

“What are you doing down here?” Bertram asked as they came upon him.

“This is my palace and I may go where I please,” Erika said impatiently. She did not want to deal with Bertram today. “What are you doing down here?”

“I was getting a bit of lunch before teaching Oliver today’s lesson,” he said, as though it was perfectly obvious. He stared at them, his head tilted to one side. He seemed to be in the very middle of the corridor, so that they could not comfortably go around him on either side.

“Mind you tell him not to grope any lady he comes across alone. That lesson does not seem to have stuck.”

Bertram raised an eyebrow. “Surely I will. Good day.” He stepped to the side and continued on his way.

They entered the kitchens, which were filled with people moving, delectable smells, and the odd noise of metal on wood or stone. Sara cleared her throat with a quiet “ hem , hem ” and all activity ceased as the staff dropped into bows and curtsies.

“Oh, please don’t do that,” Erika said, and everyone straightened up murmuring “sorry.” “No, don’t apologize—oh, for heaven’s sake.” Erika took a deep breath, fighting her rising panic. “What’s your name?” she said to a squat, middle-aged man. He didn’t seem particularly nervous.

“I’m Rudolf, milady.”

“Rudolf is our head chef,” Sara supplied.

“Oh, how wonderful!” Of course, out of all the people in here, I had to interrupt the busiest. “I’m sorry to interrupt you all, I was only wondering if you’d seen Wolfie? My cat?”

“Not since this morning, milady.”

“Thank you anyway,” Erika said. “Come on, Sara.”

They exited the kitchen quickly.

“Oh, that was a horrible idea. Don’t let me talk to people again.”

“Milady?”

“People bowing to me—it’s madness!” Erika shook her head. “Let’s look in the garden. Wolfie likes to chase the butterflies.”


 

1 Month Ago

Dominick paced his study; Bertram sat in a chair, watching him pace; and Sebastian stood in a shadowed corner, looking at nothing and listening for everything.

“I have to ask you to stop being so hard on Erika, even though I know you won’t. I have to tell her that I talked to you.”

“Yes,” Bertram said.

“You’re awful, you know that? I don’t know how you do it, but whenever I ask you anything, the answer you give makes me feel like I’m the one being questioned.”

“Is that so?”

“There! You just did it!”

“Did I?” Bertram said idly, picking at a thread on his cuff.

“You’re insufferable.”

“And yet you suffer me. Why is that?”

“Because you knew my father.” Dominick pinched the bridge of his nose. “You really should be easier on her. She’s so frustrated with everything that’s going on already.”

“I cannot alter my methods, as you well know.”

“You’re mad. I don’t know how you ever get a straight point across.”

“Perhaps the way isn’t straight after all.”

“I hate you,” Dominick said, resigned, as he stopped his pacing and sat behind his desk.

“You were never one for rhetoric,” said Bertram, standing.

“Do you think she can do it?” Dominick asked as he reached the door. “Do you think Erika can be a good queen?”

Bertram turned and locked eyes with Dominick. “Erika may be the greatest queen this country will ever see.”

Dominick was quite sure that was the only straight answer he had ever given.

Chapter Text

10 Years Ago

“Anneliese, please pay attention,” Julian said tiredly as he caught her staring out the window yet again.

“Sorry,” she said quickly, turning to face him. “But it’s such a nice day! We ought to be out in the gardens.”

“If we have our lesson outside, you definitely won’t pay attention.”

“I don’t want to have my lesson outside. I want to pick flowers and chase you around the grounds.”

Julian blushed. “After our lesson.”

“You promise? You’ll come play with me in the gardens?”

“I—I didn’t say that.”

“Why won’t you play with me anymore?” Anneliese pouted, crossing her arms.

Julian shifted uncomfortably and closed The Princess’ Book of Etiquette . “It’s not really proper.”

“I’m not a lady yet!”

“I didn’t mean that. I meant... For me to play with you is... against decorum.”

“Papa said you were going to be my friend,” Anneliese reminded him. As if he needed reminding. “I’ll... I’ll tell on you!”

He raised his eyebrows. “Tell on me? For not playing?”

“I will, I’ll tell my papa, and he’ll make you play with me.”

She stood up and he panicked, grabbing her hand. “Don’t!” She paused and looked down at his hand on hers; he blushed and let go, staring at the floor. “Sorry.”

“I like it when you hold my hand, Julian,” she said quietly, blushing to the roots of her long blond hair.

“I’m not allowed,” Julian said faintly.

“Why not?”

“It’s not proper.”

“Don’t you like me?”

“Of course I like you,” he said, almost angrily. He was here, wasn’t he? “But there are rules about this sort of thing. You don’t want them to send me away, do you?”

“Who would send you away? Papa wouldn’t let them. I know he wouldn’t. He wants me to be happy.” She crossed her arms again, defiant.

“Don’t ever stray from protocol,” Julian said, tapping the cover of the book. “There’s a certain way things are done, and it’s all for a reason.”

“A stupid reason,” Anneliese muttered, and his mouth twitched.

“Come on, let’s finish this lesson, and then... And then we can go into the gardens and pick flowers. I promise.”

She looked to his eyes for a long minute, as though trying to detect a lie, then sighed and sat down. “Alright. If you promise.”


 

3 Months Ago

Anneliese waited anxiously in her chambers for Julian to arrive. She was wearing a dress she’d commissioned specially from Erika after their conversation about affection; Erika had been surprised, but quite happy with the design she’d requested.

Julian entered the room after knocking three times, as had been his habit for several years. He stopped short when he saw Anneliese, inhaling sharply and then averting his eyes.

Her face fell. “You don’t like it?”

“Your dress? It’s very... Pretty.”

“Of course it’s pretty,” Anneliese said impatiently. “Erika made it.”

“She did?” Julian looked at her, surprised, then saw her dress and turned away again.

“Yes, I asked her to.”

“Why?”

Anneliese looked down at the dress. It had a low, tight bodice, and the skirt hugged her hips. It was actually very comfortable, but she had only requested that it be revealing—scandalous, even. “Isn’t it obvious?”

“I think I need to go.”

“Julian, wait!” She walked to him and put her hand on his cheek, turning his head to look at her, but he kept his eyes closed. “Please. We’re going to be married in a few weeks, and... You’ll barely touch me. I... I almost wonder if you even love me anymore.”

“Of course I love you,” he said, opening his eyes and taking her hand from his cheek. He stepped back, looking carefully at her face. “I... I don’t trust myself to be alone with you.”

“Why not?”

He took a deep breath. “You’ll see after the wedding.” He blushed as though embarrassed, or perhaps excited.

Her heart fluttered. “Do you promise?” she whispered, stepping closer.

“Yes.”

Julian hesitated for a fraction of a second and then kissed her. He pulled away far sooner than he would have liked; Anneliese, for her part, seemed lost in a giddy daze.

“Now... I’ve got to go.” He kissed her hand, and then walked to the door. “But if you’d like, please save that dress.”

He left before she could respond, which was good because she could only giggle.

She had never been so happy.


 

2 Months Ago

After their wedding and a short parade through Astraea, the Beaumonts and the Von Brandts said their goodbyes. Dominick and Erika left the palace, so they could get a good head start on their journey to Martha, the capital of Dulcinea; Anneliese and Julian went straight to her room, which they would now be sharing.

As the door swung shut, Anneliese began to feel very nervous. She had, admittedly, seen Serafina and Wolfie doing this, but she very much doubted that Julian was going to bite the back of her neck, although it may not be so bad if he did. She very much doubted he would do anything that would hurt her.

He had held her hand as they went upstairs, but now he stood several feet away, unsure.

“Well... We’re married now,” Anneliese began.

“Yes.” He looked happier and more excited than she had ever seen him.

“You did promise...”

“Yes, I know. I’m just... not sure what to do.”

“What would you like to do?” She didn’t know what, exactly, they were supposed to be doing, but she trusted that Julian did. He knew so many things.

“I’d like to get you out of that dress,” he said, staring with unfocused eyes at her shoulder. Her cheeks felt very hot.

“Then come here,” she said, her voice quavering. “You can’t do anything from over there.”

Julian stepped closer, taking her face in his hands, and kissed her. This was a very different kiss from the chaste peck he’d given her downstairs to seal their marriage. Anneliese felt like she was melting, and her legs nearly gave way; she pulled away, breathing heavily, and tried to steady herself. She found the ribbon that had held Julian’s hair back in her hand. She’d never seen his hair down before, but she found that she liked it.

“Are you alright?” he asked, catching her before she could fall.

“Yes, I just need... a moment...”

His hands found the buttons on the back of her dress, and spun her gently around so that he could properly undo it. Her heart was beating very fast as she stepped out of her dress, leaving her in her shift and corset, which he began to unlace, kissing the back of her neck. She shivered.

“Are you alright?” he asked again. Perhaps he was doing something wrong.

“I feel so naked,” she said breathlessly as he pulled her corset off. Her shift felt very thin all of the sudden. “It’s not fair, let’s get you naked, too.” She unbuttoned his jacket, and Julian pulled it off, along with his shirt, and kissed her again.

His lips moved to her neck, and then her collarbone, and his hand was on her rear! No one had touched her there before. It was almost ticklish, and she giggled. He paused a moment, looking at her curiously, but she pulled him into yet another kiss, throwing her arms around his neck, and he lifted her up, carrying her to the bed.

They broke the kiss and she sat on the edge of the mattress, breathing heavily, while Julian kicked off his shoes and took off his breeches and stockings.

Anneliese’s eyes were wide with surprise as she looked at him, and Julian began to feel self-conscious. She tipped her head to one side, still staring between his legs, and asked, “Does it always do that?”

He laughed softly. “Well, no—”

“Will it hurt?” She shrank back, bringing her knees tightly together.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“You don’t think so?”

“I’ve never done this before!” He took a deep breath, trying to be serious for a moment, which was difficult with an erection. “But you know that I would never intentionally hurt you.”

She knew the answer, but she had to ask: “You promise?”

“I promise,” he said solemnly, and he kissed her.

With that kiss, she forgot that she was nervous, forgot that she was afraid, and relaxed.

Julian kept his promises that night.


 

Dominick and Erika stopped at an inn in Slade, several miles from Astraea.

They were supposed to be sleeping, but no one in their party thought they were going to sleep much that night. It was their wedding night, after all.

As soon as they were alone together in their room, Dominick and Erika were nearly sealed at the lips, each trying to get the other’s clothes off while kissing every inch of skin they could reach. It was messy, but neither cared; no one was watching, so it hardly mattered how it looked.

Erika had gotten Dominick’s jacket and shirt off before he’d made any headway on her dress, and in his excited scrabbling at the buttons, he pulled too hard on the fabric and it tore all along the seam on her bodice.

They both paused in surprise, until Erika shrugged and said, “I was only going to wear it once, anyway,” and pulled him even more fervently into a kiss.

No longer caring, he tore at the rest of the seams, until the dress was only scraps of fabric on the floor, which they both kicked aside on their way to the bed.

Erika lay on her stomach as Dominick unlaced her corset with fumbling fingers. “Promise me we’ll sleep tonight,” she giggled. “We’re going to be so tired tomorrow.”

“No promises,” he said, turning her over and tossing her corset aside as he kissed along her jaw.

“I guess I’ll take my chances,” she laughed, pulling him into another kiss.


 

Now

It was the last night of the Beaumonts’ stay in Dulcinea. Erika and Julian waited in the foyer for Dominick and Anneliese; Anneliese had ripped her favorite dress and was having it quickly sewn, and Dominick’s afternoon meeting had run late. They were going to have dinner in the gardens to celebrate the departure.

Erika shifted her weight from foot to foot awkwardly while Julian picked aimlessly at his cuffs. They hadn’t actually said much to each other since he had asked her to masquerade as Anneliese.

“So... How do you like our library?” Erika asked finally.

“It’s extraordinary, really. I’ve been meaning to ask if I could borrow some of the books—I’ve been taking as many notes as possible, but I can only read so fast.”

“You’ll have to ask Dominick. Most of them were his father’s or grandfather’s, you know. They might be sentimental or something.”

“Of course.”

Erika rocked back on her heels. “I never did say thank you.”

“For what?”

“If it wasn’t for you, I wouldn’t be here.” She gestured vaguely at the walls.

“If it wasn’t for your cat, neither would I.”

They laughed, each pretending that the absurdity of the statement wasn’t terrifying.

“I mean it, though,” Erika said earnestly. “If there’s anything I can do—I mean, we’re basically the same rank and everything, but if there’s anything I could do for you, please, don’t hesitate to ask.”

“I owe you just as much. If it weren’t for you, Anneliese would have married Preminger.” He shuddered at the thought, and after a moment’s silence, he said, “Sometimes... Sometimes I think King Alphonse meant for me to marry Anneliese.” He had never told anyone this before, because it was such a silly thing. But he trusted that Erika wouldn’t laugh.

She didn’t laugh. Instead, she looked thoughtful. “Why do you say that?”

“He picked me to tutor her, did you know that? He was worried that she didn’t have any friends her age, and obviously she didn’t have any siblings. He could have picked any little girl from the village to be her playmate, but he chose me, and he wanted me to teach her. It’s almost... almost like he knew that she would fall in love with me. I know it sounds strange.”

Erika shrugged. “I didn’t know the king, obviously. Maybe he did plan it. I mean, he never tried to have her betrothed to Dominick or anyone else. Maybe he did want her to fall in love.”

“I like to think so,” Julian said quietly. “May he rest in peace.”

Erika nodded fervently.

“So sorry I’m late!” Anneliese said breathlessly, rushing down the stairs and kissing Julian on the cheek. “But I’m all stitched up now.”

“Don’t worry, Dominick isn’t even here yet.”

“Oh, good.” She took a moment to catch her breath. “What were you two talking about?”

Julian slipped his arm around her waist. “How I fell in love with you.”

“Really?” Anneliese giggled.

“I may have fallen in love the moment I saw you. It’s very difficult to be an eight-year-old in love, did you know?”

She raised her eyebrows, the smile sliding from her face. “What do you mean, eight years old? I thought you were ten, like me!”

Julian reddened. “I was tall for my age, and obviously very smart—”

“All this time, I can’t believe I never thought to ask how old you are. Not even on your birthday!” Anneliese said in amazement.

“Well... It never really came up. When we were younger, I didn’t want you to think I was a baby, and then... It wasn’t important. I’m sorry,” he added, alarmed by the strange smirk quirking her lips.

“Don’t be. That’s just... very interesting.” Anneliese shook her head. “I know you won’t surprise me, Erika. You’re exactly my age. Or am I your age?”

“I don’t think it matters,” Erika laughed. “It’s all the same to me.”

Anneliese looked at her thoughtfully. “Dominick is older, isn’t he?”

“Yes, he’s twenty-six.”

“There’s quite a gap between him and Oliver, then.”

“I suppose.” Erika shrugged, and then her face lit up as Dominick appeared at the top of the staircase.

“Just got out of the meeting, so sorry. Well... Shall we go out, then?”

“Let’s,” said Erika, and all four went out into the evening.


 

Wolfie and Serafina lay on a second-floor balcony that overlooked the gardens, and saw their humans gathering at a table to eat. They heard voices, but didn’t understand what they were saying, apart from the occasional random word. They heard their own names once or twice, and wondered what they were discussing, and if they should be worried.

Serafina stood and stretched, licking a paw daintily, then pointedly turned away from the humans and went back into the palace; Wolfie followed, deciding that curiosity would not kill this cat. They leapt lightly onto Genevieve’s bed and curled up to sleep.

Genevieve didn’t notice. She was sitting at her desk, writing her twelfth page of notes on the many things to do when they got back to Aurelia, provided Mathieu Dubois hadn’t left the country in shambles. This trip could hardly have come at a more inconvenient time, but she certainly owed the Von Brandts a great deal. In any case, they were going home tomorrow, and that was something.

From the garden, she heard the sounds of laughter and clinking glasses, and almost wished she was with them, but she had shouldered a lot of Anneliese’s duties—more than usual—so that she could have a relaxing visit with her friend.

After the incidents two years ago, Genevieve had tried to make Anneliese’s life as stress-free as possible. She felt very responsible for everything Anneliese had been through, and she tried to ease her guilt by assuming many of Anneliese’s duties, in addition to her own. The stress of it all was getting to her, but her guilt was worse; she kept to herself as much as possible so that she would not have to put up an unfazed facade.

She came to the end of this page, and decided that everything else could be done in the carriages on the way home. She stood up and went onto the balcony, smiling and waving at the two couples in the gardens before shutting the doors and drawing the curtains over them. The smile slid quickly from her face as she dressed herself for bed. Dominick has offered her a chambermaid, or several, but she had graciously declined. She had had trouble trusting anyone since Preminger.

Genevieve shivered as she remembered the fortune they had seized from him after his arrest. He had been stealing from them for so many years... She shook her head. It didn’t matter now. He was penniless and sat in a dungeon cell. There was nothing he could do to hurt her, or anyone else.

She hoped.

Chapter Text

After a lengthy meal in the gardens, the Beaumonts and the Von Brandts bid each other goodnight and departed for their respective rooms. Julian was exhausted and thought he would fall asleep as soon as he lay down, but it seemed Anneliese had other plans.

As soon as the door shut, Anneliese had her arms around his neck, staring up at him with the same smirk he had noticed earlier.

“Why are you looking at me like that?” he asked tiredly as she untied the ribbon in his hair. She tossed it away and leaned up to kiss him. He leaned away. “It’s very late.”

“I don’t care.”

“You’ll be tired in the morning.”

“I can sleep in the carriage.”

“You don’t sleep well in the carriage.”

“I don’t care,” she said again.

“We’re leaving at sunrise—”

“I know.”

Julian raised an eyebrow, then pried her arms from around his neck and turned her around, so that he could get at the buttons down her back.

“Are you really younger than me?” Anneliese asked, playing with a lock of her hair. “Twenty, not twenty-two?”

“Yes, really. What would I have to gain by lying?”

“Well...”

“I know I lied before, but... Like I said, when we were younger, I was terrified that you would think I was too young to teach you anything and send me back to the village. Then we grew up, and it didn’t seem to matter. I like to think we’ve always been very evenly matched.”

“Yes,” she said absently, stepping out of her dress. Julian laid it over the top of the room divider, then began unlacing her corset, kissing the back of her neck. “But you know what this means, don’t you?”

“What does it mean?”

“This means... I was walking before you were born. I was talking before you could ever walk. I did all that first .”

“Yes, you did.”

“I do appreciate everything you’ve taught me, God knows where I would be if not for you. But to think that, for a time, there were things that I could do that you could not... It’s thrilling.”

“I understand.” He hung the corset beside her gown, then took off his own shirt and vest and laid them likewise.

Before he could reach for his breeches, Anneliese had kissed him, and he hoisted her into his arms as she wrapped her legs around his waist. He walked to the bed and laid her down, kissing her neck and collarbones. Suddenly she rolled over and he lay underneath her as she straddled his waist. She hadn’t taken this position before, but he found the weight of her body intoxicating. He leaned up to kiss her but she pressed his shoulders to the mattress, cheeks flushed.

“I thought you knew everything. But once... Once I knew much more.”

Her shift was sheer, and even by the dim light he could see the outline of her breasts. She shifted her weight a bit, getting comfortable, and he nearly passed out. He took an unsteady breath. “I’m sure you still know things to teach me.”

“What do I have to teach you?”

“Just how little it takes to reach desperation.”

Anneliese grinned, eyes glinting, and wiggled a bit more.

“S-Stop,” Julian gasped.

She smirked at him, then gave a huge yawn, stretching in a way that forced a moan from his mouth. “You’re right, it is very late,” she said, and began to roll off, but he caught her and held her firm on top of him. “Didn’t you want to go to bed?”

“Not yet,” he said faintly. “Y-You’ve still got something to teach me.”

“Oh?” She settled her weight more firmly and he let out a low groan. “I’ve already proven that I don’t need to get your breeches off to get a rise out of you.”

“No,” he admitted, and his face flooded with heat.

“And we’ve already done the rest, so—”

“Not like this.” His hands rested on the swell of her hips, and he looked up at her, pleading.

“I don’t even need to take your breeches off, do I?” She rocked her hips, and his fingertips dug into her skin.

“Don’t,” he whispered, shutting his eyes. “It’s not fair, you’re not having any fun—”

“Who said that? I’m having plenty of fun.” Anneliese rocked her hips again and he whimpered. “You can make it up to me later.” Her hands left his shoulders. “Look at me.”

When he opened his eyes, he saw her with her hands on her own breasts, biting her lip as she moved on top of him. She began slowly, her head tipped back, playing with her nipples through her shift. He reached up to help, but she slapped his hand away as she began moving faster, and so he gripped the blankets instead. She peeked at him and saw his eyes tight shut, biting his own lip, and she let out a small moan. That was enough to tip him over the edge; his orgasm left him gasping, and she grew still.

He sat up quickly and fastened his mouth on hers, his hand tangling in her carefully curled hair. He rolled over on top of her, his hand slipping between her legs as he kissed her, and soon she was writhing in absolute pleasure.

She wilted into the mattress, spent, and he lay beside her, kissing the birthmark on her shoulder. Her mouth was curved into a delicious smile, but he was too tired to taste it.

“I love you,” she sighed, half asleep already. She waited for him to respond, but when she rolled over to look at him, he’d already drifted off. She grinned and settled into the crook of his arm, her head on his chest.

Neither had ever slept so soundly.


 

“It seems lonelier without them.”

“You’ll see them again, milady.”

“Yes, I know,” Erika sighed. “But when ?”

“I... I daresay once one of you has a child, the other will go for the christening.”

“Well, yes, but that’s so far away. They’ve only been gone a few hours, and it feels like forever . It didn’t feel like this when I was away on my tour.”

Sara wrung her hands. “Yes, milady, I’ve been meaning to ask—”

Erika hadn’t heard her. “Come on, let’s go see the seamstresses. It doesn’t do for a queen to be late, after all.”

“Yes, milady.” Sara stood up, ringing the small bell on the table; several servants appeared. “We’re all done.”

“Yes, we are, thank you.” Erika smiled at them, but they were all pointedly averting her eye. She sighed as Sara led her out of the dining hall. “Will it always be like that?”

“They’re intimidated, milady.”

Erika shook her head. “I’ll convince them, somehow. I mean, I don’t really have time to be friends with everyone, but that doesn’t mean they should be afraid. I’m nice, right?”

“Very nice, milady.”

“That might be going a bit far,” Erika laughed. “Anyway, these seamstresses, have you met them?”

“Only when you sent me to see them.”

“Did they seem nice?”

“Nice enough, I suppose. I was only there for a moment. Well... Here we are,” Sara said, stopping at a door. They could hear a bit of chatter and laughter, too indistinct to make out. “Are you ready?”

Erika took a deep breath, and then assumed a neutral expression. “Yes.”

Sara pushed the door open, and the room fell silent.

“Hello,” Erika said, ignoring the lump rising in her throat. “And what are your names?”

“Indigo,” said one woman with dark skin, who looked exceptionally tall even sitting down.

“Scarlet,” said another, a blonde who looked conversely short.

“Paisley,” mumbled the third, a redhead with seemingly endless freckles.

“Hello,” Erika said again. “How... How are you?”

“Fine,” Scarlet said stiffly.

“Why do you interrupt us?” Indigo asked, almost angrily.

“I... I w-wanted to give you some notes.” Erika swallowed. “On my coronation dress?”

“Notes?” Paisley raised an eyebrow.

“Yes, I wanted to talk to you about the stitching—”

“And what do you know about stitching?” They smirked among themselves as though dealing with a small, ambitious child.

Excuse me ?” Erika stared between the three women, outraged. She felt Bertram’s lessons kicking in, and found herself saying, in a deadly calm voice, “First of all, ladies , It is not your place to question your queen. If I tell you to make my dresses out of clouds, you will make it so, or you will be out of a job. Do you understand me?”

No one in the room was smiling anymore; the seamstresses nodded, eyes wide.

“You work for me . I can and will replace you at any time if your work is not to my satisfaction. Do I make myself clear?”

They nodded again, looking frightened.

“As for what I know about stitching, I sewed my first dress when I was five years old. Don’t be an idiot.” She saw tears welling in Paisley’s eyes and felt her anger drain away, replaced with guilt. But she would not show weakness to these women, who hadn’t even shown her basic respect. “Now hand me a needle and thread, and a bit of fabric. I’ll show you how I want it.”

Indigo handed them to her, and Erika sat on a free stool. The seamstresses looked very confused, but Erika ignored that, deciding to talk to Sara about it later.

“How long have you been doing this?” she asked as she threaded her needle.

“A few months,” Scarlet answered, sounding scared. “Altogether, we have maybe three years’ experience.”

“Well, there’s your problem right there. And I’m guessing you’re all self-taught?”

“Yes, milady,” Indigo said lowly.

“You’ll get better. I may have first sewn when I was five, but I didn’t make anything worthwhile until I was twelve. And in a bit, we’ll talk about patterns, do remind me. Sara, sit down, this will take awhile.”


 

Anneliese had woken up feeling oddly aroused this morning, and now the bumpy carriage ride was doing strange things to her indeed.

“Are you alright?” Julian asked, leaning forward. He sat across from her in their carriage; Queen Genevieve was in the one ahead, reading and then making more lists of things to do when they got back.

“Yes.” She shifted in her seat. She was rapidly discovering there was a fine line between pleasure and annoyance.

“Are you sure?”

“I wish we’d gotten up earlier this morning.” She tried crossing her legs to see if that would help. “We would have had time.”

“Time for—? Oh. ” He blushed. “We shouldn’t do anything here.”

“I know,” Anneliese said curtly, chewing on a fingernail. They weren’t supposed to leave the festival, either, but they’d done that.

“Oh, don’t do that, it took you years to break the habit.” He tugged her hand from her mouth and held it in both of his. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.”

“You’re angry with me.”

“No, I’m just... frustrated . Why is this happening?” She pulled her hand away.

“It happens sometimes.”

“To you?”

He blushed even harder. “Sometimes.”

That made her feel a bit better, but did nothing to ease her situation.

Suddenly Julian leaned over and drew the shades on all the windows. It grew considerably darker inside the carriage.

“What are you doing?” she asked as he slid to his knees in front of her.

“I don’t like seeing you like this,” he said, and he kissed her.

As they broke apart, Anneliese said, “You just said we shouldn’t, and there’s not really room to lie down—”

“Who said anything about lying down?”

“You have lovely hands, but this time I don’t think—”

“I wasn’t talking about my hands, either.” In the darkness, she could just make out the heavy blush in his cheeks.

Anneliese raised her eyebrows. “But what else is there?”

Julian seemed to be shaking slightly. “There’s always my mouth.”

Her heart seemed to stop. Kissing him was one of her favorite things, and this idea of his sounded beautiful and wonderful. “Like... Like kissing?”

“Yes, like that.”

She was quiet for a moment, and his hands on her thighs seemed to burn holes in her dress. “How long have you been thinking about this?”

“Long enough.” He kissed her softly. “Do you want me to?”

“Yes, please,” she breathed.

His hands were steady as he pushed up her skirt, and she leaned back, closing her eyes.

In the carriage ahead, Genevieve sat muttering to herself. “Expand the industries... Timber, granite... Flowers? Yes, I’ve got flowers. Fishing, maybe. Yes, let’s write that down,” she said, scribbling on the short list of existing Aurelian exports. “Perhaps add three more guards to Preminger’s cell... Yes, that ought to do.” She paused a moment as she heard a muffled scream. The guards riding beside her carriage faltered, but she stuck her head out the window. “It’s just the sound of young love, carry on.” A few of them chuckled, and she pulled her head back inside, reading the notes in front of her for the fifteenth time this morning. “Yes, that will have to do,” she said, laying them aside. She picked up another set, sighing. “Let’s just hope Mathieu Dubois is more competent than he seems, it would be so disappointing to do all this work for nothing,” she said to empty air. “And for God’s sake, I hope no one learns that I’m talking to myself.”


 

“What was their problem ?” Erika said angrily, pacing in her bedroom. “What do I know about stitching? I taught them more in that hour than they’d learned their whole ‘careers’! I knew more than they did when I was eight .”

“Milady—”

“How dare they! I am not only their queen, but a human! Why would you be so rude to someone you just met? Why? And, taking into account that I am their queen, someone who could ruin or even end their lives?” Erika stopped in mid-step. “I wouldn’t do that, you know I wouldn’t,” she said quickly. “I—I’m just saying, you know?”

“I know, milady. But—”

“I mean, who do they think they are? And who do they think I am?”

“That’s what I’ve been trying to say, milady!” Sara burst out. “They don’t know who you are, they’ve only heard rumors! I’ve been here two months and I don’t even know you.”

“Of course you know me,” Erika began, but Sara cut her off again.

“I don’t know who you were before you were queen.”

“Well—what? What do you mean you don’t know?”

“Nobody knows, milady, excepting you and the king. Perhaps Ambassador Bismark, too.”

Erika frowned, sitting down and gesturing for Sara to sit, too. “What do the rumors say?”

“Oh, milady, I couldn’t.”

Erika began to feel numb. “What do they say, Sara?”

“You—you must understand, I never believed any of it, not for a second!”

“Just tell me what you’ve heard.”

“And I never spread any of this, I just heard it. I didn’t make it up, either, I promise. I wouldn’t do something so awful.”

“Sara. Please, just tell me.”

Sara bit her lip, looking like she might cry, and then said very fast, “It was all very confusing, because King Dominick went to Aurelia to marry Anneliese but he came back without her and so people said she must have been very ugly and that’s why he’d refused to marry her. And then—and then people said that he’d met someone else and fell in love with her instead, but we went a year without hearing anything, and then you came, and people said—people said that he’d met you in an Aurelian brothel and he must have married you because you had his baby, or that you bullied or manipulated him into it.”

Erika sat frozen.

“Milady? Milady, I warned you it was awful! But I never believed—”

“Are you telling me... that everyone in the country thinks that I was a prostitute?” Erika whispered, barely moving her lips. She felt lightheaded, like she might fall out of her chair.

“Not everyone! But... most.”

“I don’t have a baby.”

“Some people think you’re keeping it hidden.”

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard.”

“The people aren’t smart, milady.”

“So these people... these people don’t know anything about what happened in Aurelia? With Preminger?”

“I—I don’t know who that is, milady.”

A lump swelled in Erika’s throat. “Thank you for telling me. You’re dismissed.”

“Dismissed?” Sara began to panic. She couldn’t go back to the orphanage, she wouldn’t—!

“Yes. Go to your room. Or to the library, or the garden. I don’t care where you go. I don’t need you anymore today.”

“Oh. Yes, milady.” Sara stood up and dipped into a curtsy. “I’ll see you in the morning, milady.”

Erika stared blankly straight ahead. After a moment, Sara realized that she wasn’t going to respond, and she quietly left the room. Her panic continued to mount with every step away. She couldn’t leave her lady alone! But she wouldn’t disobey her, no, that would not do. Perhaps she should get the king? He’d been able to snap her out of this last time... But he might be very busy. She supposed she could fetch Oliver, then. But only as a last resort, she told herself, directing herself toward Dominick’s study. The queen wasn’t on good terms with Oliver, it wouldn’t do to upset her further.

Sara listened at Dominick’s door for some sign of activity, but it was silent. She knocked, wondering if he was there, and heard a tired, “Come in.”

She opened the door slowly and stepped inside. She’d never been inside before, but found it dark and cozy. It was a handsome room, lined with bookcases, with a fireplace in one wall. The king sat slumped in an armchair beside the empty grate, a glass of brandy in one hand.

“Sara?” He set his glass aside, sitting up. “What’s wrong? Where’s Erika? Is she hurt?”

“She’s... She’s gone all stiff again, like she did after the coronation?”

Dominick stood up. “Where is she?”

“In your chambers, milord. She... She’s dismissed me for the day.”

Dominick’s eyes widened and he left the room almost at a run. Sebastian seemed to melt out of the shadows to follow.

“I’m sorry, milord!” Sara called after him, but he was already too far to hear.

Dominick waved Sebastian off as they came to his chambers, and entered alone. He found Erika laying on the floor, sobbing.

“Erika!” He knelt beside her, pulling her into his arms, so that she cried into his shoulder, but after a moment, she shoved him away and struggled to her feet.

“I wish I’d never come back! I hate this country!”

“What are you talking about?” Dominick stood, stepping toward her, but she knocked over a chair between them and he leapt back.

“Your citizens think I’m a whore!”

What?

“They think that’s how we met! No!” she shouted as he stepped closer. “You stay away from me! This is your fault!”

“How is this my fault?”

“You never told anyone why you didn’t marry Anneliese!”

“It’s my personal life, I don’t see how it’s relevant—”

“It’s not! They expected you to come back with a queen! And you never said why you hadn’t so they made up stories!”

“How was I supposed to know—?”

“You royals never listen to anything your people say!”

“I hardly think listening to rumors is constructive!” Dominick shouted, starting to panic. Had he chosen the wrong wife? Had he walked into the same trap he’d fallen into with Marisol?

“How am I supposed to be in charge of the palace if no one in it takes me seriously?” She began to cry again, anger fading away when she saw the look on her husband’s face.

“I’m sorry,” Dominick said mechanically, sliding to the floor. He drew his arms around his knees. “I’m sorry. I’ll make it right.”

“What are you doing?” She wiped her eyes.

“I’m sorry. I’ll make it right.”

“Dominick, I—” She walked closer and he flinched, hunching smaller. “I’m so sorry.”

“I’ll make it right,” Dominick repeated, eyes glazed. “I’m sorry.”

“No, I’m sorry. I’ve shouted at you so many times these past few days.” She crouched beside him, but he drew tighter in on himself. “Dominick?”

She hesitantly reached for his shoulder, but he buried his face in his hands and whispered, “Please don’t hit me.”

She drew her hand back. “What do you mean? I’ve never hit you.”

“Please don’t hit me. I’ll make it right. I promise. I’ll make it perfect. I’m sorry.”

Through her thorough confusion, Erika felt her heart break. “It’s not really your fault, Dominick. You know that. You’re right, it is your personal life, you don’t owe the public anything.” He didn’t move, and she began to back away. “Dominick? I’m so sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I—I’ll get Sebastian.”

She stumbled to the door and nearly fell into Sebastian as she opened it. He looked down at her, impassive.

“I—I was angry, and I was shouting at Dominick, and now he’s afraid I’ll hit him. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do. I ruined everything.” Her breathing hitched, but she didn’t think she could cry anymore if she wanted to.

Sebastian’s jaw twitched. “Did you touch him?”

“No! I just... I stood next to him, and he’s sitting on the floor. Sebastian, please, you’re his oldest friend—”

“Stay here.”

Erika nodded helplessly, and Sebastian slipped inside their chambers.

Dominick sat at the foot of the bed, curled into a ball. Sebastian swallowed and quickly crossed the room to sit beside him.

“Dominick? Dominick, it’s me, it’s Sebastian.”

He didn’t move.

“Erika has never hit you. She never will hit you. Do you understand me? I will not let that happen. Not again. Marisol—” Dominick flinched, whimpering. “Marisol,” Sebastian said firmly, “is in Spain. She is in prison, very far away. She has been there for nearly three years. You sent her there, to protect yourself.”

Dominick finally moved, to touch his neck, remembering the feeling of her hands around it, so delicate, so deadly. His lip trembled as he stared at nothing.

“Erika has never hit you,” Sebastian repeated. “She has shouted at you, over the past week, because of stress, as you told Julian. Erika does not know about Marisol. She does not know what shouting does to you. I told you—” Sebastian’s voice shook, and he took a steadying breath. “I told you that you should have explained it to her.”

“I remember,” Dominick whispered, raising his head. “I... I didn’t want her to think that I—that I’m weak.”

“She would never think that. She loves you. If I did not believe that she loved you, I would have her removed from the palace, queen or not.”

“Is she here?”

“She’s waiting outside. She is very concerned.” He heaved himself to his feet.

“Will you... Will you bring her in? But stay here, please. I... It’s not that I don’t want to be alone with her.” Sebastian helped him stand. “I just need... I feel braver when... Please, stay here.”

Sebastian’s mouth twitched. “I will.”

Dominick picked up the chair that had been overturned and then sat in it, burying his face in his hands.

“My queen, the king would like a word,” Sebastian said, opening the door. She was shaking as she crossed the threshold.

Erika sat in a chair across from Dominick, while Sebastian stood in front of the door, on guard. She was terrified and so ridden with guilt it was physical pain in her chest.

He looked into her eyes, lush blue instead of rich brown, and he felt better. She was not Marisol. They were not the same.

“Please, don’t speak until I’m done. This... This is easier said all at once.”

Erika nodded, chin trembling.

“It’s time I told you about Marisol.”

Chapter Text

In the dead of night, when the guards were beginning to doze off, Preminger sat wide awake. The Beaumonts were due back tonight, and he wanted to hear when they arrived e ven boring news was news. He counted the cracks in the wall opposite, although he already knew there were fifty-seven. He’d counted them many times before.

Tonight, there were fifty-eight. He frowned and began again. He had just reached thirty-two when the woman appeared.

A yelp had almost escaped his throat before he clamped his mouth shut. He swallowed his scream and narrowed his eyes, appraising her. She was not particularly tall or short, pretty or ugly, young or old, but she seemed bright against the dingy brick; her presence dimmed everything around her, as though she were commanding the world’s attention.

Preminger met her gaze levelly, although his heart began to race. He wasn’t afraid to die, but he didn’t doubt that this woman would make it painful.

She leaned in closely and whispered in his ear, “I’ve got a proposition for you, Jean.”

It took everything he had not to flinch; he half expected her to bite him. She sat beside him on the cot, delicately arranging her skirts in a way that strangely did not seem fussy.

He glanced to the left, but the guards were all slumped over, asleep, as though the woman’s presence had sapped their energy away. Perhaps that was how she drew such brightness. “They can’t see me, don’t worry.” She smiled, and he felt like he’d been thrown into icy water.

Preminger licked his lips and swallowed, then croaked, on his fourth try, “What do you propose?” His throat felt raw.

“I’ll release you from this cell.”

Her gaze was beginning to give him a headache. “And why would you do that?”

“You want them dead, don’t you? Everyone who stood in your way?”

“Why would you help me?” Preminger repeated suspiciously. “My fortune was seized by the crown nearly two years ago.”

“Let’s call it... mutual interest. I want Dominick Von Brandt and his skinny peasant wife to rot in Hell.” Her face contorted, and for a moment she looked monstrous. Then her expression smoothed. “Just promise me you’ll kill them all—the Beaumonts, the Von Brandts, even their little cats—and we have a deal.”

“And how do you expect to get me out?”

“I got in , didn’t I?”

“If you have me waltz out of this cell, I will never be able to get close to any of them. I’ll be on the run from the moment I step outside.”

“Now who said anything about waltzing?” She smiled, devilishly sweet. “I have a plan.”

“Do I get to know what it is?”

“But of course.” The smile slid from her face. “However, I do need something from you...” She reached into the folds of her skirt and withdrew a piece of parchment that looked far older than either of them, the ink so faded it was impossible to read. Preminger raised his eyebrows as the ink darkened before his eyes.

I, Jean Preminger, will kill Genevieve, Anneliese, and Julian Beaumont; Dominick, Erika, and Oliver Von Brandt; and the cats Serafina and Wolfie, in return for my freedom.

“I haven’t a quill,” Preminger said. He was beginning to feel very nervous.

“Oh, you won’t need that.” She handed him a needle. “Just a drop, and then we’re all set.”

“What happens if I change my mind?”

The woman shrugged. “Nothing. But I would be so very, terribly disappointed in you.”

“How could I refuse?” Preminger said wryly, taking the needle and holding his breath as he pricked his finger. He pressed his finger to the page, leaving a bloody print. She took the needle from him and he swore he saw the blood and ink fade from the parchment even before she’d stowed it again in her skirt.

In the corner appeared a man. He was dusty and sunburnt, as though he’d been tending fields all day, confirmed by the smell of damp earth and manure.

The woman stood, and Preminger hesitantly followed. “Who is this?”

“This is Peter.” She stroked his dirty face, and Peter closed his eyes. “Peter would do anything for me, wouldn’t you, dear?” He nodded, seeming in a trance. The woman snapped her fingers, and when Peter’s eyes opened, he looked just the double of Preminger.

Preminger gasped as Peter sat down on the cot and began twiddling his thumbs. They were exact copies, down to the cowlick at the back of their heads.

“Remember, dear, not a word.” The woman placed a finger to Peter’s lips and winked. “Come on, Jean.” She put her hand on his arm, and next second they stood on the road leading down from the palace. “There. This is as much as I can do for you.” Her hand dropped from his arm and she began to walk away.

“Wait! What if they suspect he isn’t me? What if he says something? And who are you?”

The woman turned back with an expression of utmost disdain. “Peter can’t say anything; he hasn’t got a tongue. As long as you don’t do anything stupid, everything will be fine .”

“But who are you?”

“I... I am getting revenge for my daughter.” She turned away again in a huff and disappeared.

Preminger stood for a moment, staring at the place where she’d been, and then pinched himself. It hurt, and as he rubbed the spot, it finally sunk in: He was free.


 

Queen Genevieve had left her carriage almost at a run, and nearly sprinted into the dungeons; she tripped several times along the way, but barely paused as she plowed down the corridor. She’d felt uneasy for the last few hours, and needed to reassure herself that Preminger still sat in his cell. The closer she came, the more she feared she would find it empty.

The guards straightened as Genevieve approached, and they seemed to hold their breath as she came to a stop.

“You get up! You stand when I’m in front of you!” she snapped, and Preminger got to his feet. She hesitated for half a second, unsure what to say now that she’d confirmed he still sat behind bars. “I—I have just come from Erika’s coronation. I saw her dressed in silks, and drinking fine wines, and speaking to people I know you’d give your left foot to even get a glimpse of. She has everything . You have given her everything she could possibly want, and more. You landed yourself in this cell, the very cell you once put her in, and you’ve launched her to the top. How does that feel, Preminger?”

Preminger merely blinked, and the guards shifted restlessly.

“I hope you’re happy knowing that you’re living under my feet, because you are never going to get out of here. If you even try, I’ll have you hanging so fast we’ll barely have time to fetch the rope.” She turned to Hank, and he flinched. “Add three more guards to this cell,” she said calmly.

“Right away, Your Majesty,” he said hastily, bowing low.

Genevieve turned away from all of them and walked back down the corridor, trying to ignore the sinking feeling that all she could do was not enough.

Chapter Text

Julian snored gently as Anneliese slipped out of bed; she had pretended to fall asleep after they made love. She retrieved her nightgown, which had been tossed across the room, and put it on, followed by her dressing gown for extra warmth. Julian did not stir as she opened the door to the balcony and stepped out. There was no moon that night.

The stone was cold on her bare feet, but she did not wish for slippers. She walked slowly to the edge of the balcony and leaned over.

For a moment, Anneliese wondered what it would be like to fall.

She didn’t want to jump, of course not, she was the happiest she had ever been, and yet... She was very, very curious. She had fallen out of a tree once, and although she hadn’t broken anything, it had hurt quite badly to land. The fall itself , however, had been lovely; she’d felt weightless, lighter than air.

Her heart was heavy, and she wondered if that would make her fall faster.

She didn’t know why she’d felt restless and anxious on the last leg of their journey—seeing Astraea again was wonderful! How she’d missed her palace, her own room, her own bed—and yet she could not shake the troubling feeling that she was missing something. The feeling had come to her in the middle of the night, and she’d woken up feeling cold, though Julian lay beside her. She’d slipped out of bed then, and fumbled through her luggage in the dark, trying to think of something she might have left behind in Dulcinea, but she found everything she thought to look for.

What, then, could create this pit in her stomach? This solid knot of dread in her heart?

Anneliese looked at the ground, shrouded in shadows, and wished to fall.

She straightened up, pulling her dressing gown tighter around her neck, and ran a hand through her tangled hair.

She wanted to see Preminger.

Well, not wanted . She hadn’t seen him since the day he’d almost married her mother, and had no desire to look at him ever again, after all he’d done. But she needed to see him. She had to confirm, like her mother had when they’d first arrived, that he still sat in his cell. She took her mother at her word, of course, and knew he was still there—but if they’d both had the same feeling, on the same day, didn’t that mean something?

She found herself tiptoeing through her bedroom and into the corridor, Serafina twisting around her ankles and meowing softly.

“I just—I need to see P-Preminger,” Anneliese said softly. Serafina blinked, and she took that to mean the cat understood. In any case, she  trotted along at her heels as Anneliese felt her way to the dungeon.

The guards didn’t hear her coming, barefoot as she was, and she paused a moment to listen to them before they could see her: Some were grumbling about the queen—“ fifteen men at all hours of the day for one little man who doesn’t even speak , it’s unreasonable ”—and a few were exchanging gossip from the village, but she thought she heard at least one snore.

Anneliese stepped around the corner and the men fell silent, as though they’d seen a ghost. One man stood up hastily and nearly knocked over his stool. “Your Highness! What—what are you doing here, at this hour?”

“I came to see him,” she said, and her voice nearly shook. She clutched her dressing gown very tightly at her throat, though she did not know why. Did having less skin exposed make her safer ? And what on earth was she afraid of? She could clearly see Preminger, asleep on his cot. He was there, and there were fifteen soldiers at her beck and call. They would slit his throat if she asked. She was very, solidly safe.

And yet...

She stepped closer, and the guards hurriedly shuffled out of her way. She pressed herself right up against the bars, straining. The man on the cot certainly looked like Preminger. But there was something odd in the way he...shimmered? She blinked and shook her head.

“Can someone light another torch?” she asked quietly, and she heard quick fumbling and then the torch flared to life beside her. “Hold it higher, so that the light casts... Yes, thank you, just there.” Preminger’s cell was now fully lit, and he certainly wasn’t shimmering , what had she been thinking? She cleared her throat. “Preminger.”

The man did not stir.

“Oi!” said the guard holding the torch, and Anneliese jumped. “So sorry, princess!”

She shook her head; the prisoner sat up slowly, not quite awake.

“Preminger,” she said again, and he looked at her blearily.

Their eyes met, and she felt like she was falling.

This man was not Jean Preminger.

“What is your name?” she said quietly, looking away from not-Preminger to the stout guard beside her.

“Hank—I mean, Hendrik Blumen, princess. I’m called Hank, it’s a nickname, sorry—”

“Hank, has anyone been inside this cell today?” she asked, feigning calm. Her panic was rising as not-Preminger continued to stare vacantly at her. He didn’t blink.

“I have, princess, to give him his supper.”

“No one else?”

He shook his head earnestly, brow furrowing. “I—I know it may have looked like we was slacking off, princess, but I swear we was only taking a bit of a break, it’s such long days, see, and he was asleep—but we’ve been here all day, or at least some of us has, and we’ve never left him alone for even a second since he was brought in two years ago, I swear it, princess.”

She gazed at him for a moment, and then looked to Serafina. She did not feel that Hank was lying, and yet she was absolutely certain that the man behind the bars was not Jean Preminger. She felt it in her bones. Serafina looked at her quizzically, but she shook her head.

“Thank you, Hank,” Anneliese said finally, turning away from the dead-eyed man in the cell. “And to all of you, for guarding... him.” She gave them a tiny curtsy which left them all mumbling flustered thanks, and then she went back upstairs as quickly as she could without running.

Anneliese longed to outrun the creeping feeling of unreality that was poisoning her brain with every step.

Serafina brushed at her heels and meowed, but Anneliese ignored her.

Serafina was not real enough to bring her back.

Anneliese reached the bed where Julian slept and she climbed into it roughly, wanting to wake him; he jostled and murmured “Anneliese?” with a barely-drawn breath, and then her mouth crashed onto his and she felt his surprise in the way he moved his lips but she did not care. She pulled down his trousers and straddled him and in his surprise he made sounds that ought to wake half the palace and she reveled in it.

This was real.

Julian, warm and writhing and moaning beneath her, was real . Her husband, her best friend, her tutor—that was very solid reality .

Preminger, with his shimmers and blank eyes, was not real, or at least not relevant. That was another lifetime, a nightmare.

She felt closer to earth every time Julian gasped her name, and she refrained from kissing him to hear him say it.

This is real.

Chapter Text

Dominick felt the difference in the way Erika looked at him, even if she denied it.

She handled him as though every touch left a bruise, if she touched him at all.

She thought he was weak.

He hated it.

Dominick tried, with little success, to insist that he wasn’t breakable, that her care was unneeded, that she could treat him as she always had; but of course, she denied she was treating him differently, so how could she change?

She lay beside him, limbs drawn in tight, as though she were trying to make herself smaller. She’d declined sex for the last few nights—and he did not begrudge her that, of course—but he did consider it further proof that she now thought he was fragile .

Fragile , when just days ago she’d had him tied to a chair and begging for mercy.

He should never have told her.

He lay looking at her back, taut as a bow string. He wanted to touch her, but he knew she would shy away. He’d thought that telling her about Marisol would lighten his burden, but his heart had never felt heavier.

“I know you’re awake, Erika. I can hear you not breathing.”

“If I’m not breathing then there’s nothing to hear,” she said coolly, curling tighter inward.

They lay in frigid silence for a long moment.

“Don’t you love me anymore?” he asked, and his voice cracked.

All at once Erika relaxed and rolled over, catching his face between her hands as a tear slipped down his cheek. “Of course I love you. How can you even ask me that?”

“You’ve been different,” he said yet again, wiping away the annoying errant tear, but this time her face crumpled and she sat up, putting her face in her hands. He followed, a hand cautiously on her back.

“I’m so sorry,” she whispered. “But I don’t know what to do.”

“What do you mean?”

She slipped out from under his hand and out of bed, crossing to her dressing table and picking up a handkerchief to dab at her eyes.

“Erika?”

“I don’t know what to do,” she said again, her head bowed and her back to him. “Because I am so angry, Dominick.” She turned around, her eyes full of tears. “I’m angry all the time, at everything. I’m angry at this country, for being your home, and at your people for disrespecting me and acting like I don’t deserve to be here. And I am so, so, so angry at myself, for giving up on my dream because it was too hard . I barely made it two years, after dreaming about it for twenty. I gave up and came crawling back to you, and for some reason you still loved me. And I betrayed you, and I’ll never forgive myself for it, and even as I say that I’m making it all about me , who’s never been through anything like you have—”

“Erika—”  he began, but she held up her hand.

“Do you remember what you said, that first day we spent together? Two years ago, when you thought I was Anneliese. ‘There’s something in your eyes. You’re honest, no pretenses. I like that.’ You said that to me, and I was lying to you even then. All I’ve ever done is lie to you, and hurt you—”

“Nonsense!” Dominick said angrily, getting out of bed.

Erika turned her back on him. “I don’t think you’re weak, Dominick. You’re the strongest man I know. I’m weak. I gave up on my dream, and relied on lies to win your heart. I’m awful, and you shouldn’t ever forgive me.”

He put his hands on her shoulders and she stiffened. “What do you want me to say? Do you want me to tell you to leave? Do you want to share a prison cell with Marisol? Would that make you happy?”

“People are supposed to be punished when they do bad things,” Erika said quietly. Her heart was beating so strongly it hurt.

“You haven’t done anything that you haven’t already apologized for a thousand times.” His hands slid to her waist and he spun her around to face him. “I’m never going to send you away. It was horrible enough the first time, watching you ride off, knowing you could die, or meet someone else, and I’d never see you again. Til death do us part, remember?” He took her hand and kissed it.

“Why... Why do you forgive me, and n-not Marisol?” she asked, looking away but peeking out of the corner of her eye for some sign of stress, but the only indication was his tightened grip on her hand.

Dominick raised his eyebrows and laughed. “Because you haven’t tried to kill me.” He kissed her hand again and released her. “But we really ought to do something about that anger. I could teach you to fence, if you like. I find it’s aggressive enough to keep me balanced.”

Erika laughed. “I may take up sewing again, in my spare time—if I ever have any spare time.”

“Your life is nothing but spare time at the moment,” Dominick teased.

“Oh, but you should hear Bertram talk about how full my schedule is going to be once the shock wears off. Makes me want to run off every time he brings it up.”

“I’ll run with you.” He grinned, then beckoned her back to bed. “Come on, we ought to be under the blankets when the fire goes out. It’s going to be a cold night.”

Dominick seemed to fall asleep almost immediately, but Erika lay with her head on his chest, listening to his slow breaths and the steady beat of his heart. She thought she had never heard anything so strong and solid.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, and startled when Dominick muttered back “Nonsense.”


 

3 Years Ago

“And who is that?” Dominick whispered, nudging Bertram and nodding to the woman that had just entered the hall. She was not especially unlike any other lady he’d seen today—her skin perhaps two shades darker, he thought—but she drew his eye in a way no one else had. Perhaps it was her hair; it hung down her back instead of coiled into braids or curls on top of her head. He’d had a fondness for long hair as long as he could remember.

“Marisol Talvez. No proper title, but her mother is quite wealthy indeed.” Bertram took a sip of wine. “She was only invited to keep her mother from throwing a tantrum and not paying her taxes. I would strongly advise you not to speak to her any more than necessary. I would not doubt that she’s inherited her mother’s temper.”

“Yes, yes,” Dominick said vaguely, waving his hand and craning his neck to see her. She hovered near the edge of the hall, away from everyone else, smiling nervously but looking out-of-place. She seemed far too bright, or perhaps everyone around her was simply dull.

Dominick stood up and Bertram tutted, but he was ignored as Dominick skirted around the crowd to where she stood. She stepped out of the way, thinking he was going to walk past her, and then looked around in confusion when he paused and asked, “Would you like to dance?”

Marisol nodded, a blush rising in her cheeks.

He didn’t take his eyes off of hers the whole time.

When the song ended, he bowed and kissed her hand, and then walked into the crowd and chose another lady at random, for the sake of appearances, and then another, and another, another. He didn’t know their names, nor did he care. He was quite sure he was going to marry Marisol, whether Bertram liked her or not.

The next day, when all the ladies had gone home, Dominick wrote Marisol a letter and asked her to come back, in secret.

In five days, he had his answer: Marisol appeared on his doorstep in the dead of night, and he had a room dressed for her and she settled quietly into the palace.

He wrote her poetry, and read it to her while she sat in front of the fire and blushed.

Her caress was softer than rose petals.

Her slaps stung like salt.

“I’m very sorry,” she would say, very calmly, after she’d finished screaming, the flush fading from her cheeks. “I don’t know what came over me. The moment wasn’t right, and I panicked. I’m so sorry, dear. Please forgive me. I only want what’s best for us, darling. I love you so much. Don’t you love me?”

He would say, “Yes, dear. Of course, dear. I love you, too.”

He wasn’t sure how he’d fallen into the routine.

The tablecloth was white, and Marisol wouldn’t sit down. She stared and said, “It’s wrong. It has to be red. This day is only perfect if the tablecloth is red.”

“The tablecloth is fine, dear—” he tried to say, but she slapped him. He tasted blood.

“It’s not fine! It has to be perfect ! It has to be red !” she screamed, red rising in her face, and she tore the white cloth from the table, shattering crystal and denting silver. “It’s wrong ! You have to fix it!”

And he said, “Yes, dear. Of course, dear. I love you.”

And she said, “I don’t know what came over me. The moment wasn’t right, and I panicked. I’m so sorry, dear. Please forgive me. I only want what’s best for us, darling. I love you so much. Don’t you love me?”

And it continued.

Very slowly, it occurred to him that this could not be love. It could not be love if he was hiding bruises from Sebastian, pretending they were the results of heavy petting. It could not be love if he was dodging Bertram in the corridors, lest he be asked, “Are you going to marry her?” It could not be love if he dreaded every moment he spent with her.

It could not be love if he was afraid.

He had never thought of himself as weak before. He was weak to let this happen, he told himself. He was weak, and now he had to fix it by himself, so that he could be redeemed. No one would ever have to know. He would wait for the right time, and end it, and everything would be as it was.

After far too long, or not long enough, the moment came.

Marisol asked, “When are we getting married?”

Dominick said, “We aren’t.”

She laughed, and said she must not have heard him correctly. He told her that she had, and that she must leave the palace, and never return. If she ever spoke of this to anyone, she would be imprisoned for treason.

She stared at him, her mouth slightly open, her lips like roses, and he thought, for a moment, that he must be wrong, someone so beautiful could not be so cruel—

She screamed, “ You can’t do this to me! ” and her face was so pretty and red.

Her hands were around his neck, and her skin was like silk and her nails were like glass and she was so beautiful, surely she didn’t mean to hurt him?

He couldn’t breathe, but that was fine, because if he died then no one would know he was weak—or would they, because he’d been killed?—

She was saying something that made her mouth very round—“ And Oliver! You always loved him more than me! ”—and he began to fight back, Oliver wasn’t a part of this, Oliver wasn’t weak and helpless and dying on the floor of his bedroom, but he was too weak to fight her off—

And he screamed, “ SEBASTIAN! ” with his last, gasping, dying breath, he was asking for help, he was so weak, but he couldn’t let Oliver pay for his mistake—

Sebastian burst through the door and in one motion pulled Marisol off and threw her across the room, where she landed in a heap and did not get up. He bellowed “BALDO! WILLIHARD!” into the corridor as he crouched beside his king, keeping one eye on Marisol’s still form.

“Dominick?” Sebastian bent and put one ear to his chest, sighing with relief when he heard a heartbeat and a breath. “Take the girl to the dungeon. Do not speak to anyone. Do not leave her,” he commanded as the two guards entered the room; they nodded and picked her up between them, shuffling out the door.

Dominick knocked Sebastian’s hand away and pushed himself up slowly. His head spun and his throat ached so badly he wanted to tear it out, but he tried to stay as stoic as his bodyguard.

“You... threw her... like she was nothing,” he managed, massaging his neck. He thought he could feel bruises blooming under his fingertips, and he thought of roses and laughed, and then he could not stop laughing, thinking of roses and salt and tablecloths and madness and how he was so stupidly weak

“Milord, please!” Sebastian said wildly, his eyes wide.

The laughter faded as quickly as it had come.

“Don’t... call me that,” Dominick snapped. “It’s not your place.”

He tried to get up, but he was too weak to stand.

Sebastian offered his hand, but he didn’t take it.

“Please bring me paper and a quill,” he said, with as much kingly dignity as he could muster, sitting on his bedroom floor with new bruises on his throat. “I need to write to my cousins, about arrangements for... our guest.”

Sebastian nodded and went to the desk.

“And Sebastian?”

“Yes, milord?” he asked, his back turned as he rummaged around for ink.

“Don’t tell anyone,” Dominick said softly, trying to keep the plea out of his voice.

Kings didn’t beg. Kings weren’t weak.

“I wouldn’t dream of it, milord.”


 

2 Years Ago

Her name was Anneliese. He’d said her name a thousand times, tasting its weight, and tacking on his surname: Anneliese Von Brandt .

It didn’t sound right, but that was just pedantic.

She had long blonde hair, and he imagined it splayed on her pillow, catching in the morning light. It would shine like the gold her country so desperately needed.

It wouldn’t be so bad, waking up next to gold instead of chocolate.

He wasn’t weak for settling, he was strong for moving on, for helping a kingdom in need.

He entered Aurelia in plain clothes that felt like armor. He was anonymous. No one knew or cared who he was. He could see the princess before she saw him.

She ran away.

He stayed in his room and told himself that she was stronger than him for running before things could go sour.

She came back.

He heard her sing, and fell in love.

She was quiet, and thoughtful, and he loved her more than anything. He felt so strong standing beside her.

She wasn’t the princess.

He was too weak to tell the difference.

He decided he didn’t care.

He loved her.

He didn’t even know her name.

He put on armor and felt invisible.

The real princess was safe and sound, and he learned his love’s name: Erika.

He thought that Erika Von Brandt sounded wonderful.

Her debt was paid, and she left. She did not say she would be back.

She took all of his strength with her.

He went back to Dulcinea with empty hands and a full heart.


 

4 Months Ago

Erika came back.

He felt so strong.

He would have married her that day, if Bertram would have allowed it.

He touched her at every opportunity, her hand, her waist, her hair. Very rarely she would let him steal a kiss that would leave her weak in the knees, as though he was leeching her strength away, but it seemed she had plenty to spare.

She smiled but never blushed.

He wondered what he would have to do to see red in her cheeks.


 

2 Months Ago

Erika Von Brandt.

He couldn’t believe he’d ever lived without her.

He couldn’t believe he’d ever felt weak.

He loved her more than he could ever say.

He tried to tell her with stumbling words and fumbling fingers, but he wasn’t sure she understood.

He saw her blush.


 

1 Week Ago

“How am I supposed to be in charge of the palace if no one in it respects me?”

“Their respect doesn’t matter. You hold their lives in your hands, and if they don’t realize that, they can find new employment. They’ll come around.”

“You sound like Bertram,” Erika sighed, and he blinked.

“Don’t ever tell him that, he’ll never let me live it down,” Dominick laughed, and she smiled wanly. Everyone he’d seen had been polite, but that didn’t say anything about how they behaved when she was alone. “But I promise you, this palace is your domain. You can give anyone an order and expect it to be followed—I’ll back you up if I have to, but that shouldn’t be necessary.”

Erika raised an eyebrow. “Really? I can give anyone orders?” She had a devilish look, but he couldn’t imagine what she was thinking of. “Including the cook?”

“Especially the cook.”

“What about Sebastian?”

“If you need to,” he said curiously. What could she possibly need him to do? Dominick hardly felt weak anymore, but Sebastian was nonetheless a comforting presence. “I swear, anyone in the palace.”

“Even you?”

He met her gaze and his heart stopped. “What would you have me do, milady?”

“Only a thousand things,” she said carelessly, going to a drawer and rummaging around inside. What did she keep there? He couldn’t remember.

“You have but to name them, milady.” He hadn’t been so excited since their wedding night.

Erika pulled three scarves from the drawer, smiling. “Take off your clothes and sit in that chair,” she said, pointing, and he nearly tore his shirt in his hurry.

“How long have you been thinking about this?” he asked in an undertone as she bound his hands to the arms of the chair.

“Weeks,” she grinned, and put the third scarf around his eyes as a blindfold.

He couldn’t see, and he couldn’t imagine what she could be doing that would feel like that , or what would make her moan like that and yet it wasn’t enough and she seemed to know it.

“Erika—”

“Did you want something?” she asked innocently, which almost made him laugh, because his face was nearly in between her breasts, as far as he could tell.

Before he could say anything else, she buried him in a kiss and she was doing something tantalizing that he couldn’t put his finger on—was she even using her fingers?

“Erika! M-milady!”

“What is it, dear?”

“Please—”

Apparently kings begged.

“Please what, dear?”

“Please untie my hands!”

“Oh!”  She began fumbling with the silken knots. “I’m sorry, I didn’t reali—”

But both of his hands were free and ripped the blindfold off and kissed her as soon as he could see her and he couldn’t even make it to the bed; they tumbled to the floor and Dominick saw what it was she’d been doing and couldn’t believe his eyes. She blushed and he did his best to return her efforts and within minutes they were both gasping and grinning on the cold stone and Dominick couldn’t believe he’d scraped his knee having sex. He thought that might make even Sebastian laugh.

“If the queen rules the king, then what good is he?” Erika teased when she had her breath back.

“I don’t know, milady. Perhaps he is there to keep her strong.”

“Oh, that’s nonsense. Everyone knows that queens are stronger.” She stuck out her tongue and kissed his nose, then pulled her nightgown back on. “We’ve got to be up early, come on, let’s get into bed proper.”

“Yes, milady,” he said, half-heartedly getting into his shirt and trousers again.

“And stop calling me that! People will talk.”

For a brief second, Dominick wondered if they would think him weak.

“I don’t care,” he said, climbing into bed. “They can say whatever they like.”

Erika frowned. “As your queen, I command you to stop.”

“Yes, milady,” he said with a wink, and she threw a pillow at him.

Chapter Text

12 Years Ago

Everyone around her spoke as if she had already died. She was awake, but so tired she could not open her eyes, and she supposed that did not help.

“Alphonse, please, do something,” Genevieve pleaded for the hundredth time.

He laid his hands on Anneliese’s forehead for the thousandth time and said, “I’m trying . It’s not working, I don’t understand—”

“You’re not trying hard enough!” Genevieve screamed, her hands balling into fists, and then she was pacing furiously around the room. Even in her feverish haze, Anneliese was quite sure she heard the queen swearing in ways that she should never have been allowed to hear.

Alphonse put his own head in his hands.

“I’m sorry,” he said quietly, and then he was crying.

Anneliese had never heard her father cry before. She wanted to tell him she would be alright, but she couldn’t summon the energy to speak. Maybe she wouldn’t be alright after all.

After a moment, he composed himself, wiping his face on his sleeve. “I don’t understand,” he said again, staring at Anneliese without seeing her. He caught Genevieve’s wrist as she passed, and she fell silent, her expression smoothing. “It still works on you, doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” she said placidly, and he released her. Her eyes fell on her daughter and she frowned again. “I wish you wouldn’t do that. Worrying is the only thing I can do right now.”

“I’m sorry,” he said absently, taking one of Anneliese’s small hands in both of his. “Why isn’t it working? What am I doing wrong? It’s almost as if...”

Alphonse froze, and Anneliese was almost sure his hands were suddenly cold. Or had her fever simply spiked?

He laid her hand on the mattress and ran a hand over his stubbled jaw. “It’s time for tea, I think,” he said with forced lightness. His expression was stony, and would have frightened Anneliese if she’d seen it.

Genevieve did not protest, but kissed her daughter’s forehead before leaving the room. Alphonse did not look back at her.

The room was still and quiet, and Anneliese was so tired. Her parents’ conversation had seemed to make sense as it happened, but now she could not replay it in her mind; the words jumbled in her fevered brain and she gave up trying to make sense of it.

She lay for several long minutes with only her own shallow breaths for company, and then someone entered the room.

Anneliese struggled to open her eyes. She hadn’t heard the door open, but she felt a slight stir in the air, or perhaps she was imagining it. She had to see to be sure, but she was so tired—

Someone stood over her and her skin tingled. This must be another fever dream, she thought, but then why was it easier to breathe? She didn’t feel quite so tired, either, and managed to open her eyes for the first time in days.

A man stood over her, but he didn’t look like any man she’d ever seen before: His face was obscured by a bright white light, brighter than the sun; or perhaps it only seemed that way after so long in the dark. She blinked several times, trying to adjust her eyes, but if anything the glow seemed to grow brighter.

He held one hand a foot above her body and repeatedly clawed the air, as though trying to grasp something invisible. She almost thought she saw specks, rather like dust, collecting in the palm of his hand, but that was absurd. Dust didn’t fly upward .

She wanted to ask who he was, and what he was doing, and why his face glowed, but she was suddenly very thirsty, and looked around for a pitcher of water instead.

With the air of someone who would rather do anything else, he poured her a glass with his left hand, his right still clawing the air and collecting specks.

She tried to nod in thanks, but her head still felt very heavy, so she concentrated on bringing the glass to her lips without spilling it. She took a sip, and then opened her mouth to speak, but he held up his left hand and shook his head once.

What a strange dream, Anneliese thought. It was not like any dream she had had before.

The man stopped clawing the air and suddenly closed his hand; when he opened it, the upside-down heap of colorless specks had vanished.

He looked at her—or at least turned his face toward her—and said, as though deeply regretting it, “Be good.”

Of course I’ll be good, Anneliese thought sleepily. I’m the princess; what else am I supposed to do?

When she thought to look at him again, he was gone.

She did not remember falling asleep, and when she woke up she did not remember the man at all. She could hardly remember anything but feeling hot and uncomfortable for several days, but she thought that must be for the best.

Anneliese sat up, and her parents jumped. “Have I missed many lessons?” she asked, rubbing her eyes, and they laughed and kissed her cheeks and petted her hair.

On Genevieve’s insistence, she spent another day in bed, to be sure she was truly recovered, and Alphonse stayed at her side, reading to her from her favorite books. His expression was troubled, and he kept forgetting to do the different voices that she liked, but she didn’t say anything. She was just happy not to be sick anymore, and to have her father there.

At the end of the day, as the sun set, he asked if she wanted anything.

“What do you mean, papa?” she asked, almost suspicious.

“If you could have anything in the world, what would you want?”

Her first thought was a library filled with every book ever written, but she decided that was impractical; most of them would be boring, and even more in languages she couldn’t read, although she supposed there would also be books for learning those languages... But still, such a thing would be impossibly big, and she was quite sure that was not what her papa had meant.

“I wish I had a friend,” Anneliese said finally, settling on something reasonable. “Someone to play with, sometimes.”

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Alphonse, and he kissed her forehead. “Now, bedtime. You’re back to lessons tomorrow, queen’s orders.”

She huffed and he tucked her in, chuckling.

“Papa—” she began timidly as he blew out the last candle.

“Yes, dear?”

“It—It isn’t your fault I got sick.”

There was a beat of silence.

“That isn’t the part I’m worried about,” he said finally.

Before she could ask what he meant, he left, and she was left alone in the dark.


 

Now

The horse had belonged to Preminger, and she’d taken it to escape from his cabin. The same horse had helped to rescue her from the mine, and had even pulled the carriage after her wedding.

Sometimes, when she caught sight of this particular horse out of the corner of her eye, he did not look like a horse.

She told herself she was imagining things. People often saw odd things out of the corner of their eye, especially in dim light and under stress.

She wondered, then, why she’d seen the same thing in calm daylight.

At the time, she’d put it down to wedding nerves and associating the horse with Preminger, but after seeing Preminger shimmer in his cell she wasn’t so sure.

Anneliese wondered if her eyes might be right.

Perhaps the horse wasn’t really a horse. Perhaps he was really the man with a face that glowed brighter than sunlight, the one she’d seen crouched on all fours out of the corner of her eye more times than she cared to count.

After all, if Preminger could disappear from a heavily-guarded cell and replace himself with a double, why could a man not turn into a horse?

But why would a man want to turn into a horse?

And why did she suddenly believe it was possible ?

Anneliese shook her head and snuggled closer to Julian. She was being silly. Magic wasn’t real. Preminger had been a trick of the light, combined with her own anxiety from seeing him sit just a foot away. The horse was just a stupid animal that she should not waste her thoughts on. It had just been in the right place at the right time; there was no reason to think of it beyond that.

Telling herself these things did not make it feel real.

“Anneliese?”

She let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t. “ Julian stifled a yawn. “I’m always up at this hour.”

She forced herself to laugh once.

“What’s wrong?”

“I need to tell you something,” she said slowly.

“Go on,” he said after a moment, when she didn’t continue.

“But I can’t tell you,” Anneliese said miserably, sitting up and burying her face in her hands. “You’ll think I’m lying, or mad!”

He sat up, running a hand through his hair. “Whatever it is, I’m sure we can get through it. Together,” he added, taking her hand and kissing it.

She took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “Please promise me that you won’t laugh, no matter how I sound.”

“I promise,” he said promptly, squeezing her hand gently.

All in a rush, she said, “I think Preminger has escaped. The man sitting in his cell is a double. I saw him shimmering, Julian, and his eyes... I know he isn’t Preminger, but I don’t know how he could have done it, unless—unless he used magic , somehow, and if he did I don’t know how we’re ever going to catch him. No one will even believe that he’s gone! You don’t even believe—”

“How do you know he’s gone?” Julian interrupted, frowning.

“I went to see him last night. I—I had a feeling.”

He stared at her for a long moment, unseeing.

“I’d like to go see Preminger, or whoever is in the cell. I want to see if I notice anything,” he said finally.

“The guards didn’t see him, Julian. I don’t think you’ll be able to, either.”

He shrugged and got out of bed, stretching. “Do you want to come?”

“Do you believe me?” she asked cautiously, putting one foot on the floor.

“I do.”

She searched his face for any trace of mocking.

“I promise.”

She slid all the way out of bed and put on her dressing gown. She tied the sash too tight around her waist but did not bother loosening it.

Julian held out his hand and she took it, lacing her fingers through his.

“It’s going to be alright, Anneliese. Whoever that is, they’re still in a cell, surrounded by fifteen men. He can’t hurt you.”

“I don’t want to be right,” she whispered. “I don’t want Preminger to be out, where he’s dangerous.”

“Of course you don’t,” he said as they entered the corridor.

Julian fell silent beside her, breathing evenly even as her breaths sped and shortened, her panic mounting with each step toward the dungeon.

The cell came into view, and her blood ran cold. Her hand was a vise around Julian’s, and he wondered what she saw.

“Hello,” Julian said pleasantly as they reached the corner cell. “Could you give us a moment with him? If you’ll just stand in the corridor there, a ways back, we’ll only be a moment.”

The guards looked at each other, but shuffled into place without grumbling.

“What do you see?” Julian asked quietly.

“He’s not shimmering,” said Anneliese, barely moving her lips. “I see Preminger, but also another man, underneath. It’s like... looking into a river and seeing the stones at the bottom, through the water.”

Julian nodded, and squinted at the man: He sat against the back wall, staring vacantly at the tiny window. He didn’t look just as Julian remembered—he’d grown a beard, his hair was unkempt, he wore a ragged shirt with patched trousers—but he still looked like Preminger.

“I don’t see anyone else,” Julian said finally, disappointed.

“I don’t think that man is quite right,” Anneliese said uncomfortably. Not-Preminger had not blinked all this time.

“How long do you think he’s been here?”

“Just two nights.” Julian looked surprised, but she shrugged. “I didn’t feel anything was wrong until then.” She raised her voice, calling to the guards: “You can come back now! I told Julian how I came down here last night, and he got so worried, I had to show him how safe it is down here.” She smiled, and a few of the men got rather red and muttered thanks. “Good night.”

Anneliese was quiet as they walked back to their bedroom. Julian shut the door behind them and went to light a candle.

“I think this has to do with my mother,” Anneliese said suddenly, and he nearly dropped his match. She pulled off her dressing gown and lay on their bed, staring at the ceiling. “She felt something was wrong, too, she went to see him as soon as we got back. But it can’t be as... developed, because she didn’t notice that he was different. Or maybe she saw something, but didn’t say anything.”

Julian nodded, sitting at her desk and putting his head in his hands.

“Preminger is out there, and he’s got magic , somehow—”

Magic was real. Julian believed her. Julian believed in magic, too.

“You’re not in danger,” he said tiredly.

She sat up to stare at him. “What do you mean? This is Preminger , Julian. He’s insane —”

“Well, not immediate danger. He just escaped from prison, and since he wasn’t waiting to ambush you when you got home, I think he’s trying to get as far away as he can. If he’s smart, he won’t come back.”

Anneliese rolled her eyes. “If he was smart, he would have planned a better coup.”

“We have no proof ,” Julian reminded her gently. “As far as anyone else knows, he’s still there.”

She worried about the strange horse, but it had not been stolen, so she supposed that Preminger had not taken it—unless he’d left another double, but why bother for a horse? Perhaps they ought to check the palace stables...

“You believe me, don’t you?” she asked anxiously, suddenly unsure.

“Yes, I do.” He raised his head and ran a hand along his jaw. “I... I’ve been thinking about magic ever since Erika’s coronation, when I saw her crown, and that scepter—I’ve never seen amethysts like that before. I tried to do some research, to see where they came from, but there was nothing in Dominick’s library, not even a legend.”

“They were opals,” Anneliese corrected. “I thought they were amethysts at first, too, but there were too many colors. They had to be opals.”

Julian raised his eyebrows. “I didn’t notice any other colors.”

Her face fell.

“How... How long has this been happening to me, Julian? How long have I been seeing things no one else can?”

“I don’t know.” He put his head in his hands again, pressing his palms to his cheekbones as though hoping to squeeze an answer out.

Anneliese fell back against her pillows. “Why is this happening to me?”

“I don’t know,” he repeated helplessly.

She swallowed against the lump in her throat. “Preminger is out, and we have no proof except my word, and no one is going to listen to me. What are we going to do, Julian? We have to be prepared, just in case, but we can’t tell anyone that might be able to help.”

Julian was quiet for a moment. “There was a scholar in the village, Josué... Maybe he knows something.”

“Why would he know anything? Could we trust him?”

“They said he was very wise... He gave me that flower book I was reading when your father found me. He was very fond of me, once. I don’t know if he’s still alive, he was quite old... I’ll go to the village in the morning and check his cottage. But for now, we need to sleep. I am very confident we won’t be attacked.” Julian raised his head and tried to smile.

“Come to bed then, you’re the one sitting all the way over there.”

Julian blew out the candle and climbed into their bed.

“I’m sorry,” Anneliese whispered.

“Don’t say that,” Julian murmured, pulling her into his arms. “There is nowhere in the world I would rather be than here with you. Magic and all.”

She sniffed, burying her face in his chest. “Do you mean that?”

“Of course I do.” He kissed her hair. “We’re going to figure this out, Anneliese. I promise.”

They didn’t speak again, and eventually each fell into a restless sleep.


 

Arsenio hobbled up the palace steps wearing Josué’s face, leaning heavily on a walking stick and Julian’s arm. This was not a part of the plan.

“Are you sure you can’t tell me what this is about?” he asked in a high, thin voice.

“We mustn’t be overheard,” Julian said nervously, looking around. The corridor was empty, but his shoulders remained tense and hunched.

“I don’t understand,” Arsenio said for the fifth time, taking the smallest possible shuffling steps. He felt futures spiral and shatter so fast he could not begin to comprehend them. This was not a part of the plan.

“You’re the wisest man I know,” Julian said for the second time, and Arsenio felt a twinge of guilt. He had never felt so caught in his lies—they were not so fragile as a web; they were a nest, carefully constructed and entirely dependent on each other to retain their shape.

The future broke into a thousand blurry pieces; he couldn’t make sense of any of them. This was not a part of the plan.

“Just through here,” Julian said, opening a parlor door and guiding his wizened mentor into the room. “Josué, this is my wife, Princess Anneliese.”

“Your Highness,” Arsenio wheezed, bowing as clumsily as he could.

She stared at him coldly and his blood felt like ice. This was not a part of the plan.

This is Josué?”

“It... certainly looks like him,” Julian said lightly, though he frowned. Arsenio twitched uncomfortably.

“It’s good that you’re sure, because I can’t see him.”

Anneliese turned away from both of them and sat down, putting her head in her hands.

“You can’t—? What do you mean you can’t see him? He’s right here beside me.” Julian clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“I can’t see his face,” Anneliese said tiredly, kneading her forehead. “It’s too bright.”

Arsenio’s heart stopped and he stepped backward, forgetting to shuffle. “I—I think I’d better go, the princess is obviously quite ill—”

Julian stepped in front of the door and Anneliese raised her head in time to see him scowl for the first time in her life.

“Anneliese? What do you see?” he asked over Josué’s head.

“It’s just a bright white light, covering his face. Brighter than the sun.”

“I don’t know what she means,” Arsenio lied feebly, looking between each of them. Julian was glaring so fiercely he feared he was about to be attacked; Anneliese was squinting and turning her head this way and that, trying to get a look at him.

This was not a part of the plan.

“Explain,” Julian said shortly.

“I can’t explain!” Arsenio burst out, forgetting to use his Josué voice. “This is impossible , I’m cloaked, and she shouldn’t be able to tell anything beside—”

“I’ve seen you before,” Anneliese said thoughtfully. “Not just when you were a horse, but another time. I think I was ill, I don’t quite remember.”

The silence hung for a moment, futures splintering with each second, and Arsenio gave up.

“I couldn’t let you die,” he said quietly. “It wasn’t a part of the plan.”

He straightened up, leaning the useless walking stick against one wall, and slowly let Josué’s face fade away. Julian’s eyes widened, but Anneliese couldn’t see it anyway.

“Who are you?” Julian asked, just as Anneliese said, “What are you?”

He took a deep breath, but his voice still shook: “My name is Arsenio, and I am a watch.”

Chapter Text

Jean Preminger crept onto the grounds of the Preminger estate with blistered feet and sweat dripping from his brow. He wiped his forehead and squinted around, trying to orient himself in the dim light. His stomach rumbled and he clenched his jaw.

He wished wholeheartedly that he had stayed in prison.

Having located the right door, he walked slowly toward it, hugging the wall and looking over his shoulder every step as he avoided the lit windows.

He finally reached the threshold and knocked quickly, still glancing over his shoulder.

Patrice Michel Preminger opened the door with a full wineglass in one hand, seeming unsurprised to be answering a knock in the dead of night. His gaze fell on Preminger and he raised one eyebrow before stepping back and letting him through. The door swung shut and Preminger hobbled to a chair, throwing himself into it and covering his face with his hands.

Patrice sidled to the sideboard. “Can I get you anything?” he asked nonchalantly.

“Water, please,” Preminger groaned, scrubbing his face with the heel of his hand. He would like nothing better than a long bath and a good night’s sleep, but he had not come all this way for luxury.

Patrice tsked but brought a pitcher and a glass; Preminger took the former and gulped greedily.

“Nearly thirty miles from the palace, isn’t it?” Patrice said dryly, sitting opposite his brother. “Quite a long walk.”

Preminger nodded, setting the empty pitcher on a side table and wiping his mouth. He took the glass and downed it, too.

Patrice looked at him mildly, sipping from his wineglass. “How did you get out of prison?” he asked idly, shifting his gaze to the fireplace.

Preminger inhaled deeply, but said nothing.

“Jean, we both know you would never have come back here, much less directly to me, if it weren’t a matter of life and death.” He set his wineglass aside and leaned forward, fixing Preminger with a piercing blue stare. “What have you done that requires my expertise?”

“I didn’t break out,” said Preminger, with a stab at his old swagger.

“And yet here you are.” Patrice sat back, cocking his head to the right. “How curious.”

Silence stretched for nearly two minutes before Preminger continued flatly: “A woman appeared in my cell and offered to help me escape.”

Patrice stood up and went to one of the bookshelves, scanning titles. “What did she want in return?” he asked lightly, as though asking about the color of her shoes.

Preminger swallowed and said, as calmly as possible, “The assassination of the Beaumonts and the Von Brandts, down to their cats.”

Patrice froze. “Is that so? How very daring of her.” He turned away from the shelves and sat down again, draining his wineglass. “How did you strike the bargain? A handshake? A kiss?”

“A contract, signed with a drop of blood.”

Patrice froze for a moment and then put his head in his hands. “I hope you have a plan.”

“A plan?”

He raised his head. “A plan for how you’re going to murder two royal families without getting caught.”

Preminger swallowed again. “I thought maybe—”

“You thought what , that maybe I could get you out of a sealed blood contract?” He laughed, and the sound was completely humorless. “Oh, Jean, you were always such a dreamer.” He shook his head. “I’m not a sorcerer, I’m an occult enthusiast.”

He laughed again, still shaking his head, and went to the sideboard. He poured two glasses of brandy and shoved one into Preminger’s hand, then sat down again. “To your good health,” he toasted, smirking, and drained the glass in one.

Preminger’s stomach was in knots but he drank it anyway. His throat burned in a familiar, almost comforting way. “How bad is it?”

Patrice steepled his fingers and surveyed his brother in an almost pitying way. “If she is very powerful—and I suspect she must be, given what she has done... She has your blood; she can control your body, see through your eyes, and hear through your ears. She can give you strength, or take it away. She may even give you certain powers.”

Preminger flexed his hands, imagining sparks flying from his fingertips.

“Did she replace you with a double?”

He nodded. “But if she has so much power, why not kill them herself? She could appear in their chambers and be out before anyone realized.”

“She may not want to get her hands dirty. She may not even be human.” Patrice shrugged. “Perhaps she just wants to watch.”

Preminger nodded; he had considered these possibilities himself.

“You can’t stay here.”

“I know.”

“If Doyen found you—”

“I know ,” Preminger repeated, annoyed.

Patrice pursed his lips. “Do you have a plan?”

Preminger massaged his forehead. “I need a bath and a set of clothes—especially shoes.” He noticed that his right foot was gently dripping blood onto the carpet. “Bandages, too, I suppose. If I can’t beg you for a meal and an hour’s rest, then I will be on my way. I’ve heard that Nick and Nack are in Slade; I’ll try to find them.”

“Those buffoons?” He raised his eyebrows. “Weren’t they your lackeys in your last coup?”

“They are still loyal,” Preminger said firmly. “I know they are, if I can only remind them...”

Patrice opened his mouth to say something else, but just then the door opened and Doyen strode in. He stood up quickly and moved to block the view of the chair in which Preminger sat. “What are you doing here, Doyen?”

“What are you doing up at this hour?”

“Why are you awake?”

Doyen rubbed his chin tiredly and yawned. “Petit had a nightmare, and I was putting him back to bed. Did I hear you talking to someone?”

“Only myself,” Patrice said dismissively, his pulse spiking the longer Doyen stood sleepily in the doorway.

Doyen nodded slowly. “Well, er, enjoy your conversation. Be sure to get some sleep tonight, alright?”

He shuffled out of the room, and Patrice turned back to Preminger to say how close that had been—

The chair was empty.

Patrice looked all around, wondering if he’d imagined the whole situation, and saw Preminger fade back into view, still sitting in his chair.

How did you do that?” Patrice asked, awestruck and slightly unnerved.

“I don’t know,” Preminger said nervously, staring at his hands. “Do... do you think that was the sorceress?”

“She’s already given you a power. She must want this done as quickly as possible.” Patrice shook his head. “Hurry and take a bath, if you must, and I’ll get you clothes and a meal—but then you must be on your way. Your presence here is damning.”

Preminger nodded and stood up slowly, feeling slightly light-headed. “Who is Petit?” he asked as Patrice led him to his private bath.

“Moyen’s son—Anslem Georg Preminger VII.”

Preminger blinked. “I hadn’t realized Moyen was married.”

“We sent an announcement, but of course you were too busy with your palace duties to come to the wedding.” Patrice smirked. “Doyen loves being a grandfather, which would be heartwarming if it weren’t so sickening. Did you know he bought a pony ? Petit loves horses but he’s too small to ride, and of course Doyen couldn’t have that. Imagine what Father would say if he knew we had a pony on the grounds.” He shook his head. “Anyway, the boy is four and a mild nuisance, but Doyen keeps an eye on him. Moyen is too busy gambling away his allowances, and Irma... I don’t know what she does.” He shrugged and then gestured around the room. “I trust you haven’t forgotten how to use the facilities.”

“Amusing,” Preminger said curtly. He suddenly felt the weight of two years of filth on his skin; he had been given a bucket and a sponge in his cell, but that would never compare to a true bath.

“Well, don’t dawdle too long. You cannot stay here.”

“I know ,” Preminger snapped. “Now get out!”

Patrice blinked and then left without another word.

Preminger drew his bath and undressed, then slid into the water with an almost indecent moan. He sat for a moment and let the warmth seep into his bones, then picked up a razor and a small mirror. He paused with the razor to his cheek and stared at his reflection for the first time in two years.

He looked frumpy and grizzled, with a wild, bushy tangle of hair and beard that seemed to dominate his face; he would not have recognized himself if not for his eyes. He slowly lowered the razor, turning his face this way and that.

He did not look like himself at all.

A smile slowly spread across his face and he set the razor aside. He had thought, on his long walk from Astraea, of a hundred ways to disguise himself, but he decided he needn’t bother; his time in the dungeon had transformed him in more ways than one.

Who would ever suspect that he would be walking around bearded and plainly dressed? He, who had been famed for his smart style of dress and perfect powdered wig? Nobody that would be looking for him, certainly. Of course, with the double in his cell, he doubted anyone would be looking for him, but he couldn’t be too careful.

He scrubbed two years of filth from his skin and grinned. Perhaps it would all fall into place after all.

Preminger did not linger; he was out of the bath before the water had cooled, and he wrapped himself in a robe as he wandered back to Patrice’s parlor. Patrice sat beside the fire sipping another glass of wine, and did not look up as his brother entered.

A plain set of clothes sat on a table beside a simple tray of food—what looked like beef stew, a chunk of bread, and a glass of water.

Preminger raised an eyebrow but picked up his spoon anyway, shoveling bites into his mouth as though he had not eaten in two years.

“It’s not fine cuisine, but it’s Petit’s favorite,” Patrice said mildly, watching as Preminger tipped the bowl back to get the last few drops of broth. “There was a bit left from dinner.”

“How did he even have stew in the first place?” Preminger asked, wiping his mouth on his sleeve. He downed the water and bread with hardly a breath between.

“Doyen took him to the market one day.”

Preminger laughed once, shaking his head. “If Father knew...”

“Indeed,” Patrice murmured as Preminger stepped into the next room to dress. He came back a moment later, hobbling slightly on his blistered feet and with a cape folded over his arm. “I didn’t even think to bring bandages—” Patrice said, setting his wineglass aside and beginning to stand up.

“No, it’s alright. It isn’t far to Slade.” Preminger stood up a little straighter and swung the cape around his shoulders, tying it loosely. With a full belly, he did not feel tired enough to impose on Patrice any longer. He had never been welcome here.

“You’re really going to set your stock in those simpletons?”

“I have no one else,” he said quietly.

Patrice said nothing.

“Well.. How do I look?” Preminger asked, spreading his arms as though showcasing the plain white shirt and black breeches.

Patrice stared at him for a long moment, and then said, “You look like Father’s worst nightmare.”

“Haven’t I always been?” said Preminger, unable to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“Now, now, you precious little bastard,” Patrice chided, “you can’t go off to plan assassinations with that attitude.”

Preminger rolled his eyes and suppressed a smirk. “Goodbye, Patrice. I hope we shall never meet again.”

“Likewise.”

Preminger opened the door took a deep breath; the lungful of cool night air seemed to invigorate him even more than the meal. He slipped outside and the door fell gently closed behind him as he picked up speed, settling into a comfortable trot toward the road and quickly putting distance between himself and the Preminger estate. He noticed Patrice standing somberly in the window watching him leave.

He did not notice that he was once again invisible.

Chapter Text

“My name is Arsenio, and I am a watch.”

The statement didn’t make any sense, but he said it with such resigned confidence that Anneliese thought she must be missing something.

Julian, however, was straight to the point: “I don’t know what a watch is.”

“You’re not supposed to,” Arsenio said flatly.

“Then why would you tell us?” Anneliese asked, her anxiety spiking; she had quite enough to worry about as it was—would this information put her in more danger?

“Because you asked , and because...” Arsenio ran both his hands through his shaggy hair. “This is almost entirely my fault.”

“Did you let Preminger out?” she asked, although she couldn’t imagine why he would . She wasn’t sure why, but she had the distinct impression that he cared about her very deeply.

“No, but I know who did.” Arsenio bit his lip and tried to look apologetic, forgetting that Anneliese couldn’t see his expression.

“I’m sorry,” Julian said frostily, “but you haven’t explained what a watch is .”

Arsenio turned his apologetic look to Julian instead, although he could see through several futures that Julian was inclined to be petty and unforgiving for at least two weeks. “You won’t like it. There’s a very complicated morality about my work and I don’t think you’ll understand. If I’m honest, and I must be at this point, often I don’t understand, but I suppose that’s the point.”

Julian looked like he was about to make a rude comment, and Anneliese piped up: “Sit down, please, and let’s hear him out. Preminger is missing, Julian, and I’m so afraid.” She was considerably less afraid now that they seemed to have some sort of magical ally, but she didn’t mention that to her husband as he threw himself into a chair beside her. She put her hand on his arm and then looked to Arsenio, momentarily blinded. She blinked rapidly. “Can—can’t you do anything about your face?”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” he said helplessly. “No one has ever said they could see a watch before. Well, obviously, everyone can see me, but they can’t see me the way you do, or if they have nobody has ever said anything about it before. I don’t even see a lighted face when I look at another watch.”

Anneliese nodded, trying to ignore the creeping feeling that she was abnormal. She was sure that Arsenio could explain this, too, if she just gave him a moment to speak. Julian seemed about to say something, but Anneliese squeezed his arm and shook her head as slightly as she could.

“The word ‘watch’ has a double meaning, in relation to me. It’s the kind of being I am, and also my job title. As far as the being part goes... I don’t know very much about it, except that I’m intrinsically magical, in a way, although our powers are limited and we’re generally discouraged from using any magic other than what we need to hide our appearances. I’m not sure why, except that it would be extraordinarily too convenient in many situations, which almost defeats our job purpose. Also, in case you’re curious, all watches are made , not born, as far as I have been able to tell, but I don’t remember the process or know how it’s done. We’re discouraged from forming strong relationships among ourselves, and especially among humans. Most don’t seem to mind...” Arsenio sighed. “I have long suspected that I am defective in this regard, although I have no proof of that beyond the general paranoia of feeling other that I am sure you are familiar with, given recent events.” He gestured to his face, and took a deep breath that he exhaled as a heavy sigh.

“And the second part?” Anneliese prompted, when he was silent for a long moment, seeming lost in thought. “Your job?”

“Yes, that. Besides shapeshifting or glamour to hide our appearances, watches can also... see the future in a somewhat limited sense, but I’m sure any vision of the future doesn’t seem very limited to you.” He smiled apologetically again, but this was lost on Julian and Anneliese, of course, could not see him. “The future changes constantly. Each and every decision made by you and everyone around you changes something , even if it’s only the color of the tablecloth the next day.”

Julian frowned and wondered why that sounded uncomfortably familiar. Arsenio sat down, careful to give Julian space.

“I cannot see my own future, but I suppose that is because my job is not to have my own future. I’m not meant to have any sort of ‘private life,’ as it were. I am meant—and I beg you to please stay calm and listen to me—I am meant to influence the future of others.”

Anneliese did not feel particularly anxious about this, and so she wondered why Arsenio was suddenly the picture of tension, at least from the set of his shoulders and hands. “I’m not quite sure I know what you mean. Can you elaborate?”

Arsenio nodded and reached into his vest pocket, pulling out a thin book and laying it on the table. It would have been unremarkable except for the small, ticking clock stamped onto the cover. It also glowed, but Anneliese was sure that neither Julian nor Arsenio was aware of this. “This is my dossier. It contains, essentially, the plan I am meant to carry out in relation to a particular person’s life.” He flipped to a page in the middle and pushed it across the table to Anneliese. “Humans aren’t supposed to be able to read it, but I’m sure you’ll have no trouble.”

She nodded once and looked down at the book. The letters were small and neat, but she could not tell if they were handwritten or printed by a press. Most of the page was incomprehensible scribbles, but the last line was clear: Appear as Herve at the Beaumont-Von Brandt wedding. “Herve?” she asked, pushing the book back to him; it gave her a headache to read it, as the letters wobbled slightly.

“That was my name as a horse, but you wouldn’t have known that.” He closed the book but did not put it away. The imprinted clock ticked along with the clock on the mantle in perfect time. She wondered whether that meant the mantle clock was accurate, or if the dossier simply kept time wherever it was.

The latter seemed more likely, she realized with some alarm.

“Who gives you this ‘plan’?” Julian asked finally, frustrated that he had seen only a blank page.

“It isn’t God, as far as I’ve been able to tell,” Arsenio said quickly, and Anneliese slumped a little. “I am not an angel; I am a watch. But beyond that, I don’t know.” His face twisted apologetically yet again.

“You don’t know ?” Julian said incredulously, and even Anneliese raised her eyebrows. “You just—just take orders from this book, without knowing who writes in it?”

“I know that it must be my creator. The Watchmaker,” Arsenio said half-heartedly, as though he had had to defend this question many times before. “And,” he added urgently, “I have never killed anyone, or injured them in any way, at least not directly.” He winced. “Although I may have hurt people through my inaction on more than one occasion. Following orders is not without repercussions.”

“But how is it decided, then, who you ‘help’? What makes Anneliese, or myself, so special that you’ve been assigned to our lives? I’m assuming that’s what you’re doing here.”

Arsenio closed his eyes. “Yes, I am assigned to you two, as well as Erika, and Dominick to a very minor degree, or at least I was. I haven’t received any more instructions, any more steps in the plan, for two months. Usually, I was updated on something to do at least once a week, even if it didn’t directly involve the four of you.”

Julian twitched and Anneliese took his hand, squeezing it gently as if to say No, not yet.

“To answer your question, however, I don’t know . I don’t know how anyone is chosen, or why. On the whole, I am more ignorant about my nature than I care to admit, and yet here I am, freely admitting it to you two.” Arsenio gestured to the pair of them and then ran a hand through his hair again, the other resting absently on his dossier. “I’m not even sure how old I am, although I can safely say at least two millennia have passed since I first awoke in this life.”

“What do you mean, awoke?” Anneliese asked, leaning forward.

Arsenio shifted uncomfortably. “I told you, watches are made . But beyond that—”

“You don’t know the process,” Julian finished, rolling his eyes.

“No, I don’t. I’m sorry that I don’t, but that is the way of things for a watch. Sometimes...” He sighed heavily. “Sometimes I have searched for answers, and only come away with the vague feeling that my question was answered. I never remember how, or even what the answer was, but it keeps me from asking questions. I suppose those are moment the Watchmaker intervened, and then erased my memory of it.”

“Can you erase someone’s memory?” Anneliese asked quietly.

“I have never tried, but I’m almost sure I’m able.” He looked at her and cursed himself and his magic. “I would never do it, regardless. I can’t really describe the sensation, but it is not pleasant.”

He looked so dejected that Julian almost felt bad for him.

Almost.

“If you can see the future, why didn’t you stop Preminger from getting out?” he demanded.

Arsenio blinked. “I thought I made it clear that I am not omniscient . To see anything of value, I have to be focusing; I don’t have random visions of relevant things, as convenient as that would be. My usual job takes careful consideration. I spent months planning exactly how to get Alphonse to choose you, once that was finally decided.”

“What do you mean, decided? Do you... Do you mean it almost didn’t happen? I almost never met him?” Anneliese clutched at Julian’s arm.

“Oh, you would have met him, but my dossier vacillated for quite a while about the way .” He opened his dossier again to a page that still seemed to be in the middle, and showed her a single word: Julian . “I’m sure the nuance is entirely lost on you, of course, but your life could have taken two main paths: One in which Julian was chosen as your childhood tutor, and another in which Erika would be chosen to be your handmaiden.”

Anneliese raised her eyebrows, and even Julian looked stunned.

Arsenio coughed and then continued hesitantly, “Obviously, we know the path this timeline has taken. In the other, Alphonse noticed Erika in the village and saw how similar you two look, and he chose her thinking this would amuse you. You two grew very close and went on to be quite the pranksters, frequently switching places until your parents no longer bothered to scold you about it. Twins in almost every sense.” He smiled, eyes glazed as he watched something that neither of them would ever see. “Julian, meanwhile, found his parents wretched and ran away from home. He made it to Slade and was taken in by the Dittmar family, who raised him as a scholar. He met you much later, visiting the castle with his adoptive father, and you had a short courtship, during which time you were invited to Dulcinea to attend a ball for Dominick. You sent Erika in your place, and that’s how they met. Each pair still evenly matched, in vastly different ways.  Happier all around, really.”

Arsenio seemed to come back into himself and shook his head. “But it didn’t happen like that,” he said unnecessarily. He sounded weary, but not quite sad. “I didn’t choose the way, but as I said, I spent months considering ways to make each happen. In the end, I simply bumped into Alphonse in the square and he looked right to Julian. It was simple, innocuous, and entirely forgettable. Alphonse had no idea that I spent weeks looking through every future I could see, calculating times and angles and the number of steps to take. Julian, of course, had no idea I was ever there at all, although I wasn’t dressed as Josué that day, just in case.”

“Is that a typical... interaction?” Anneliese asked, finally relaxing her grip on Julian’s arm.

“Yes. I am not supposed to be noticed, and I am to do exactly as I am told.” He paused. “On two occasions, I was not told to do anything, but the situation required immediate intervention, and so I acted on my own. The first time was twelve years ago, when I came to heal you. You—” His voice broke, and he took a moment to clear his throat before continuing: “You were going to die. Nothing they could have done was going to help you. But you were not supposed to die then. I have seen you die in a hundred thousand ways”—he flinched—“but none of them ever involved you wasting away in a sickbed at ten years old. That was not the plan. I had my dossier open and stared at it for days, waiting for some instruction, some order to help you. But none came, and eventually I went anyway, consequences be damned. I braced myself for punishment—I am not even sure how a watch is punished—but nothing happened.

“The second time was two years ago. You were in the mine... And again, I suddenly had visions of you dying down there, when you were absolutely not supposed to. That time, I could not risk digging you out myself. I was sure it would be pushing my luck and the Watchmaker would swoop down and punish me—surely I wouldn’t escape their notice twice . So I ran to get Wolfie instead, a more indirect path, but safer, I thought, in the long run. It was not directed, but then I had not acted directly.

“I suppose this marks a third occasion, but this time, at least, you reached out to me . In any case, as I said before, this is my fault, and I don’t care what happens to me anymore. I must keep you safe.” He looked directly at Anneliese, but she did not see him. She could not.

“But why ? Why do you love me so much?” She did not hesitate to use the word, when it was so clear, but Julian stiffened slightly.

“I don’t know,” Arsenio said helplessly, staring at his hands, looking up as Julian shifted in his chair.

“But you do know who let Preminger out,” Julian said finally, crossing his arms.

“Yes, I know. But you won’t like it.”

Julian rolled his eyes. “I don’t like that my life is being manipulated by an unknown puppetmaster, but I’m dealing with it. Now please, enlighten us with the one thing you do know.”

Arsenio swallowed and then looked at Anneliese before mumbling something unintelligible under his breath.

“Oh, of course now is when you choose to shut up.”

Anneliese frowned at him, but he was too busy glaring at the floor to notice. “Is is another watch? Are there bad watches?”

“I wish , but no. The closest we have is me.” He laughed softly. “No, I think this is a bit worse than a rogue agent.” He sat back in his chair and stared determinedly at the ceiling. “My wife let Preminger out.”

Julian muttered, “Of course.”

“I thought you weren’t supposed to have friends , let alone a wife!”

“Well...” He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling. “It’s never been explicitly stated, just heavily implied, and watches are very fond of loopholes...”

“Oh, Arsenio .” Anneliese put her head in her hands.

“What do you want me to say? She wasn’t evil when I met her! People change , you know, oh how they change...” He shook his head. “We’ve been on and off for ages, but I think we may finally be done for good.” He tried to smile.

“Why would your wife want to let Preminger out?”

Arsenio blinked, as though this should be obvious. “She wants to kill you.”

“What could we have possibly done to upset her? We don’t even know her!” Julian protested. “And if she wants us dead so badly , why didn’t she do it herself? She was already in the castle, so I’m sure it wouldn’t have been hard.”

Arsenio kneaded his forehead. “Reina has had five or six hundred years of watching me operate, and I suppose this is her poetic justice against me, too; she still loves me too much to want me dead.” He laughed softly.

“But why ? What did we do ?” Julian said impatiently.

You didn’t do anything,” Arsenio sighed. “Dominick, on the other hand...”

“What did Dominick do?” Anneliese asked, bewildered. She had the strangest feeling that Arsenio was looking at Julian for some reason, but she could not be sure.

He was indeed looking at Julian out of the corner of his eye as he said, “He put our daughter in prison.”

Julian froze, and Anneliese put her head in her hands. Of course. “You have a wife , and a daughter ... Oh, Arsenio, you’re not very good at this, are you?”

“No, I’m not.”

With resigned exasperation, Anneliese raised her head and asked, “Very well, what did your daughter do?”

“I’ll leave the details to Dominick’s discretion, but the short of it is that she tried to kill him. He could have had her executed for that, mind, but he put her in prison instead. It was quite lenient of him, and I’m grateful for that. But I would not begrudge him if he ever changed his mind. Reina, on the other hand, has decided that you must all be ‘punished,’ although I’m not sure exactly what her hit list looks like. She doesn’t want me to interfere, so she’s blocking me out.”

“She can do that?” Anneliese asked, astonished.

“Can she teach me?” Julian muttered.

Arsenio rolled his eyes at Julian, for once grateful that Anneliese couldn’t see him. “Yes, she can do that. Six hundred years of watching me and figuring out what makes a watch tick, in addition to her prodigious magical skill, is more than enough to block her from my view, and Preminger as well, of course. She’s keeping a close eye on him.” He smirked, although Julian couldn’t fathom why.

“How do you know she wants to kill us if she’s blocking you out?”

“Because at certain points, your futures are obscured, and then the next time I can see you is at your funeral,” Arsenio said stonily. “Reina is the only person I know that can block me like this, and she has her reasons for wanting you all dead. It’s very simple to put it all together. She doesn’t care if I know her plan; she cares if I stop her. You should have seen how furious she was when I warded Marisol’s prison against her.”

Anneliese closed her eyes and massaged her temples. “Who is the man in the cell?”

“His name is Peter. He’s a farmer from Slade.”

“Does his family miss him?”

“He doesn’t have a family. Reina knows better than to draw attention to herself.”

“Why... Why can I see him?”

Arsenio looked at her appraisingly. “I think that’s best left for another time.”

Julian heaved a great sigh, and Arsenio glared. Anneliese put her hand on her husband’s arm and nodded to the watch. “He’s right, Julian. I’ve got such a headache already. But I have one more question for you, Arsenio, if that’s alright?”

“Of course.”

“Reina may have let Preminger out, but he isn’t exactly dangerous . He’s not a skilled assassin—he couldn’t even pull off his coup!—and it isn’t as if he has any magic...”

Arsenio winced, and Julian raised his eyebrows. “Oh, what now ?”

“If Reina is conducting herself like I know she will... She took a drop of his blood when she let him out. If she has that, she can control him, even give him certain powers if she likes.”

“Oh, well that’s just perfect, isn’t it!”

“She isn’t stupid , she knows very well that Preminger couldn’t do it on his own! But with invisibility, or a poison touch, he can do everything he promised her, even if he stumbles and blunders through the entire affair. Reina may have a roundabout manner, but she knows what she’s doing.”

“I don’t understand why she doesn’t just kill us herself,” Julian said grumpily. “If she’s so powerful .”

“I’m sure that would bore her. If she did it, she would be just a mother on a rampage. But having the failed usurper slaughter the two royal families that got in his way, while also acting as her assassin? It’s almost like justice.”

Justice ?” Anneliese raised her eyebrows.

If that’s what Reina is thinking, which she almost certainly is.” Arsenio shrugged.

The room was silent except for the ticking of mantle clock and dossier.

“So, in essence,” Julian began, standing up and beginning to pace, “ you are a ‘watch,’ an ageless magical puppeteer manipulating our lives according to an unknown entity’s unfathomable whims. Your wife, that you are not supposed to have, is a six-hundred-year-old sorceress, and she wants us dead, but she doesn’t want to kill us herself because that wouldn’t be poetic . So instead, she has let Preminger out of prison so that he can kill us, and she’s giving him magical powers to make it easier. All because Dominick rightly put your daughter—which you are also not supposed to have!—in prison after she attempted to kill him. Have I got all that right?”

Arsenio nodded, and then for Anneliese’s benefit, said “Yes.”

Julian rubbed his chin. “Well, we’ve got to warn Erika and Dominick.”

Arsenio closed his eyes, and Julian cursed; Anneliese gasped, and he covered his mouth before whispering a muffled “Sorry.” He lowered his hand and glared at the watch. “What now ? What could possibly be wrong with warning Erika and Dominick that they could be killed at any moment?”

“Dominick doesn’t believe in magic,” Arsenio mumbled, but both Anneliese and Julian heard him.

“He doesn’t believe in magic? Are you—? Are you serious ?” Julian looked like he wanted to utter another stream of profanities, but he kept silent as his hands curled into fists.

“What about Erika?” Anneliese said quickly. “Does she believe? Could she make Dominick believe?”

Arsenio shook his head. “Not in any future I can see. He’ll only believe if he sees magic for himself, something that couldn’t be explained away as mundane.”

“Then you have to go see him, and do something magical in front of him!”

Arsenio looked taken aback. “I’m not supposed to—”

Don’t get me started on what you’re not supposed to do, ” Anneliese said warningly. “Erika is my friend, and I won’t have her in danger of getting murdered because of what you’re supposed to be doing!” She took a deep breath. “Just go to them and explain everything like you did for us.”

“It won’t work . It was easy, with you two, because you have definitive points in your lives where you remember me. They don’t. If I show up and start talking about watches, even Erika won’t listen to me.” A hundred thousand futures slid through his vision, each with the same outcome: Disbelief.

“I’ll write a letter, and explain that—”

“No, no, no, that won’t work.”

“Well, I could just go back to Dulcinea, with you, and we could both —”

“No!” Arsenio shouted. “No, you’re much safer in the castle, and once I’ve warded it you mustn’t leave. Besides, your mother is going to pieces trying to ‘protect’ you from royal duties, and it’s unfair to her.” He shook his head. “I’ll... I’ll think of something.”

Anneliese fell silent thinking about her mother, while Julian said, “You weren’t planning on warning them?”

“I wasn’t planning on warning you ! I was just going to... I don’t know, ward both castles and hope for the best.” He put his head in his hands. He had considered venturing to the Watchtower to plead for help, but he did not consider the situation quite desperate enough to reveal how many rules he had broken. He still had slim hope that they had somehow gone unnoticed until now, as impossible as that seemed. “They’re going to call you for dinner in five minutes, and I need to ward the castle. Let’s... Let’s pick this up tomorrow morning. I’ll have a plan by then.” He’d never had to come up with his own plan before. He wasn’t sure he wanted to laugh or cry when he thought of how far he had strayed.

“How do we know you won’t vanish in the middle of the night?” Anneliese asked as Arsenio stood.

He looked at her for a long moment and wished she could see his expression, then slouched and picked up his walking stick, letting Josué’s face settle over his own. He tucked his dossier back into his vest pocket and said,  “I know I don’t deserve it, but I must ask you to trust me.”

Anneliese nodded, and Arsenio hobbled out of the room, wheezing slightly.

“Do you think he’s going to come back?” Julian said quietly.

“He has to,” Anneliese said confidently, but she wasn’t sure who she was trying to convince.

Chapter Text

4 Months Ago

“Bertram says I’m supposed to go through the family tree with you, while he’s busy making arrangements, but I think this will be more interesting. This ballroom has many portraits of the royal families, some dating back centuries, and of course I know the tree well enough.”

Erika smiled as he led her into the room, and then gasped as she saw just how many portraits there were.

Dominick laughed. “I knew you’d prefer this to a dusty old book. I’ll just tell you the interesting parts, and Bertram can do the rest. And there’s really only one interesting part.” He led her over to a portrait of seven people, which seemed to be the largest family in the room. “This is King Frederick, with his wife Queen Martha, and their children: Stefan, Thomas, Katrina, Lorena, and Melody.”

“Martha?”

He nodded. “Frederick renamed the city after her. Martha also began the style of capitalizing the Von in von Brandt , a tradition that has obviously stuck.” He grinned. “But it was lucky he renamed the city when he did—it was called ‘Belmonte,’ before, and that was just too close to ‘Beaumont’ for some people.” He shook his head.

“What do you mean?”

Dominick raised his eyebrows. “The war, of course. Rapunzel’s War.” He gestured to the next portrait: a woman with blonde hair down to her ankles, standing beside a man and a little boy.

“I...” She swallowed, staring straight ahead. “I never went to school. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

His face fell. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize.” He cleared his throat and put an arm around her waist. “Luckily, I  can tell you the accurate historical account, instead of the silly legend. Rapunzel was the princess of Aurelia, kidnapped by a woman named Gothel as a child. Gothel framed King Frederick for it, and even lived in a manor not too far from here—I’ll take you there, it’s one of my favorite places in the country. Anyway, Rapunzel’s father, Wilhelm, declared war on Frederick, and that lasted for the next... oh, sixteen or seventeen years? I forget. But Rapunzel was found and the truth exposed, and she even married Prince Stefan; he abdicated his throne to rule with her in Aurelia, and our heirship fell to Prince Thomas. We would have joined our kingdoms, but there was too much leftover tension, and so we remained separate but resumed close trade.” He shook his head again. “Anyway, that’s Rapunzel and Stefan with their son Hieronymus, and then we don’t have any more portraits of them because they’re all in Aurelia.

“And this is King Thomas, with his wife Queen Giovanna, and their sons Ruprecht, Ludger and Lothar—they were twins. It’s going to be a lot of names from here on out,” he added. “I told you Rapunzel was the only interesting part. And here we have King Ruprecht, with his wife Queen Roswitha, and their sons, Hroderich and Adalbert. Then Hroderich and Olivia, with their sons Rodrigo and Ludwig. And then Rodrigo and Marie, with their sons Christoph, Dominique, and Alvise. And, finally, Christoph and Katharine, with their sons Dominick and Oliver—which is, of course, me and my brother.” He swallowed. “Some of these other portraits are either further back, Frederick’s parents and such, or extended family. I’m sure Bertram will pester you into memorizing it all at some point.”

Erika nodded, taking his hand. “Do you miss them?” she asked quietly.

He closed his eyes and whispered, “Every day.” He coughed and opened his eyes. “I’m glad you’re here. Most of my family has died young, and I was starting to worry now that I’m nearing thirty and not even married yet.”

“You’re not ‘nearing’ thirty!” she protested, and he laughed.

“Four years isn’t nearing? Alright, whatever you say.”

“Besides,” Erika said, leaning in closely, “you’ll be married soon enough.”

“I’m not sure that’s soon enough,” he murmured, and kissed her.

Sebastian cleared his throat loudly and Dominick hastily backed away, putting his hand over his mouth.

“So sorry to interrupt, milord,” he said flatly, “but if I am an inadequate chaperone, Bertram shall have me replaced.”

Erika bit back a smile. “He’s right. We have to behave ourselves.”

Dominick nodded glumly as the taste of her faded from his tongue. “He’s going to send you off somewhere while he plans the wedding, just you wait. I’ll bet he’s writing the letter right now.”

“He’s going to send me off?” Her expression faltered. “Where?”

“Possibly Aurelia? We’ll see what he comes up with at dinner. In the meantime...” He turned and looked meaningfully at Sebastian. “I think we might be able to get out of the palace for awhile.”

Sebastian sighed and looked past the king to Erika. “I suppose I might be persuaded to let you out, if it’s what our dear lady would like to do this afternoon.”

“Oh, I’m not a lady,” Erika mumbled, staring at her feet, but Dominick hooked a finger under her chin and tipped her face up to look at him.

“You’re going to be queen soon,” he said softly. “I’d marry you today, if Bertram would let me.”

“Sounds like he’s running the kingdom,” she laughed, and he smiled.

“Yes, well, he’s a bit more than an etiquette tutor—he’s one of my best advisors, in a strictly unofficial capacity. My official advisors are a council of useless nobility. I hardly ever call on them. I’d rather rely on Bertam, and Sir Victor. Have you met him? Victor Vicente, a highly competent steward. He’ll answer to you soon. But we can meet with him later.” He grinned. “Right now, I’d like to take you out to Gothel’s manor. It’s a beautiful ruin—nobody’s lived there in over a hundred years.” He took her hand and led her out of the ballroom, glancing over his shoulder as though Bertram might be lurking around the corner.

“If I may say so, milord,” Sebastian said as they wound their way through the corridors, “if you keep exploring that ruin it will surely kill you. The building is crumbling as it is.”

“You may not say so. And stop calling me ‘milord.’ He never does this, normally,” he added to Erika as they descended the final staircase. “He’s showing off for you, trying to make me sound pompous and official. I’ve known him since I was four years old, did you know? No wonder he doesn’t respect me.” He winked and pushed open the front doors, pulling her down the steps as quickly as he could without tripping her.

“Any particular reason we’re in such a hurry?” Erika gasped as Dominick rushed her toward the stables, still looking over his shoulder every few feet; Sebastian kept pace easily, trailing along looking bored.

“Bertram would hate this.”

“If you keep acting like this, he’s going to think I’m a bad influence on you!”

Dominick doubled over with laughter in the middle of trying to get onto his saddle. “Oh, Erika!” He wiped away tears of mirth, trying to keep a straight face as he managed to swing his leg over his horse. “Trust me, lass, I was corrupted before I ever met you.”

Sebastian helped to hoist her onto her horse before getting onto his own so quickly she barely saw him move.

“Is that why Bertram is going to send me away?” she asked as they rode toward the gate; the two guards saw them coming and opened them, shaking their heads and laughing.

“He’s going to send you away because he’s an insufferable prick,” Dominick called back. “Don’t take anything he does personally. He’s been that way for ever , long before you or I were ever born.”

“I think this time it’s partly your fault,” Sebastian said mildly, but to Erika it sounded almost like a warning.

Dominick just laughed, and Erika found herself grinning as they rode through the village. She hadn’t bathed since she’d ridden to the palace to see him—he’d swept her along to quickly meet Bertram, and then to the ballroom for the absolute bare-bones history of his family, on Bertram’s suggestion—but he didn’t seem to mind that she was grubby from traveling, her hair was disheveled and her clothes wrinkled. He was simply thrilled to see her, and it reminded her, in a way, of how someone might look at the sun after several days of rain. She’d been with him for under an hour and she felt like he needed her in some vital way, like he needed to breathe. And she...

She loved him, of course. She’d thought of him every day for two years, traveling to distant countries that took months to reach, hoping that if she went far enough, she could escape the news that King Dominick of Dulcinea was getting married, but it never came. She traveled slowly back through a pattern of different cities, finally finding herself in Chesley, which was halfway between Astraea and Martha. She was closer to him than she had been in two years, and the ring on her right hand seemed to burn with impatience. She stayed in Chesley two days, which depleted the money from her meager ticket sales, and she listened in at taverns and on street corners for some news of the king, but the city had none to offer. So she had made her choice, looking at the three silver coins in the bottom of her bag: She would go to see him, and if he still wanted her... She would stay. If he didn’t, she would leave again, and finally sell the ring, as had occurred to her at several points along her tour, when she could either afford a meal or a bed for the night, when hunger had made her belly ache like it had when she still lived under Madame Carp, when the nights were so cold she thought her bones would freeze. If he didn’t take the ring back, of course. If he took it back, she knew she was doomed. She would try to return to Aurelia and plead with the princess for some position in the palace, anything, from seamstress to chambermaid—

But she had come back, and he still loved her. After two years without so much as a letter, he was still waiting, like she’d been gone for two minutes instead.

She wasn’t using him, not really. She loved him. She loved him and that mattered much more than the fact that as a queen she would never have to worry about choosing between a bed and a meal ever again. She loved him too much to ever tell him that being safe and secure for the rest of her life was more important than love.

She thought he might understand that, if she ever had the heart to explain it to him.

“We’re here,” Dominick said suddenly, pulling her out of her thoughts, and she looked around, bewildered.

Sebastian groaned. “Not the back entrance, Dominick, please .”

Dominick ignored him and slid off his horse. “Come, lass,” he said, holding out his hand to help her down. “Sebastian will take the horses around to the manor.”

“But you said we were here,” she said, staring at the short cliff in front of them as she straightened her skirt.

“This is the back way, as Sebastian pointed out. It’s much more fun.”

“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Sebastian said, almost angrily.

“And why not? I’ve left the ladder in there from the last time, so we can get up through the floor. Just meet us around the front.”

“I’m not supposed to leave you alone with her,” he said pointedly, and Erika shrank back; he loomed over them on his horse, and he was a foot taller than Dominick already. He dismounted, gathering the reins of all three horses and tying them to a tree branch.

“They might get loose,” Dominick tried, but Sebastian shook his head.

“I’ve been tying knots since before you were born.”

“You’ve had gray hair since before I was born,” Dominick muttered, and Sebastian’s mouth twitched.

Erika smiled as Dominick shook his head and started forward.

This is the secret back entrance that Rapunzel used to escape from Gothel, or so the books say. It’s close enough to the village... Erika? What are you staring at?” He pulled

“The rock. It looks like a face.” She squinted, tipping her head this way and that. “The door is the mouth, do you see?”

Dominick jogged back to where she stood. “I... guess I can? So what?”

“It’s just... funny?” She shook her head. “I suppose there isn’t anything about a rock giant in the legend of Rapunzel.”

He frowned. “Of course not. It’s just a legend . It didn’t really happen. And it’s not a face .”

“I know ,” she sighed. “I don’t suppose you’d tell me the legend anyway? Just so I’ve heard it?”

Dominick’s mouth pressed into a thin line just as Sebastian said, “If he won’t tell you, I will. It’s a marvelous story.”

“Oh, please do,” she said expectantly, as Dominick shook his head and started forward.

“Be careful on these steps,” he muttered as they entered the hidden chamber. “Where’s the—?”

A torch flared to life and Erika jumped; Sebastian passed it to Dominick and then cleared his throat. “Long ago...”

“Oh, don’t be theatrical about it!” Dominick groaned.

Sebastian rolled his eyes. “If you wish, milord. But it’s much better that way.”

Dominick mumbled mockingly, and Erika giggled.

Sebastian cleared his throat again as they crept down the rickety wooden staircase. “Long ago, a witch called Gothel kidnapped baby Rapunzel from Aurelia, and brought her here. She had a grudge against Rapunzel’s father, although no one knows why—a spurned lover is a popular theory, but there’s nothing in Wilhelm’s journals or any other source to suggest an affair. Whatever the case, Gothel hated him, and she wanted to pin the blame on our King Frederick—again, no one knows why. There’s nothing in the historical record to suggest she ever had contact with him at all, at least until Rapunzel was grown up.”

“That doesn’t sound too bad,” Erika said, looking at Dominick as they entered a long, dark tunnel, but he muttered back, “Wait for it.”

“Gothel kept Rapunzel hidden in her manor, which was hidden behind a magic wall; anyone walking through the forest would never know it was there, and even if they had, they could not get through it, or even over it, for it was as high as a castle tower all around. Of course,” Sebastian said sourly, “Dominick had to take us through the back entrance, through the secret tunnel. Who’s being theatrical now?”

Dominick simply shook his head as they crept forward.

“Careful how you’re holding that torch, you’ll set something on fire,” Sebastian warned. “Honestly, milord , this is certainly a grandiose gesture for someone who doesn’t believe in legends and fairy tales.”

“Hush, you. This isn’t the manor proper,” he added. “We’re not really sure what this is—maybe an old, collapsed castle? Whatever it is, the manor was built over it. After a ways.”

Erika shivered. “That certainly sounds like something from a legend.” The single torchlight cast eerie shadows along the walls, which were coated with cobwebs and dust. She thought she heard a rat skitter across the stone and quickened her pace.

“A lot of the evidence supports the legend,” Sebastian said primly. “Rapunzel’s own account—”

Dominick snorted. “ Evidence ? Sure. Go on, then, tell her the rest.”

“I was going to,” Sebastian grumbled, “if you would just shut up for a minute.”

“She’s my fiancée and I can talk to her if I want to.”

“I want to hear the story,” Erika said lightly, taking his hand. “So shut up a minute.”

Sebastian inclined his head smugly and began again, speaking in a grave whisper to match the eerie, tomblike tunnel: “One day, Rapunzel discovered this very passage and made her escape...”

Erika listened, spellbound, as Sebastian described Rapunzel’s repeated escapes and returns, finally ending with her trapping Gothel in the very tower she had been imprisoned in.

“She was so brave,” Erika whispered, blinking back tears. She was sure that if she had ever been able to escape Madame Carp, she would never have gone back, not even to save Bertie.

“While I do agree that she was brave, it’s just a story,” Dominick said quietly, his hand resting on a rung of the ladder that went up through the hole in the ceiling—Gothel’s hidden study. “No one in their right mind would go back so many times, for one thing, friends or no.”

“I would,” Sebastian murmured as they climbed the ladder.

“Of course you would. You’re a noble idiot.” Dominick shook his head, brushing dust off of his jacket as he waited for them. “You’d do anything to save me. It’s alarming, actually.”

Sebastian merely stared at him as Erika looked around in awe. Rapunzel had stood in this very room, so long ago...

“It’s a beautiful story, even if it is made up,” said Erika, catching Dominick’s hand again. “It reminds me of one my mother used to tell me.”

Dominick looked like he was trying very hard not to roll his eyes. “I’m glad you liked it.”

“I’d like to hear your story,” Sebastian said, taking the torch from Dominick as they climbed the stairs. “And whatever Dominick says, I’m sure he’d love to know more about your life before you met him.”

“What do you mean, she lived before she met me?” Dominick asked, feigning shock, and she giggled.

“I don’t know if I’ll tell it right. My mother was much better.”

“Give it your best,” Sebastian said encouragingly as they left the dank kitchen, walking slowly through the crumbling corridors.

Erika glanced at Dominick; he waved his hand and said, “If you must.” He slipped his arm around her waist.

“There was a girl named Odette, and she was cursed to become a swan by an evil warlock named Rothbart. She could only break his spell with a declaration of true love, but he knew that and tried to get her true love, Daniel, to kill her instead, and when Daniel wouldn’t, Rothbart tried to trick him into declaring his love for Rothbart’s daughter, Odile. Daniel did, but since he meant it for Odette, it broke the spell anyway. And they lived happily ever after,” she finished lamely. “I’m sorry, my mother told it much better. It was like she was there.” She sighed. “It was her favorite story to tell.”

“I’ve never heard a story about an Odette before,” Sebastian said pensively. “And I thought I knew all the best legends.”

“My parents weren’t from Aurelia, but they never said where their homeland was, either, only that it was far away. And it was so odd, you know? Because they made it sound like they could never go back, whenever I asked why they’d come to Aurelia in the first place. Once I jokingly asked if they were in exile and my mother almost cried. I never got a straight answer out of them before they...” She trailed off, staring at nothing.

“I’m sorry.” Dominick kissed the top of her head.

“That’s why stories are important,” Sebastian said as they exited the manor; the sun was setting, perfectly matching the atmosphere created by the dark, crumbling stonework. “Don’t let Dominick spoil them for you.”

“I won’t !” Dominick protested.

“I don’t know if I believe either story, but it just makes me happy to think about them.” She shrugged tiredly.

“I can respect that,” Dominick assured her. “But for me... It’s the opposite.”

“Why?”

He didn’t answer for a moment, instead staring into the tangle of forest on the other side of the bridge. “There’s a story—a legend, or a rumor, whatever you want to call it—that Gothel cursed my family. I don’t know whether you noticed, but we Von Brandts have tended to have small families—three at the most, and only sons—since Stefan’s time. He was the eldest of five , and had three sisters, something that has not been seen since. He himself had just one son. And while the Beaumonts have had daughters born, their families are still only three children at the very most and they’ve died quite young, too. But I won’t—I can’t —believe that we’re cursed . That’s just absurd.” He did not mention that his former paramour was rumored to be a witch’s daughter, and perhaps even a witch herself. He was not even sure whether he’d ever tell Erika about Marisol at all. “Magic isn’t real. It can’t be real. It just can’t be.”

Erika laid a hand on his cheek, brushing away a tear; without thinking, he kissed her.

Sebastian turned his back on them for a moment before clearing his throat as loudly as he could. “Forgive me, Your Majesty,” he said slyly, turning back as they broke apart.

Erika giggled, staring at the ground, and Dominick ran a hand through his hair as he licked his lips. “Well, we’d better get back, then,” he said, tearing his gaze away from her to glare at Sebastian. “We could have headed back now if Sebastian had led the horses around.”

“If I had, you would not have stopped at kissing,” Sebastian said lightly.

“I would have,” Erika said indignantly, but she was slightly out of breath.

“I didn’t mean to cast aspersions on your honor, my lady,” Sebastian said, bowing, as they made their way back through the manor. “It was intended to insult the impetuous nature of the king.”

Dominick rolled his eyes and Erika smiled. “Now there’s a story I need to hear,” she said as they climbed down the ladder. “The story of how you two met. It must have been ages ago, the way you talk to him.”

Sebastian’s mouth twitched, and she was sure he had almost laughed. “It’s not very interesting. Certainly not legendary. But I can tell you, if you wish. And, of course, if the king has no objections.”

Dominick grinned. “By all means, please do tell Erika your beginnings as a brash, impudent child.”

“Impudent? You ? Oh, well, now I have to hear it.”

“If I recall, you were the brash one—and still are—but very well, if you insist...”


 

22 Years Ago

“Your Majesty, if I may present my son, Sebastian.” Paolo nudged him forward.

Christoph bent down to look him in the eye. “Hello there.”

“Good evening, Your Majesty,” Sebastian said tightly. His nerves were jangling like upset bells.

Christoph smiled kindly at him. “Your father is hoping that one day you’ll be the prince’s personal guard. How do you feel about that?”

“It sounds very prestigious, Your Majesty.”

“That’s not what I asked.”

Sebastian blinked and then cast a glance at his father; Paolo raised his eyebrows. “I... I don’t know if I’m quite ready, Your Majesty.”

Christoph laughed, his booming voice filling the corridor. “Dominick isn’t quite ready to be guarded, yet, either. He still needs a candle lit to be able to go to sleep, or else he’s afraid of the dark! Today is a just to see whether he likes you—he’s a bit temperamental, you see. Part of being four years old and all.”

“Yes, Your Majesty.”

“Ah, and there he is now! The man of the hour!” Christoph grinned as his wife and son came down the corridor. Christoph squatted down. “How is my little Dominick today?”

Dominick kicked him in the shin and went to hide behind his mother.

Christoph inhaled sharply, massaging his leg as he stood up. “That good?”

“Dominick! What did I tell you about kicking?” Katharine exclaimed.

“Not to,” Dominick said, pouting.

“Don’t you give me that look,” she said sternly. “Apologize to your father.”

“Sorry, daddy,” Dominick mumbled, staring at the ground.

Christoph shook his head. “Well... Good luck, Sebastian. This meeting should only take an hour or so.” He led his wife and the captain of the guard into his study and shut the door.

“Who are you?” Dominick demanded, edging closer to the door.

“I’m Sebastian,” he said, smiling. “I’m going to be watching you while your parents are busy.”

“No.”

No ?” Sebastian raised his eyebrows.

“No!” Dominick shouted, running headlong down the corridor.

“Wait! Come back!”

Sebastian followed him as fast as he could, catching up just as Dominick tripped; he sat on the floor, dazed, and then began to cry.

“See!” Sebastian panted, doubled over. “See what happens when you run like that! You get hurt !”

Dominick stopped crying at once. “You’re not supposed to say that!”

“Oh, really? What am I supposed to say, then?”

“You’re supposed to kiss it better!” Dominick said, holding out his scraped palms.

“I’m not your mother, I’m not kissing anything . Kiss your own damn hands.”

Dominick stared at his palms for a moment before slowly bringing them up to his own mouth. “It’s not the same ,” he complained.

“Yeah, well, tough . Don’t run around like that. Especially when I’m guarding you. If anything happens to you, they’ll have me on a pike.”

Dominick frowned. “What’s a pike?”

“It’s...” Sebastian swallowed. “I’ll explain it when you’re older.”

He waited a moment. “Am I older now?”

“Not nearly old enough, Your Highness.”

Dominick made a pouty face again, and Sebastian copied him mockingly.

“You’re not nice!” Dominick said, getting to his feet and running down the corridor again, albeit very slightly slower.

What did I tell you about running! ” Sebastian yelled, following him again; Dominick made it outside and headed straight for the gardens. “ Damn you!”

“That’s a bad word!” Dominick shouted. “I’m telling my mama!”

“Go ahead!” Sebastian yelled back, scanning the flowerbeds for some glimpse of the tiny prince. Not seeing anything, he gave up and sat cross-legged on the stone, glaring at the plants.

“Aren’t you gonna chase me?” Dominick said after a moment, his pattering footsteps faltering to a halt.

“No.” Sebastian set his jaw.

“You’re not playing fair!”

“I’m not playing anything.”

Dominick slowly emerged from the garden, shifting his weight like a skittish deer.

“Why not?”

“This is my job . I’m guarding you, and nothing more.”

“You’re not a guard.” Dominick wrinkled his nose. “Guards are big scary guys with swords that never talk.”

“I’m not a guard yet . But I’m going to be, when I grow up.”

“Why?” Dominick asked, slowly sitting down.

“Because that’s what my father is.”

“My dad is the king,” Dominick said importantly. “I’m going to be king someday. Mama told me, and dad told me.”

“I know that.”

“How do you know that?”

“Because everyone knows that.”

Dominick’s eyes were very round. “Everyone?”

“Yes, everyone.” Sebastian rolled his eyes.

“How come you’re so big? But you’re not a big scary guy yet.”

Sebastian shrugged. “I’m fourteen.”

“Hey, I’m four!” Dominick grinned. “It’s the same!”

Sebastian was about to correct him, but he seemed so proud of himself that he simply shook his head, smiling, too. “Yeah, it’s the same.”

“Nobody is ever the same with me,” Dominick said very dramatically. “Dad says that someday I might have brothers to be the same with me, like he does, but I’ve never had a brother my whole life.” His expression lit up. “Can you be my brother?”

“That’s not really how it works,” Sebastian said uncomfortably.

“Oh.” His face fell. “You already have brothers, I bet. Lots of brothers. Dad says I’ll never have lots of brothers, but maybe one. That’s this many.” He held up one finger.

“I only have one brother. He’s a guard already, and he’s going to be captain when my father retires. I’m going to... do this.” He gestured vaguely. “Babysitting you.”

“What’s that mean?”

“It means I’m going to watch you for the rest of your life. Maybe.”

“Then we can be like brothers!”

“No, that’s not what I—”

“You can sit by me at the table,” he said excitedly. “My uncles sit by my dad at dinner. They’re his brothers, not mine.”

“Yeah,” Sebastian said weakly, not wanting to argue the point. “I know.”

“How do you know so much stuff? Is it because you’re so big?”

“Yep. Someday you’ll know this many things.”

Really ? What kind of things?”

Sebastian shrugged and wished he had a watch—surely it had been an hour already?

“How many is this?” Dominick asked, holding up his hands.

“Two hands and ten fingers.”

“I knowed that,” Dominick said. “I was just testing you.”

“I know.”

Dominick was quiet for a moment, thinking hard. “How come we can’t be brothers, then?”

“Because...” Sebastian hesitated. He did not want to explain sex to this small child—surely he would be hanged if he tried—and of course he couldn’t understand things like the separation of classes and the relationship between servant and master. “Because we’re friends, instead.”

“What’s friends?” Dominick said eagerly, and Sebastian’s heart broke; of course, as an only child, he would have no one but visiting nobility, who visited so rarely, and surely there were no children working in the palace.

“It’s like brothers, but you get to pick who you’re friends with. With brothers, you’re stuck with whatever you get.”

“And you picked me to be your friend?”

Sebastian took a deep breath. “I sure did.”

“Wow!” Dominick stared at him in awe. “Are friends forever, just like brothers?”

“They sure are.”

“So you’re not gonna go away and be a big mean guard?”

“I... Well, I mean, I have to get bigger, that’s just how it works—but you’ll get bigger, too.”

“Really?” Dominick whispered.

Sebastian nodded gravely. “As big as me, someday. And then I won’t be scary. I’ll be protecting you from scary things.”

“You will?”

“That’s my job.” Sebastian smiled.

“For how long?”

“As long as you need me.”

“But what if I don’t need you anymore?” His lip quivered. “You’ll go away!”

“Maybe someday. But not for a long, long time.

Chapter Text

As soon as he shut the door behind him, Arsenio let Josué’s face slide away from his own. He straightened up from his hunch, setting his walking stick in the corner. He sat down at the table and opened his dossier, staring fruitlessly at the same half-filled page.

He felt the sun sink behind the horizon, and long shadows drifted down the street. He did not get up to light a candle; he did not need it, because he could see exactly the same as he always could. It wasn’t like night vision, because the amount of light in the room never made any difference to him: He could always see with the exact same crystal clarity. He could see anything in every room, and if he couldn’t directly see it, he could feel it. He could feel things, to a degree, all around him. The people scurrying down the cobblestones outside his door, rushing to get home before the last of the light faded. The weight of the light, the shadows, the gathering darkness. He could feel things that didn’t even exist, but he could not feel the future. It was a long stretch of blankness.

He wondered if there was something wrong with him. It wasn’t a new wonder, and it was barely even a worry these days. Surely there must be something broken inside of him, and that was why he wasn’t like the others. He was a watch that didn’t keep time, but there was no way to replace his battery, to wind him up, or give him new parts.

He had thought a lot about how a watch might die. Did they slow down to the point that they no longer worked? Could he run himself ragged? He felt fine, he thought, but he didn’t really feel anything. It was a strange sort of numbness. He did not need to eat, or to sleep. He could just barely feel pain, when injured, but he felt like he wasn’t supposed to feel it, just as he wasn’t meant to feel pleasure... But pleasure was much stronger. Pleasure was almost overwhelming, compared to the peaceful nothing he felt most of the time. Was that why he had been so drawn to Reina? She was beautiful and magical and powerful, all on her own, but when she was with him, he could almost feel human again. Almost.

There was a saying about how there’s no cure for a broken heart. Was that a saying? Had it been said yet? Sometimes it was hard to keep track of what had been invented and popularized, when so many things were a vague mishmash, from all the times he had looked too far ahead, searching for answers to questions he hadn’t thought of yet.

But if his heart was broken, wouldn’t it hurt? It felt funny, but not like pain. If pleasure was sweet, then this was sour. But it wasn’t pain . Pain, he thought, was not a flavor, but a temperature, searing hot. How could two things so similar be so different? He wasn’t human enough to answer that.

He had known, from the outset, that they should not be together. He was a watch, after all, and she was a witch. She was human, and he wasn’t. These things didn’t matter to her, but he doubted she truly understood what they meant.

He rationalized: It wasn’t forbidden , just discouraged. If no one found out, there would be no repercussions. No harm, no foul.

They loved, and they fought. They parted ways and came back together, all the while in secret. To the humans that surrounded them, they were just a regular couple, living on the outskirts of towns and rarely interacting with the neighbors. The husband left often, but they thought he was some kind of merchant, traveling for his business. It was true, in a sense, if the wares he peddled were carefully sorted fates.

Their relationship remained an almost harmless indulgence, until the baby. The baby made their flights of fancy into a crushing reality, and Arsenio was suddenly faced with the knowledge that this child would be a new kind of being. Every parent thinks their child is unique, but Marisol truly was. There was no one like her in the world.

He wondered how he had fathered a child, when he felt so hollow inside. He did not doubt that he had, of course, because if there was anything he knew, it was timing. He could feel it the moment she was conceived, the way the future quirked, and suddenly it felt like time itself was shifting out of his grasp.

For the first time he could remember, he felt true fear. It wasn’t the anxiety that came along with every plan, the nagging “What if this doesn’t go exactly right?” It was a weight on his chest, and he felt like he couldn’t breathe. He did not need to breathe.

He wanted to go to the Watchtower. He would confess his sins and take whatever punishment handed down to him by the Watchmaker, if it meant that the responsibility for this creature was lifted out of his hands. As long as he didn’t have to decide what to do with this new, unique being, who would surely have unknown powers. How could he teach her how to use them? Watches did not have any training time; as soon as they awoke, they could use their new abilities with skill and ease, and they were hemmed in by the numbness, singularly focused on the tasks set to them by their dossiers. There were rules, and order, that kept them in line. Humans were unpredictable, and dangerous. He shuddered to think what an unfettered human could do with his powers.

Yet, he could not voice these things to Reina. Their relationship was played out and worn thin as it was; they had been meeting out of habit, all real spark between them gone. And now, this.

Reina was delighted, ecstatic. She could not wait to have her very own protege, and to teach the child everything she knew about magic, and the power of blood and bone. Arsenio thought it was a grisly business, but it was his job to meddle in the lives of unsuspecting people. How could he tell her off? It was a living, he supposed. Perhaps no worse than his.

The baby was born, and when this did not result in a swarm of watches swooping down upon them, Arsenio breathed a little easier. They named their daughter Marisol, for a reason he couldn’t remember. It had seemed so momentous and important at the time, but he didn’t think it mattered now.

Marisol grew, and she learned from her mother the ways of blood and bone. There was nothing her father could teach her, it seemed, until one day she asked him in a longing tone, “Why doesn’t the day ever turn out like it does in my dream?”

And then he learned of it: She had the power to look into the future, but only while she was asleep. She could not control it, to any degree, and as she grew older, she grew frustrated. Unlike her father, she could not predict and map the outcomes of each and every infinitesimal decision made over the course of each day, and therefore her visions never came to fruition, because she could not navigate the exact path required to get there. She was bitter, and angry, perhaps rightfully so; but there was nothing that her parents could do for her. It was simply how she was.

They consoled her, and they coddled her. She never wanted for anything, except for her visions to come true.

She wished, more than anything, that she could be like her father. Reina was devastated, but she simply worked harder than ever to ensure that her daughter had everything she could ever want.

This was not a problem until the ball.

After the sudden death of his father, King Dominick was floundering, flooded with responsibilities, and the most urgent was finding a wife. As Arsenio understood it, the public was nervous, and wanted the next generation of the monarchy produced as soon as possible. It wasn’t as if short lives were unusual for the Von Brandts, but with each successive generation, hope dwindled that the line would ever recover from what was rumored to be an ancient curse.

It was all very Cinderella, the way he held a ball for all the eligible maidens of his kingdom, and some beyond it. Anneliese had declined his invitation, because she was trying to think of how to convince her mother let her marry Julian; but she was in no hurry, as she thought she had years yet before she needed to worry about marriage as a serious reality.

Marisol, of course, was invited. They were living in Dulcinea the time, to be nearer to Arsenio’s work in Aurelia. Reina wanted her to go, and Marisol simply wanted to experience the glamour and novelty of such a party, but in true Cinderella style, she was the one who caught the king’s eye. He was drawn to her, as a moth to a flame, the way Arsenio had been drawn to Reina. History repeats itself.

Arsenio’s stomach turned, as soon as he saw Marisol and Dominick together, but it was too late. He would have forbidden it, had he been paying closer attention to Dominick and seen it coming; but he had been preoccupied with Erika, who was contemplating running away once more. He was loath to see her in that hellish place, but he knew that Madame Carp would only drag her back, again. And the time was drawing nearer to when she would need to meet Anneliese, he could feel it.

Arsenio kept a close eye on Dominick and Marisol, and was shocked to see how his daughter behaved. He wanted to stop her, but how could he interfere? He knew that it would end, somehow; Dominick and Erika were destined to be together. He only had to wait for it. That was his job. To wait.

His skin crawled, watching the relationship deteriorate. He thought he knew why: Marisol was surely dreaming of Dominick proposing, of becoming queen, of children that would never be born, but it was all out of her reach. She could never achieve any of it, no matter how much she tried to be careful, no matter how much she controlled. No matter who she hurt.

Arsenio saw Marisol’s hands around Dominick’s throat. He watched Dominick’s future shift and fade as his daughter squeezed the life out of the king, and he was to the point of standing and teleporting directly into the room, breaking every rule in the book and consequences be damned, when Dominick managed to cry out. Sebastian rushed into the room, and Marisol was arrested, and Dominick’s life faded back into view, shaky and tinged with fear. He would never be the same, now that he was broken.

Arsenio thought he knew how that felt, but Dominick would never know that. How was he supposed to look the man in the eye, knowing that everything that had happened was his fault? Marisol was his daughter, and her power was his doing. Even without that, he had still stood aside and let it happen, because he was bound by his rules. Dominick would never understand that. Humans had no concept of watches, and the balance of destiny, and the weight of actions by certain significant individuals upon upcoming fate. He could not begin to beg forgiveness for all he had done. For all he had not done.

“Dominick doesn’t believe in magic” was a spur of the moment lie that grew thinner the longer he spun it. He could not confess to them his crimes, which did not begin or even end with Dominick. He had stood aside before, for countless centuries, allowing suffering because it was not his job to interfere. He told himself that it was supposed to be that way, and that sometimes tragedy had to happen because... Why? He could never think of a satisfactory answer.

Dominick did believe in magic, although he tried his hardest not to, but it was too easy to feel the weight of the family curse on his shoulders. It was, to confirm his worst fears, entirely real; but Arsenio knew it had been broken. It had been cast upon the lines of both Beaumont and Von Brandt, and dissolved when Anneliese and Dominick had been engaged, joining the two lines again. They had not needed to marry, or consummate, or produce an heir between them. The engagement had been enough, in the weird and mundane way that magic sometimes works. He longed to tell Dominick, to lift the fear from his mind, but he did not want to face him.

And yet, he must. It was far safer for him, an impervious and probably immortal being, to go to Dulcinea, and leave Anneliese and Julian, those weak and fragile humans he so loved, protected in their newly warded castle. He must face Dominick, man to man, and admit everything. He must look Dominick in the eye and tell him that he failed him. He looked through a hundred futures for the words, but they were too blurry and unsure to see. He was the one wavering, for once. It was the kind of thing that might have given him a headache, if he were human.

Arsenio stared hard at the dossier, willing it to change, wishing it would give him even a single word, something to say that someone, somewhere, was watching.

He sat there all night, unblinking and unmoving, until at last the sun rose. He gave a great long sigh and closed the book, tucking it into his inner vest pocket. He stood up, dusting himself off. He could feel it as the people in the castle began moving; he could see that Anneliese would wake at any moment. Julian was already awake, sitting on the edge of the balcony and staring toward the village. That was another apology owed, wasn’t it? Futures whirled past, half-baked, and Arsenio could not see a single one in which he would be forgiven. That was fine. He didn’t deserve forgiveness anyway.

He hesitated for a long minute, and then opened the door. He did not use the walking stick, or put Josué’s face over his own. He quietly slipped down an empty alley, and once he was sure there was no one around, he transformed into a butterfly and flew towards the castle.

Using magic was the strangest sensation. It didn’t feel like anything, but at the same time, it gave him an itch at the back of his brain. He wondered, often, what this meant. He wanted to ask, but he had the funny feeling that he had before. Perhaps he had, one of the times he had made a pilgrimage to the Watchtower.

He circled for a bit over the balcony, debating whether to land there or somewhere on the grounds. He could use his magic again, and turn himself invisible to sneak past the guards; or perhaps appear again as Josué at the front gate and ask to be let in. That was a watch’s way: Roundabout, but beneath the notice of a casual observer. He didn’t want to do that any longer. There was no point.

He landed on the edge of the balcony, within Julian’s line of sight but far enough away that Julian couldn’t reach him. He took a deep breath, and then released his magic, ballooning out into his regular human form.

Julian yelped, leaping to his feet. He said something incoherent, the only word of which Arsenio could catch was “why.”

Arsenio shrugged. “This was the most direct way.”

Anneliese burst through the balcony doors, clutching her dressing gown at her throat. “What’s going on?” she said breathlessly, and then she spotted Arsenio. “Oh! You came back!”

Arsenio nodded.

“I knew you would.” She grinned. “I told you, Julian, didn’t I?”

Julian edged away from the watch and put an arm around his wife. He nodded sourly.

“Well?” Anneliese prompted. “Do you have a plan yet? What are you going to do?”

“I am going to go to Dulcinea.” Arsenio sighed heavily. “I will do my best to explain, and at the very least I will ward their castle, as I have done for yours. I will keep an eye out for Preminger, and Reina, and I will alert each of you if I should find anything out.”

“What about your job?” Julian muttered.

“I do not feel it is my place any longer to call myself a watch, or indeed associate myself with the Watchtower at all. I am... going rogue, I suppose, but I could have said that six hundred years ago and saved us all some trouble.” He held out his hands, palm up, in a gesture of surrender. “I have thrown caution to the wind, and I am at your disposal.”

“That’s it?” Julian raised his eyebrows. “After two thousand years, you just had to sleep on it before you turned your back on your job and your kind?”

“I don’t sleep,” Arsenio said shortly.

Julian, about to say something else, closed his mouth abruptly.

“I should leave for Dulcinea immediately.” He met Julian’s gaze. He knew what Arsenio had to apologize for. And that it was impossible. “Time waits for no one.”

“What if something happens, and you don’t see it? What if we need your help?” Anneliese drew tighter to Julian’s side.

“You can write me a letter,” Arsenio said swiftly, before she began to spiral. “I will be back as soon as I can.” He did not mention that she need only sit down to write the letter, and he would be back before she could ever finish it. “And I know you still have questions. I will do my best to think of answers for you, when I return.” Anneliese could not see his expression, and so he stared hard at Julian, willing him to understand: I’ll have answers for you, too.

Julian’s mouth pressed into a thin line, so Arsenio thought he understood.

“Do you really think you can make them understand? What if they don’t trust you?”

“We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it,” Arsenio said lightly, and Anneliese tipped her head to one side, confused. He sucked in a breath and said quickly, “It doesn’t matter. I won’t leave them unprotected.”

Anneliese nodded, blinking rapidly. “Good luck, Arsenio.” She hesitated for a moment and then reached out, patting his arm. She gave him an encouraging smile, which he returned gratefully. She didn’t see.

“Thank you,” he said aloud. He nodded curtly to Julian and then took a deep breath, pulling himself in at the edges until he had shrunk down into a dove. It was appropriate, wasn’t it? A symbol of peace and goodwill. He mused for a second on whether it would be worth it to bring a literal olive branch, then shook his head. There wasn’t time to be theatrical. He took one last look at them and then he was off, to face his past and confront his future.

It occurred to him, as he put distance between himself and the castle, that they had never discussed what, if anything, to tell the queen. He wondered if he should go back, but dreaded the thought of facing Genevieve almost as much as Dominick. What would Anneliese think if she knew more about her own magic, the magic her mother denied, and the magic that had killed her father?

He decided that was best left for another day. Dominick and Erika were surely to be at the center of Reina’s plans, and he must ward their castle as soon as possible.

It was the very least he could do.