Author’s Note: Only one chapter today, unfortunately. I feel like my confidence in my writing has been shaken lately, so I’m dealing with a touch of writer’s block. I’m still gamely tapping away at the keyboard, but everything I write seems like garbage to me, so I have to go over it again and again, and I’m never satisfied. I’ve been sitting in front of the computer staring at the screen, so paralyzed by self-doubt that I can’t even remember the words for common things.
Still, I made a commitment to myself to keep to my set deadlines and post these chapters in the time I promised. In fact, it’s even more important that I do it now, because these moments of self-doubt can turn into something much longer lasting, crippling my ability to create at all. So here is Chapter 11, in all it’s imperfect glory. I apologize if it seems rough and raw. I hope you enjoy it. Feel free to add any comments, questions, or critiques below. I love hearing from you guys, and I’m certainly open to constructive criticism.
Febe followed the steward into the dark palace where she was met by a young, ethereal maid who led her to her rooms. By this time, she wasn’t even bothered by the strangeness of the ghostly servant, though the steward had at first frightened her. She’d been eager enough to escape her betrothed that she’d chosen the smaller fear of touching a ghost over remaining behind with the god of the dead. Now, she realized that the souls around her were not mournful or vengeful hauntings, but merely the spiritual form of once-living people. She doubted they meant her any harm, which was more than she could have said about the servants in her mother’s castle. Far too many of them had been agents of her sisters.
Her rooms were far nicer than she’d been expecting after walking through the dour, dark palace that was decorated with skulls and skeletons—constant reminders of where she was and who she’d be forced to marry soon.
In her mother’s castle, she’d only had one room, and she’d preferred it that way since it had been easier to set her traps in the smaller space. Here, she had a spacious suite of rooms to contend with, as well as multiple entrances where assassins could get to her. I must remember, my sisters aren’t here. There’s no reason for anyone to assassinate me now. No, she was facing a far worse fate than dying. She was facing the future of marriage to Death.
Despite the inconvenience of a large space to set traps over, the rooms were cozy and elegant. The sitting room was filled with bookshelves packed with books the likes of which Febe hadn’t seen even in her mother’s extensive library. Several overstuffed chairs sat beside the bookcases and a handful of side tables held candelabras that filled the room with a warm, mellow glow, chasing away the gloom that tried to creep in from the corridor.
A four-poster bed hung with silk drapes in a soft pink that complemented the lilies that were embroidered on the bedspread dominated the bedroom which sat just off the sitting room. There were so many pillows arranged on the bed that despite the size of it, they took up over half the surface.
A massive wardrobe sat against one wall, intricately carved with magical beasts. Febe looked away from it when she saw that the curving, graceful shapes were dragons. One glance had been enough to tell her that the wardrobe depicted the Allgods pantheon, based on the symbols of their elements enshrouding each dragon as they writhed across the surface.
A vanity table with a huge silver mirror sat near the wardrobe. Rugs woven with flowers in pinks and reds—with a dash of purple and green—warmed the black marble floors as she walked to the final room of the suite in the trail of the ghostly maid.
When the maid threw open the door, Febe stepped inside a room with a huge marble basin that was already filled with steaming water upon which rose petals floated on the surface. Beside the tub was another basin on a table carved of marble. Across the large room was a garderobe unlike any she’d ever seen before. It was carved of marble and the seat wasn’t simply a crude plank with a hole in it, but rather shaped in a way that made it look like it would actually be comfortable.
“Everything is self-filling and self-emptying, milady. You need only touch the side of each basin here.” The maid demonstrated by tapping her fingers on the edge of the small hand basin.
Febe watched as the basin magically filled. She’d installed pipes to pump water to her mother’s bathing room in their palace, but nothing she’d ever seen had been this convenient. Even with her pipes, draining the bath had been a hassle, and the heater she’d built beneath the tub had to be constantly tended, yet the water in this basin steamed already without any sign of a heat source, and when the maid tapped the basin again, the water simply disappeared.
She’d avoided magic her entire life because she’d always seen it as a dangerous and destructive force. She considered her engines and inventions as far more positive, even though they’d been misused by her mother, because anyone could make use of them. Magic required an inherent talent, and far too many mages had abused their power to oppress others who weren’t blessed by the gods with such talent.
Yet she couldn’t deny that she was charmed by this bathing room, and given her current state, she was eager to make use of it. Nothing sounded better to her at the moment than a relaxing soak in the bath with the fragrant petals brushing against her skin as she washed away the dirt and tension from her ill-fated escape.
As she dismissed the maid with as much kindness as she could muster, the apparition told her that dinner would be sent soon, but that it would be delivered to her sitting room. However, she could take as long as she wanted, since it would remain warm indefinitely.
More magic! I suppose I should get used to this. She shook her head as she closed the door and locked it, appreciating the heft of the lock that had been installed in the solid oak panel. She didn’t have the supplies to trap the entry, but then again, she doubted anything would stop Morbidon, and right now, he was the only one she feared.
Still, she hesitated as she stood before the bath, fingering the worn fabric of her tunic hem. The idea that the god of the dead could come across her at any point while she was nude and vulnerable in the bath made her wonder if being clean again would be worth it. She eyed the lock.
The maid had explained that these rooms were created especially for her arrival. Not built. Created. Out of nothing. That was a power that the spirits took for a granted. A power their lord wielded without effort. Yet, he’d installed locks on every door in her suite. Complicated—difficult to pick—locks. Who are they meant to keep out?
She wondered if he’d done it for her sake. If he’d known that she would be more comfortable behind a locked door, even if she were aware that it wouldn’t do anything to stop him from entering. She wasn’t certain what she thought about that. If he’d truly added the locks for her peace of mind, it demonstrated a surprising—and perhaps disturbing—insight on his notions of honor. Not only that, but the rooms were beautifully designed, filled with books and piles of pillows, both of which were luxuries Febe had enjoyed in her own chamber back in her mother’s castle.
The many shades of pink used in her rooms were also surprisingly soothing. Her mother had never allowed such feminine colors in any of Febe or her sister’s rooms, so she’d grown up with greens and blues, but the soft pinks and the bright blossoms made her oddly content, as if the color and the blossom design would have been her pick if she’d had the guts to go against the upbringing that had been instilled in her by her mother.
There was simply no way that Morbidon could know her so well when they’d barely spoken. She couldn’t imagine a monster such as she’d seen back on that mountain taking the time and effort to learn about her so that he could create this haven for her. A haven so far removed from the rest of the palace in tone that it could have been in a different world altogether.
Perhaps it had been merely luck, or a good guess, that had informed his choices. At any rate, the bath was calling to her and her aching muscles couldn’t resist it any longer. The sooner she entered it and washed up, the sooner she could dress again and feel less vulnerable.
She had to put her worn and dirty clothing back on over her clean body because she didn’t have her pack—a realization she’d come to only after she’d sank deeply into the soothing warmth of the bath. Anxiety and panic had assailed her, causing her to sit up with a slosh of scented water, but then she slid back down until only her nose and eyes remained above the water, her heart breaking as she recognized that she would no longer need her design book, filled with schematics and mathematical equations and blueprints. She was going to be the wife of a god. He could create an entire palace out of aether. He had no need for her inventions. The one thing that had truly made her feel special—her ability to invent—was completely pointless in this kingdom. She was just another princess and not even a pretty or charming one.
Her warm tears blended so well with the bathwater that she barely felt them on her cheeks.
After a good cry, Febe had pulled herself from the tub and dried off with a new sense of determination. Just because Morbidon didn’t need her gift, didn’t mean she couldn’t still use it. She would get a new book and fill its blank pages with new inventions, new equations, and new schematics. The ideas already started to prickle in her mind as she studied the bathroom surrounding her. How nice it would be for everyone to live in such luxury—how lovely for even the poorest peasant to touch a basin and be rewarded with hot water for washing or maybe even cooking.
Perhaps she could come up with inventions that could do these very things without magic. It would give her something to focus on, an idea to germinate in a mind that had spent too much time dwelling on a frightful future that had come to pass.
It occurred to her that the wardrobe she’d avoided studying too closely for fear she’d be reminded of her future husband might have a change of clothing for her. However, now that she was filled with a renewed purpose that cheered her, her body demanded food, reminding her that she’d neglected it for too long. She had no idea how long it had been since her breakfast with Marcos, and she hadn’t even eaten much then.
Just as the maid had promised, the food was laid out on the small table in the sitting room, almost buckling the table beneath the amount of dishes set upon it. It seemed that her new husband had somehow become aware of her favorite dishes, because they were all there, tempting her with the aromas of spice and savory meats. Every warm dish steamed, and the cold dishes, like the bowl of summer berries, were still crystalline with ice. Marvelous! There has to be some way to do this without magic! I will figure it out!
She was just about to sit down to the spread when there was a light knock on her door.
The food and the rush of ideas inspired by it had lured her into forgetting where she was, but the sound of the knock had her instantly on alert again. She eyed the door, complete with its lock, which had not been turned by the maid when she’d gone out. Her thoughts twisted from practical inventions to those that insured her survival. Her gaze darted around the room. Febe had no traps set. Nothing to protect her from danger.
“Milady?” The soft voice of the maid called from beyond the wooden panel.
Some of Febe’s tension eased, though she still felt the tightness in her stomach and the trembling of her limbs from muscles ready to move at a moment’s notice. “You may enter.” Her heart was still pounding, but she tried to rein in her nerves. She’d gotten through much worse encounters than dealing with a ghostly maid who was nothing but kind and helpful. After all, the girl had seemed downright sweet and childlike.
The door swung open, revealing the maid, who quickly stepped aside to allow another person to enter ahead of her.
Every muscle in Febe’s body stiffened again as she froze in her seat. Her jaw gaped open, but she was powerless to close it. Fear spiraled through her like acid, burning her stomach and tingling in her limbs. At the same time, she was unable to look away from the man in her doorway. Her eyes didn’t even want to. He was the most beautiful creature she’d ever seen. No artist had ever captured masculine beauty like his—an idealized perfection that didn’t seem real.
His black brows were dark slashes set low over silver eyes that were piercing and pale in stark contrast to his swarthy complexion. His jaw was square and chiseled, and high cheekbones framed a straight nose without a hint of any bumps or breaks. She’d seen those lips before, but hadn’t realized how sensual they were when they weren’t tight with disapproval. Long, straight ebony hair framed his perfect face, falling well past his shoulders, blending into his black robe.
His eyes looked familiar. The color, the shape, even the almost glowing quality, reminded her of the goddess Vivacel. But there was no sign of sympathy or kindness in the face of the man who faced her. Not man—god! No matter how lovely he was to look at, he was still the monster, Morbidon. She didn’t need to have recognized his robe to know that. There was simply an air about him—an air of darkness and authority that didn’t tolerate being questioned.
Fear paralyzed her throat and kept her from swallowing, much less speaking as her future husband stood in her doorway.
He studied her as she trembled, then his gaze left her to take in the surrounding room, freeing her from the piercing power of it. He sighed and his shoulders slumped in a manner so human—and so at odds with his ethereal beauty—that Febe was caught off-guard. For a moment, he’d looked disappointed and almost vulnerable, his features shifting to reveal an actual human expression before his face returned to sculpted perfection.
Then he caught her further off-guard by sliding the strap of a pack off his shoulder, holding it up so that she could see it. “I was told you would want this returned to you.”
Complex emotions warred within Febe. On the one hand, she wanted to leap to her feet and rush to grab her pack so that she could dig out her design book and check it over in an almost compulsive need to reassure herself that it was safe. She’d never expected to see it again, so the relief she felt made her almost lightheaded.
On the other hand, she still feared the man holding the pack, and her fear made her want to leap from her table and run into the bedroom, slamming the door behind her to close him out. This conflict kept her frozen in her seat.
A flicker of impatience crossed Morbidon’s beautiful face, tightening his lips into a slight frown as his gaze touched her face, then settled on the pack in his hand. “This is important to you, yes?” His eyes met hers again. “Do you not want it back?”
Febe nodded, surprised she was able to do that much. Morbidon’s imposing height and breadth filled the doorway so completely that she couldn’t even see the ghostly maid behind him. At the same time, now that he didn’t have his cowl, she was better able to see his expression—which made him slightly less intimidating. He didn’t look angry. Rather, he seemed exasperated. No doubt she was making him seriously reconsider his choice to make her his bride. Good!
Her nod of agreement seemed to act as permission for him to enter her room, because he stepped forward, rapidly approaching her as if he worried that she’d change her mind. Since she hadn’t meant to invite him in, there was nothing to change.
She thought about getting up to run as he neared the table, but knew that was foolish. There was nowhere to go. She was at his mercy and as vulnerable in this place as she’d been in her cradle right after birth. No matter how clever her mind, no matter how cunning her traps, she couldn’t harm the man in front of her. Her safety and continued well-being were entirely in his hands—and she hated that. Her helplessness made her angry.
The anger was a good antidote to her crippling fear. Febe rose to her feet and snatched the strap of the pack as he held it out to her over the table. “Of course I want it back! I wouldn’t have been separated from it if you’d treated me with any degree of respect instead of grabbing me up like a sack of grain to haul me back to this dreary kingdom!” Her words spilled forth on a river of anger, stress snapping her restraint like a dam breaking under too much pressure. She’d endured so much just to avoid this very situation. Now she was stuck here, chattel to this creature, and he had the nerve to act as if he were doing her some favor by returning her property to her when he was the one responsible for her losing it in the first place.
A frown deepened the shadows beneath his brows and creased the skin between them. “You would have had plenty of time to pack your things properly and return with me in comfort if you had honored your obligation and not run away in the first place.” His tone was chiding, his deep voice rumbling into the room like one of her engines growling to life.
How dare he try to turn this into my fault! “I never made any promises! You made your bargain with my mother! Why should I have to honor it?”
“Are you saying you don’t obey your matriarch? Your queen?” He crossed his arms over his broad chest, one straight eyebrow lifted in skepticism. “You create weapons of untold destruction for your mother’s army.” He spread his arms out to his sides as if to encompass the room. “My kingdom is filled with the victims of your genius. These weren’t created out of obedience to your mother’s will? Is this something you do for your own enjoyment?”
The pack slid from Febe’s nerveless fingers and dropped to the marble floor at her feet with a soft thud. Anger spilled out of her like sand from an hourglass, leaving her deflated, her knees weak from the abrupt departure of the strong emotion. She gripped the edge of the table as her legs buckled.
Suddenly, strong hands grasped her before she could topple forward. They pressed her down into her seat, taking the weight off legs that no longer had the strength to support her. “I don’t enjoy killing.” Her voice was barely a whisper. “I did what I was told.”
“And yet, you rebelled when it came to marrying me.”
Febe looked up into Morbidon’s eyes. He was standing over her now, leaning over the table, his hair brushing against her shoulder, his hands still gently gripping her arms. He was so close she could see the pores of his skin, the perfection of it unmarred by any scars or marks. His lashes curved long and lush beneath his lowered brows, and within the silver of his eyes were small spots of blue and green, barely visible. “I’ve never been more afraid of anything in my life than marrying you.”
She didn’t know how she managed the words without her anger to bolster her, but the truth would no longer be contained. She’d never directly disobeyed her mother before; because that was the one person she’d feared more than anything. Yet, Morbidon had replaced her mother as the scariest person she’d ever met. That was why she’d run from the betrothal instead of doing exactly what she’d always done—which was to obey her mother.
Strangely, his frown this time didn’t seem angry, but rather sad. “I know. I see your fear knotted within you.” He released her arms and stepped back, towering over her still but giving her breathing room. “I would never harm you.” He gestured with one hand to the room around them. “No one in my kingdom will ever harm you.” His eyes narrowed. “No one in the world would ever dare harm you now. You are safe with me, Princess Febe.”
Febe twisted her fingers together, avoiding his eyes to stare at the table piled high with food that still steamed or crackled with frost. “You say that, but I’ve seen….”
Morbidon turned away from her, running long fingers through his hair, ruffling the smooth fall of it so that he looked less perfect and more approachable. “I know what you’ve seen. I will not pretend that the reaper is not a part of me, just as my dragon is a part of me. Perhaps that makes you view me as a monster.” He glanced over his shoulder at her, catching her staring at him.
She quickly looked away as he spoke again. “I would have you see me as more than that.” He turned back to face her, his eyes blazing. “No part of me would hurt you, Febe! I swear this on my word as a god! I swear on my honor that you will be safe.” His jaw was set as he struck his chest with one clenched fist. “Give me the opportunity to court you, Princess, and I will prove that I am a god with honor and that I can be a worthy mate for you.”
His tone rang with sincerity. He was asking for what he could simply demand, or even take by force. Febe still feared him, and she didn’t know if she’d ever be able to feel the way he wanted her to about him, but he’d been right about one thing. She’d disobeyed her mother for her own selfish reasons when it came to marrying him.
In most kingdoms, arranged marriages for alliances were common. Doing your duty by forming an advantageous match was simply an accepted part of being a princess. Am I truly better than these other royals who have done their duty by their countries? Surely there’s no more advantageous match than marriage to a god! I already accepted this when I agreed to marry him, but he’s offering me a chance to know him as a person before I must learn him as a man. It would be foolish not to at least make an effort!
When broken down logically, the decision was an easy one. Taking her fear out of the equation, she had no reason not to take him up on his offer and allow him to court her. She’d already committed to him, but her fear would stand between them and only make her miserable if she didn’t put forth an honest effort. “I… I will try to….”
She swallowed around the lump in her throat, thinking of all the times she’d faced down death and come out on the other side unscathed. Those other times, she’d bent her mind to the task of surviving, overcoming her instinctive emotional responses to danger in order to triumph using logic and tactics. This time should be no different. “You may court me.” She didn’t know exactly what that entailed, but figured it would take time—time she desperately needed to grow accustomed to her new life and this strange creature who’d invaded it.
His stance relaxed, his fingers releasing from clenched fists to hang at his sides. The crease between his brows smoothed out as he sketched a bow to her. He still didn’t smile. She wondered if he even knew how. “Very well, Princess. I will leave you to your meal and rest.” He gestured behind him and the ghostly maid floated into the room. “Macie will provide anything you want or need. You have only to ask.”
The maid curtseyed to Febe, a bright smile on her sweet face. Her gaze turned from Febe to Morbidon, and her eyes lit up, fixing on the imposing god with naked devotion that made Febe uncomfortable, sparking an unexpected twinge of possessiveness that made her want to snap at the girl to leave the room. She kept her mouth shut, pushing away the unwanted emotion.
Morbidon didn’t look at the maid as he continued speaking to Febe. “The days in my kingdom follow the sun on the surface world. In this part of the underworld, I have adjusted the day to match the same cycle as Barselor.” He gestured at a wall that was empty of bookshelves, and suddenly a window formed, revealing a landscape where the sun was setting to cast a brilliant rainbow of colors across the small clouds that dotted the horizon. “This is a view of the Isle of the Blessed. There are many beautiful places in my kingdom. I would show them all to you. This window will allow you to choose which view you see.”
Febe stared at the view beyond the window in awe. She’d never seen a place so lovely. Not even in paintings.
“I would like to take you there tomorrow, after your morning meal.”
She turned back to him. “That would be… amazing!” She was struck by the desire to see the place in person, to experience its vivid beauty with all five senses. Even if it meant she would be spending time in Morbidon’s company.
He bowed again. “Then I will come for you tomorrow. Farewell, Princess. Enjoy your meal.” He turned abruptly and left the room, striding through the door that had been left open by the maid.
Once her lord was gone, Macie clapped her hands together, grinning at Febe. “Milady, you must choose something perfect to wear for tomorrow! There’s a whole wardrobe filled with clothes! Once you finish eating, I’ll gladly help you go through them.”
Febe stared at the maid, feeling exhausted from the excesses of emotion. Since Macie seemed to be excited enough for both of them, she figured it was okay that all she could do was stare at her empty plate with no energy to fill it, despite the emptiness of her stomach. She glanced at the view within the magical window, as breathtaking as the god who’d created it. Tomorrow. I’ll deal with it tomorrow!