Author’s Note: Well, here’s chapter 3, right on schedule. I kind of like having deadlines. Wait… did I really just say that? I might need to have my head checked!
Particles of glittering sand sifted down into the bottom of the hourglass with a soft patter. Febe watched the light catch on the sand grains as if they were water, part of a flood flowing towards her. The dread built up inside her until she was certain she would burst with it.
She still hadn’t completely given up hope on escaping, though her sister’s words made her certain that not only had Eldora abandoned her, but she would actively work against any escape attempt Febe made. That meant that spies were probably in every corridor, watching and waiting to capture her in the act.
There wasn’t much time, and she’d already wasted too much of what she did have on hoping to rely on a sister who’d never been an ally. As always, the only person she could truly count on was herself. She’d engineered marvels that the rest of the world coveted. Surely, she could come up with a simple escape plan.
Yet her mind, usually so busy, drew nothing but a blank. It was almost as if simply knowing that she was doomed to marriage had turned her once-brilliant brain into mush to prepare her for her future as the chattel of some man. No, not a man. Not someone I can manipulate, or even kill if it came to that.
The fear that she would lose the ability to do what she loved the most was even greater than her fear of the monster that would enchain her with a wedding band. Surely no male, not even the god of death, would allow her to continue working in her lab, building machines to improve the lives of her people, or any people for that matter.
Perhaps, like her mother, Morbidon would demand engines of war. She wondered if a god would even need such things, and wasn’t certain which was worse: the idea that he would, and would force her to make them, or that he wouldn’t, and would never allow her to draft another engine in her life.
She withdrew her design book from her sack and clutched it in both hands as if it could work as a talisman against such a fate.
While she was contemplating her grim future, a knock sounded on her heavy wooden door.
The guard captain did not wait for an acknowledgement, opening the door a crack. “Milady, a maid is here with your dinner.”
Febe quickly slid her book back into her sack and rose to her feet to disarm the traps in the room so the innocent maid wouldn’t wind up a victim of them.
The guard captain apparently knew the drill, or perhaps the maid did, as all maids had been warned to give Febe notice and never enter her room unless she’d given them leave.
“Send her in,” Febe said after unhooking the clip that kept the last trap set. The nearly invisible wire dropped to the marble floor and Febe slid it under her rug.
The maid who entered was not a familiar one. Febe regarded the beautiful girl with suspicion as she bustled in with a laden tray, the food steaming beneath covers, sending out delicious aromas that did nothing to whet Febe’s lost appetite.
“Why didn’t mother send the usual girl?” By this, Febe meant the latest usual girl. Sadly, Febe’s maids had a bad habit of disappearing. She suspected her sisters’ hands in their absence. Being the maid of any of the sisters was a dangerous job, though Febe tried to keep collateral damage to a minimum, and deeply regretted killing the innocent, even when they got in the way.
Of course, there had been the maids who’d tried to poison her, after being bought or threatened by her eldest sister Emilia. They’d usually died because she’d made them eat the food they’d brought. Thus, the food on the tray of this maid was probably safe.
The maid set the tray down on Febe’s table, and whisked away the covers to reveal a feast that looked too much like the last meal of a condemned prisoner. It seemed that every one of Febe’s favorite dishes was present. The maid then took a small fork from the tray and took a bite of each dish, smiling at Febe reassuringly between each chew.
The girl’s beauty was rendered sublime with her smile. Usually, Febe felt awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of beautiful women, because she was only too aware of her own short-comings in that area. Her mother never failed to remind her that she lacked any of Isa’s beauty and charm, and no amount of creams and lotions and dyes would improve her appearance.
This time, she felt strangely calm, a true miracle given her predicament. “You didn’t need to do that. I have a test kit.” Emilia wasn’t the only alchemist in the country. Febe had gone to great expense to acquire a kit to test for all the poisons that were currently in use anywhere in the Southlands, and even those that had been forgotten by most assassins. Emilia always looked for something new, even if it meant finding something old. What she didn’t use, Eldora did.
The maid shrugged. “You’re food isn’t poisoned, and I have no fear for my life. Besides, it tastes delicious. Your chef is brilliant.”
“You don’t talk like a maid. Who are you?” Febe now regretted disarming all of her traps. Not that she didn’t have options. She considered the lever concealed to her right. Pulling it would send darts towards the table. This wouldn’t be the first time her maid had turned out to be an assassin. That was why Febe always stood in this spot when a servant was in her room.
The maid’s laughter was merry. “Don’t bother with your darts, dear child. They wouldn’t do much harm to me.” She swept her arms out to the side. “Of course, I should have known it wouldn’t take you long to see through my disguise. You are quite paranoid.” With a wink, the maid’s appearance shifted. Suddenly, the stunning beauty of the teenage girl became the beauty of a more mature woman dressed in a flowing silver gown rather than the frumpy uniform of the castle servants.
“You’re a mage?” This would be a first. Neither of her sisters had ever tried using magic to kill her. It was an unspoken rule in their engagements. Magic was simply unfair.
The woman pouted. “You still don’t recognize me? It’s because your people worship Zephrona, isn’t it? She’s so jealous of her followers. Imagine, forcing mine to keep their shrines in their homes and limiting my temple to such a small building in the plaza.”
“Vivacel? It… it can’t be!” Febe staggered a few steps away from the goddess, dropping into her favorite overstuffed chair next to her bookcase, where another trap awaited should she pull out the right book.
“And why not? Surely you realize by now that we exist, though you and your sisters worship your logical studies and not Our glory.”
Of course Febe knew that the AllGods were real. There had been too many miracles to deny that fact. Besides, magic was a known phenomenon in the Southlands. Her mother had often complained that none of her daughters had been born with the gift. What were gods besides very powerful magic users? And then there was the whole upcoming marriage to Morbidon. Febe had never doubted that he existed. “Is that why you’re here? The marriage to Morbidon?”
The goddess chuckled. “The horror in your tone is certainly appropriate. My brother is no one’s choice in mate, for good reason.” She frowned and shook her head. “Such a dour creature.”
Febe shuddered. “Did you come here to scare me even more?”
“No, child. I’ve come to help you escape. Morbidon has no right to force you into this marriage. A girl like you deserves to fall in love.”
“I don’t deserve anything.” Febe slumped further into her chair. “Nor do I want to fall in love. Men are nothing but a curse. Women who love them become insipid and foolish.”
“Bah! You speak your mother’s bitterness, not your own experience.” Vivacel approached Febe’s chair, her dress sparkling in the meager light cast by sconces on the walls. “Love is a beautiful thing. If it is reciprocated, it makes both partners stronger and better for it.”
“And if it’s not, they pine away and become hateful and cruel.” Febe ought to know. Her mother had loved once, long before she’d had three daughters and a kingdom to rule.
Vivacel waved away Febe’s words. “Your mother is an unfortunate exception. Not the rule. The heart is not a fragile thing. If it is broken, it only heals stronger. Then you find love again. Only those who refuse to let go become like Queen Isa.”
“I don’t want love! I just want to leave here so I’m not forced to marry the god of death!” Febe struggled not to cry in front of this powerful woman. She’d grown to despise powerful women, and couldn’t imagine a goddess would be less likely to view her tears as a weakness than the other women Febe had made the mistake of revealing her vulnerability.
Vivacel’s expression was sympathetic, but Febe didn’t trust such things. “You poor girl. You’ve never known any kind of love, have you?” She leaned down and touched Febe’s forehead, smoothing back the strands of hair that had escaped her braids. Febe jerked away from her gentle touch.
The goddess rose back to her full height, standing over Febe like a sparkling monolith. “I will help you escape. This I promise you. No one will stand in our way.”
Relief was not enough to completely chase away suspicion as Febe eyed the goddess. “What’s the catch?”
Vivacel laughed aloud, clapping her hands with amusement. “I should learn that I cannot trick you for long. The catch, indeed. You’ll simply have to wait to find out about that.” She smiled down at Febe. “Well, do you accept my offer?”
Febe wasn’t sure she could trust the goddess of life. She’d no more made a study of Vivacel than she had of Morbidon. In fact, the only one of the AllGods she knew anything about was Zephrona and that was because learning about Barselor’s patron goddess was a required part of her education.
What she did know—what all Southlanders knew—was that Vivacel and Morbidon were bitter rivals. In this case, the enemy of her future husband might just become the best friend she’d ever had.