Of the mistakes King Rodai had made during his reign, getting involved in another country’s war had proven to be the worst.
He had done it with noble intentions; he sought only to aid the neighboring king, who had been his close friend since childhood. He thought that his assistance would be limited to offering shelter to the refugees and sending weapons and food to the soldiers, but in time, more was asked of him. More food, more weapons. Soon it was money and resources. And then soldiers. By the end of the first year of his involvement, he had sent half of his wealth and most of his army, none of which had returned.
Five years on, and he had gone from a man rich in sons, power, and the love of his people, to a broken, despised widower king with only a small boy, Coll, to inherit a country crumbling beneath his feet. Rodai’s wife, after having lost four of her five sons to war, died herself of grief, and it was this loss that had finally pushed Rodai to act.
His childhood friend, the king he had sought to help, had been deposed and sent into exile mere weeks ago, and the conqueror who now sat in his throne had his sights set on Rodai’s kingdom, Suida. And it would fall. Gods knew, it would fall.
The only hope Rodai now had was to make a deal with the devil.
The vast Empire of Cavernae was said to be a fairy tale, something fit only as a campfire legend or bedtime story. No one really believed it even existed. It wasn’t even mentioned in history books anymore. Perhaps that was best.
But Rodai’s father, the previous king, had been a superstitious man of the Old Ways and taught his son in secret how to find this elusive kingdom. It would be difficult, he had said, since the entrance moved rather frequently to prevent unwanted visitors. Even then, finding it would cost you something. Blood, a year of your life, an eye, maybe.
It was worth it, Rodai believed. For his people, for his last living son, Rodai swore he would pay any price. An oath he would come to regret.
He had left his castle alone one night, slipping past his guards disguised as a horseman, and made his way into the forest at the foot of the Great Mountain with nothing but the clothes on his back and a bag with a few essentials. He did not bring jewels or money, since he no longer had either in his coffers. He could only hope that he might still possess something worth bartering, even if it was his own life.
After two days of sleepless searching, he found himself in a clearing. The winter woods around them were dark and cold and full of dead, lifeless trees, but this circle of meadow was lush and green under his boots, as though spring existed here in perpetuity.
This must be it, Rodai thought. It has to be.
Taking a knife from his bag, he put the point of it to his wrist and dug in, not deep enough to kill him but enough that a steady trickle of blood fell to the meadow floor, painting the green grass red at his feet.
“Hear me,” He said, hissing at the pain. “I seek an audience with the Demon King of Cavernae. I offer my blood, and whatever else he might wish, as a show of good faith. Open the way and let me pass.”
Vines snaked between his legs and around, creating a doorway behind him. He could still see the forest and meadow beyond it, but it wavered as though looking through imperfect glass. After wrapping his wrist with a spare sock from his bag, he stepped toward the gateway. Reaching out a cautious hand, he saw that his fingers disappeared as they crossed the threshold. Taking a long, slow breath, he stepped forward and into the barrier.
He did naught but close his eyes, but in the span it took him to blink, he had left the clearing and was standing at one end of a grand hallway.
Before him, walking toward him quickly, came two… men? No, these creatures he saw couldn’t possibly have been mortal men. They were demons, rightly enough. One had dark red skin like brick, the other bright red, like holly berries, both standing head and shoulders above him. They must have been guards; it was their stance that gave it away. They walked up to him and stopped, their eyes bore down at him quizzically.
“State your business,” One of the guards said, his voice was like two stones being rubbed together.
“I…” Rodai began. “I am King Rodai of Suida. I seek to parlay with your king. I apologize that I arrived unannounced, but the matter is urgent.”
“He has been expecting you,” The other replied, his voice much the same as his companion. “You’ve come very late. He is otherwise occupied at the moment. You must wait.”
“I will,” Rodai said. “I will wait as long as it takes.”
“Very well,” They turned and began to walk the hallway. “Follow.”
Rodai obeyed, and followed them to a very large sitting area just off the main hall. It was lavish and extravagant. The chairs and couches and footstools were made of fabrics and furs and leathers he’d never encountered before. He picked up and examined a wine decanter so fragile and delicate that he thought it may have been made of dragonfly wings.
“Why is it men wait so long to reach out for help?” He heard a voice ask. He spun on his heel and saw a woman standing at the doorway, holding a moving bundle in her arms.
She was unlike anything he’d yet seen, and he’d seen plenty at his age. She was blue, all varieties of blue. Her skin was pale celeste, her long hair crested scarab blue and faded down to white at the tips. Her eyes were a solid lapis hue all the way across. He was unable to discern where the irises and pupils were from where the white part should have been; it was all just one color. Even the thin dress she wore was sapphire in color, over which she wore a sheer white dressing gown of lace that seemed to have been woven from the dew on a spider’s web and trailed far behind her. She looked like a moving sculpture carved of glacier ice, dusted with snow. She even had a smattering of white freckles on her nose, as if she had indeed been standing outside in the snowfall.
Rodai collected himself and bowed, realizing this must be the dark emperor's queen. As he rose, he looked again at the bundle in her arms, and a small, waving grey fist popped out from between the cloth, grasping for her fingers. He felt a stab of pain at the sight, remembering a time not so long ago when his last son had been born, a time when he was still happy, his wife still lived, and his land was still whole.
“My Lady,” He said. “Thank you for allowing me passage into your land. I was not certain I would be accepted.”
“We’ve been waiting for you, Rodai of Suida,” She replied, her voice like the crack of a whip. “I must say, I’m surprised you waited so long to ask for our help. Would it not have been wiser to come sooner? Before your sons and wife were lost?”
Her words were like another knife through his heart. “Her Majesty is blunt.”
“This is not the time for tact,” She said shrewdly. “I am not without sympathy, King Rodai, but you have waited far too long. What you seek may no longer be within reach.”
“It has to be!” Rodai replied emphatically. “I’ll do anything, I’ll give anything. I just want my people and my son to be safe and well. I know it is much to ask, but your husband is a man of great power. Surely he can accomplish such a feat.”
“That is for him to decide,” She said. Her eyes darted and her head turned slightly, as though she were listening to something. “Come. You have been summoned.”
He followed her out of the receiving room and into an absolutely enormous great hall made entirely of black marble. At the other end was a long, wide stairway, and at the top was a throne sitting on a gold dais.
Sitting there was a man, straight-backed and imposing, peering down at Rodai. His eyes similar to that of his wife’s, but instead of solid blue, his were solid white. His skin was the color of the smoke from an oil fire, and he wore garments of black, red, and gold. From the nest of black curls on his head rose horns, long and twisting, shiny black near his head and fading to red near the points. He sat with his legs crossed, regarding Rodai thoughtfully, his hands resting on his knee. His demeanor was not arrogant or proud, but it was nonetheless commanding. Intimidating.
The Queen took the steps carefully and went to stand at her husband’s elbow, handing him the bundle as she did so. The Demon King cradled his child with one arm and rubbed his chin with the other, waiting.
Rodai bowed. “My Lord--” He began.
“Kneel,” The Demon King said, his deep voice reverberating around the massive chamber.
Rodai looked up. “Pardon?”
“I am Zinzo, King of the Dark Creatures, Lord over all Magic, and Emperor of the Night Sky Above and the Dark Cavern Below. You will kneel.”
Rodai hesitated. Kings did not kneel to other kings. Bowing was customary as a sign of equal power and mutual respect, but kneeling was a sign of inferiority, of weakness. To kneel before someone was to surrender to that person, and a king did not surrender to anyone. It was simply unheard of.
Well, Rodai thought. I may not be a king before long, as it stands.
Slowly, as he had never done this before and it felt most unnatural, Rodai took a knee before King Zinzo.
Zinzo smiled. It wasn’t comforting.
“You may rise,” He said. His voice reminded Rodai of a stone falling down a hill, rumbling and terror-inducing to anyone in its path. “I know of your plight, King of Suida. However, you have nothing now that is of any use to me. Therefore, it would not benefit me to help you.”
“I will give you anything, anything at all,” Rodai pleaded. “There must be something you need. Something I could do. I’ll work it off, if I have to. I’ll be your servant, I’ve give you every coin that comes into my hands, I will give you my life, if that’s what you want. Anything to save my people.” His eyes looked down and the sleeping baby in King Zinzo’s arms. “For my son, I will do anything. I would give anything. I swear to you.”
“Anything, you say?” Zinzo said in a curiously soft, slow voice. His smile widened, revealing very white, very sharp teeth. “Interesting.” He rose from his throne, keeping a tight grip of his infant, and walked slowly down the stairs. “I think I might just be able to work something out for you.”
“Thank you,” Rodai breathed in relief. “Thank you, my Lord. What recompense would you have from me?”
“Oh, nothing you have at the moment is of any interest to me. Perhaps one day, though, you may be able to repay me.”
“Yes, anything, just name it,” Rodai said.
Zinzo stopped in front of him. “Children.”
The blood drained from Rodai’s face in horror. “I’m sorry, My Lord, I don’t understand.
“I want children. Specifically, your children,” Zinzo clarified.
Rodai’s heart began to hammer in his chest. “Please, Your Majesty, please, my son is all I have left.”
Zinzo waved his hand impatiently. “Not the son, I have plenty of those.” He bounced the infant a little to emphasize his point. “I want daughters. My sons will need brides when they become men. It’s becoming harder to find women of nobility among the elves and fae that are not already interbred. I was fortunate to find Lenora,” Zinzo motioned his head to the blue lady standing beside the throne. “But there are few of our women left to which my sons are not already related. Seems the logical option is to begin marrying them off to humans, as inferior a species in magic as they may be. It would not be my first choice, but we are desperate men, are we not?”
Rodai was confused. “But I have no daughters.”
“Not yet,” Zinzo said with a sly grin. “But you are not an old man by any measure. Still young enough to find another wife and father more children. I only need three, though. Should you have any addition children, they will be yours to keep.”
Rodai blinked and watched Zinzo warily.
“Do we have a deal?” Zinzo asked him.
Three daughters? How would he achieve that? What if he didn’t? What if he never remarried or had a mistress? He had dearly loved his late wife and had no interest in remarrying. What if the daughters Zinzo requested never came to be? What would Zinzo do?
“Y…Yes,” Rodai said.
Zinzo stuck out a hand with abnormally long fingers, the tips of which were red, like his horns. “Very well,” He said. “Take my hand and the contract will be sealed.”
Slowly, carefully, as though expecting an attack, Rodai reached out his hand and clasped Zinzo’s.
All at once, there was a flash and he felt a push against his chest, which knocked him breathless and to the ground, and when he opened his eyes again, he was sitting on the ground of his bedroom back at his castle, wearing his evening clothes as though the trip through the forest had never taken place. Had he dreamed the whole thing? He hoped not. What of the deal he had made?
A banging on his bedroom door interrupted his spiraling thoughts and made him jump.
“My lord?” A guard called through the door. “Are you all right? It is midday and you have not come out. Shall I call a doctor?”
“No,” Rodai called weakly, looking out the window. It was indeed midday. “I’m fine, I will be out in a few moments.”
A fortnight later, an ambassador sent from the Conqueror King arrived at the castle to speak with King Rodai. Rodai was reluctant to receive him, but did so under heavy guard.
Once seated in Rodai’s private office, he said, “What business does the Conqueror King have, Ambassador Rook?”
The ambassador, an elderly man with a crown of wispy white hair, said, “My lord sends me with a message of peace.”
Rodai snorted. “I highly doubt that.”
“He has decided not to invade your country. In fact, he’s offering a trade deal with you. You would benefit greatly from this offer. Should you refuse, however, he will attack.”
Rodai was disgusted. Trade with the man that had killed his men and usurped his friend’s throne? Madness. But if he didn’t, the cost would be high.
“What are the conditions?” Rodai asked in exasperation. “I know there are conditions. He wouldn’t just decide to offer me a peace accord if there was nothing in it for him.”
“There is only one condition,” The ambassador said. “You must wed his daughter, Aralie.”
A chill shot up his spine and over his shoulders. “What?”
“You will wed Princess Aralie, and your progeny will rule both kingdoms, uniting them without conquering them.”
Zinzo’s unnerving smile crept into Rodai’s thoughts. “If I refuse?”
The ambassador shrugged. “Then you will be destroyed.”
The wedding took place nearly three months later. He met with the Conqueror King several times begrudgingly so that the contracts could be drawn up and signed. Never in all that time did Rodai ever meet his would-be bride. It seemed that would have to wait for the wedding day. Perhaps she was unattractive or deformed, something that made the king nervous about her future, which is why this was the only condition upon which he had insisted. It would make sense.
The day dawned, and Rodai dreaded every second that passed. It would be a morning ceremony so that all of the Conqueror’s ilk could party like maniacs for the remainder of the day. Disgustingly.
He stood at the altar with the Conqueror at his side, as if to make sure he stayed put. The princess was led in by her mother, wearing a simple gown of pale rose silk. Her features were plain and neat, not dowdy or deformed like he was expecting. Her hair was a pretty honey color and her eyes were steely grey, like her father’s. She also wasn’t as young as he expected, perhaps in her mid-to-late 20’s. He was grateful for that. He didn’t much like the idea of a child-bride.
She wasn’t the beauty his late wife had been, nor did she possess the strange etherealness of the Zinzo’s tall elven queen, but Rodai had to admit she was charming.
She smiled at him in an almost apologetic way as she approached. When she came to stand next to him at the altar in front of the priest, her father, the Conqueror, left them to stand with his wife. As he did so, Aralie leaned toward Rodai and said in a side-whisper: “Sorry.”
Rodai smiled a little and whispered back, “Me, too.”
It seemed his new wife had brought with her light and prosperity when he took her back to his land. The crops flourished, and with them came new wealth and livelihood for his subjects. Life was returning, and Rodai was grateful.
He found Aralie surprisingly easy to talk to. She was well-read and quite intelligent, and they had many interests in common. He confessed he was rather astonished that she was not already married at her age, and she admitted that her father had done a good enough job of scaring every available young man in all neighboring countries away from asking for her hand since she was old enough to marry, so it wasn’t so much a choice as it was lack of backbone on the gentlemens’ part. Rodai had to laugh at that.
They became friends very quickly, and though Rodai had committed himself to the two of them staying friends out of respect for his late wife, he couldn’t help thinking about Aralie more and more. He looked forward to talking to her each day, and he missed her company on any day when he didn’t see her. It wasn’t until nearly a year later, when she had gone to visit her father for a few weeks and he was left to pine for her, he realized he had come to love her.
He was still wary of getting too close. The promise he had made to Zinzo was at the back of his mind at all times. So he kept his distance and tried to ignore his feelings. What he didn’t count on was her feelings or her willingness to act on them.
One night, he heard the door to his sleeping quarters open and shut. Blinking groggily, he looked up to see Aralie in her sleep shift approaching with a candle.
“Aralie?” He asked, rubbing his eyes. “Are you all right? Is something the matter?”
She didn’t answer right away, instead putting the candlestick down on his bedside table and sitting on the edge of the bed, not looking at him. Her breathing was uneven and she appeared to be shaking.
“Aralie?” He reached for her shoulder, concerned. At his touch, she looked around at him.
“Rodai,” She began softly. “We’ve been married for some time now, and you’ve been a true gentleman, but I must ask: how do you feel towards me?”
Rodai was unable to answer her. He looked at her with sympathy and affection, but kept his jaw clenched shut.
At his silence, she lowered her eyes and looked away. “I know that our marriage was arranged for political reasons and that you may not feel anything for me beyond friendship, but I must confess I… I’ve become rather fond of you. I feel more than just friendship for you. So much more.”
Rodai’s heart rate hitched up. “Aralie…”
She stood before he could say more and pulled the shift she had been wearing over her head, revealing her body underneath. She let the garment fall to the floor and made to sit on her knees next to him on the bed, close but not touching. She was breathing rather fast. So was he. His hands twitched, longing to touch her, but he forced them still.
“If this is not what you want, if it’s a mistake, you need only say, and I will leave you in peace,” Aralie said, not meeting his eye. “But I… I had to know… if you wanted me as much as I want you.”
All he could do was look at her. The way her neck curved into her shoulder, the way her hair looked as it cascaded down her back, strands escaping to hang in front of her face. The pout of her lips, the shape of her eyes. The dusting of freckles across her breast. His hand moved to stroke her collarbone, and she looked at him with those wide, beautiful silvery eyes in surprise, lovely and excited and just a little bit terrified. How could he have ever thought her plain? She was perfect.
He couldn’t fight it anymore. More to the point, he didn’t want to fight it. He took her face in his hands and kissed her hard enough to wipe out any doubts she might have had about his feelings for her. He touched every inch of her body with every inch of his. He wanted her so much and he proved it. He proved it over and over again that night, and many nights after.
Happiness with her felt as natural as taking breath. It was effortless, easy. She could make him forget any trouble, any worry. And in time, he did forget. He forgot all the hardships he had faced during the war, and so did his people. She had breathed new life into him, and he in turn breathed new life into his land. With her, everything was good, and right, and just. The world was exactly as it should be.
And he forgot.
Their first child was born on a cool, clear day in spring; a perfect little baby girl. Rodai had only sons with his previous wife and never a little girl, so he hadn’t known how to handle one at first. With his son, now twelve and growing quickly, starting to train with his generals to be the next leader of the land, Rodai had much time to spoil and coddle this new little lamb, and he was more than pleased to do it. Aralie told him he had to be firm or she’d never obey him, but he couldn’t help but melt when his little girl looked at him with those sweet eyes. How could he not?
They named her Tyria after a spring blossom that collected near her nursery window that was native to his land alone. She would be tall, like her father, and nearly as tan, but her every other feature was a mirror of her mother.
Two years later, the second one came on the first day of autumn, with maple-colored hair like her father and freckles like her mother, and eyes as brown as a doe. She was a petite little thing, sweet and caring, and had an affinity for all living creatures. They named her Fawn.
She was a cuddly girl and loved nothing more than to sit in her father’s lap as he read and dictated, whereas Tyria was very independent and could often be found watching her brother’s training with interest. Coll, now fifteen, ruffled his sister’s hair with a fond laugh and told her he might teach her a few things once she got older.
Rodai had been happy before the war, but the sorrow he had experienced during and afterward made him treasure his newfound happiness all the more. Knowing what loss felt like made every moment with his family precious and irreplaceable. Priceless.
If only that odd nagging feeling would go away…
Their third daughter was born during a summer storm that threatened to blow the castle over. They named her Gale after the winds that howled to harmonize with her newborn cries of outrage. After the birth, Aralie took a well-deserved nap while Rodai held his new baby in his arms, smiling down at her. She was strong already, gripping his finger like a vice. Her curls were a mix of his brown coloring with a little of the honey of Aralie, and he thought her eyes might be blue, like his. His smile widened.
A cracking sound made him jump as a bolt of lightning hit a parapet outside the window. With that flash, a memory he had buried for the last six years re-entered his mind, one that made his heart drop like a stone.
I want daughters.
Aralie woke from her sleep to find Rodai sitting on the bed next to her, looking down at their daughter with tears streaming down his face. She could tell from his expression that these were not tears of joy.
“Rodai?” She asked him softly, pulling herself into a sitting position.
He shut his eyes tight, more tears falling, one landing on the cheek of the sleeping infant.
“Forgive me,” He said in a pained whisper. “I’m so sorry.”
“What? Why?” Aralie carefully adjusted herself so that she could see him better. Taking his cheek in her hand, she force him to look at her. “What are you sorry for?”
He took a very large breath, and said, “Before we met, after your father invaded the neighboring kingdom, I was desperate to save my people and Coll, my only remaining son and family. I would have done anything to spare him from death or worse, so I sought out help.”
“Zinzo, the Demon King,” He admitted to her fearfully.
A very worried look came over her face. “What did he want?”
“Something I didn’t have.” He stared down at his daughters sleeping face, his lip trembling. “Not at the time, at least.”
“Brides,” Rodai said sorrowfully. “For his three sons.”
Aralie’s jaw dropped in horror. “Rodai, what did you do?”
He squeezed his eyes shut tight, holding his little girl up and pressing her forehead against his. “I made a deal.”
Aralie’s eyes filled with tears, and she covered her mouth with her hands in shock. “Rodai, how could you do such a thing?”
“How could I have known?” He asked her desperately. “How could I have ever known? Back then, I had no intention of marrying again or having any more children. After losing my wife and sons, I couldn’t face that kind of loss. Not again. I was so desperate to save my home and people, I would have promised everything, even my own life.” He reached out to touch her face, tears falling unimpeded. “How could I have known how much I would love you? How could I have known you’d have given me these three beautiful gifts? I couldn’t. I thought I had already lost everything. I could never have imagined how much more I’d stand to lose.”
She clutched his hand to her cheek, her face falling.
“What can we do?” She sobbed.
“I don’t know,” Rodai said, resting his forehead on hers. “He is a powerful man. I don’t know if there’s anything we can do.”
“But this nation is rich again,” She said, grasping desperately for some solution. “We can give him gold, resources, anything he wants. There must be something else he would be willing to take instead.”
“There isn’t,” A voice said in the shadow of their room. Rodai shot to his feet, clutching his child to him and flinging out a hand to shield Aralie.
The Demon King stepped into the light, looking the same as he did six years ago, down to the garments he wore.
“We have a deal,” Zinzo said, with a hint of menace in his voice. “I do not suffer broken oaths, King of Suida. Not at all.”
“Is there nothing else we could offer?” Aralie cried. “There must be something else.”
“There isn’t,” He repeated. “However, I am not a cruel man. My sons are not yet grown, and your children are still babes yet. There’s no reason to take them with me now. I will wait until the time is right. You will have them until then.”
He stepped toward Rodai, who held Gale to him tightly. Aralie gripped Rodai’s shirt.
“A deal is a deal, Rodai,” Zinzo said, his strange eyes narrowing. “You will honor it, or you will find exactly how much you can lose.”
“Don’t threaten me,” Rodai said with far more confidence than he felt.
Zinzo smiled. “It’s not a threat,” he said. “It’s simply a fact. I would think your losses would make you more mindful of that.”
Rodai’s face contorted in fury. “Leave.”
Zinzo stepped back into the shadows. “I will return,” He said as he disappeared into the darkness. “Be ready.”
When they could no longer feel his presence, Aralie dissolved into weeping. Rodai could do nothing but hold her and weep himself.
“What do we do?” Aralie asked quietly. “Should we tell them?”
“I supposed we’ll have to, at some point.”
“When will that be?”
Rodai sighed. “When the time is right.”
She shook her head at him, exasperated. “And when will that be?”
Rodai looked at her, his heart heavy with guilt and grief. “I’m so sorry, my love. More sorry than I can ever say. I hope one day you can forgive me, but if not, I understand.”
She grabbed him and held him, burying her face in his neck. “I’m very angry with you.”
He used his free arm to press her closer to him, holding Gale so she wouldn't be crushed between them. “I know,” He said into her hair.
There was a knock at the door. It was seventeen year old Coll, leading his little sisters, five and three, in to meet the new member of the family. The girls hopped happily on the bed and cooed over the little one. Coll bear-hugged his father and put a comforting hand on his step-mother’s shoulder, smiling widely and congratulating them.
Rodai and Aralie shared a look, wiping their tears and silently agreeing to keep their shame a secret for now and let this family moment play out. They didn’t know how many they would have left.