*This is the end of the Fantasy novel I’ve been posting here for free, one chapter every Friday. If your conscience troubles you getting something for free, do hit the donate button on the right side. Anyone donating more than $6 will get a non-drm electronic copy of Witchfinder in its final version, when it’s published.
There is a compilation of previous chapters here all in one big lump, but there are some chapters missing, notably the last few.
Oh, this is in pre-arc format, meaning you’ll find the occasional spelling mistake and sentence that makes no sense. It’s not exactly first draft, but it’s not at the level I’d send to a publisher, yet. *
Fire and Flood
After the Dragon flame came and seared away… Caroline didn’t know what. She felt that for a moment she saw the whole royal nursery illuminated from the inside, like the words of the scripture about the day of judgement when the secrets of every heart shall be laid bare.
She herself was not affected. She’d come through dragon fire once, and she felt like there was nothing left to burn, and she turned to Akakios and saw him, for a moment just as he was, young man and centaur both and something else, something that might be his soul – something shining and… Something she belonged to.
It was hard to put in words that which was not designed for words, not even those spoken only in the mind. She reached back her hand, in the flood of fire, and found his hand reaching for hers, warm and alive and very human.
And in the next moment the dragon turned on the sobbing woman who’d been – perhaps still was – Seraphim’s fiancé, and concentrated the fire on her.
Honoria screamed and fell to the ground on her knees. Just as inside Akakios, Caroline had seen his true essence, Honoria’s looked smaller, and sad, and defensless – at least for a moment. And then that seemed to shrivel away and leave nothing…
The dragon looked at her with a pittying look, and then it shifted. Where it had been there was a woman, the woman that Caroline had helped in the glade. But her eyes were even sadder, now, and she looked around and then fixed on Caroline, “You,” she said. “You are kind. Get someone to minister to this unfortunate. She is bearing the child of a dragon, and she is not whole.”
The dragon shifted again, “But now I must go,” she said. “The new king will require my attendance.”
Caroline had barely the time to blink, and the dragon was gone, not through the window, but transported. Honoria remained on the floor, crying, and Caroline wondered with horror whether her being asked to look after Honoria – and her child? Caroline blushed at the thought – meant that Seraphim would have to marry Honoria after all. How else could Caroline be expected to look after the woman, if they were not to be related.
But she didn’t want Honoria to marry Seraphim. If she was pregnant, then she must have behaved – as mama would say – like a very abandoned female, and with Sidell, yet, who seemed to be at the heart of all this.
She didn’t even know if Seraphim was alive, and she feared very much that Seraphim would consider it his duty, too, to look after Honoria and her baby, though it were none of his. But her heart turned within her. She didn’t even know if Seraphim were still alive. He’d been transported with Sidell-who-was-a-dragon. Where would he be now?
A Time To Choose
Marlon would never be able to tell exactly what had happened as the dryad who was his mother transported him out of the room.
There was a time of infinite slowing, it seemed, when he saw life from the heart of a tree, a creature almost immortal – and full immortal in fairyland – straining years through the measure of growth rings and sunlight, viewing humans as nothing but passing, ephemeral creatures, the kind you could ignore. They wouldn’t be around very long.
His human senses, such as he retained, offered him a mingled green view, a passing scenary of centuries, of buildings being erected and collapsing, and none of it mattering very much.
The tree he was – he thought after a while that what was really happening was that he was sharing his mother’s memories – was in the center of a grove, surrounded by brothers, and sisters, just like it. He felt their thoughts, as slow as his – hers? – and just as close as his own. They were one, that grove of trees. Just enough individuality to be unique, but enough community that it was like being one of a group of twins, with that communication it was said twins had, where they could guess each other’s thoughts.
He felt the love and joy of the creatures around. And he thought how cruel, how inhumane of his father to have separated his mother from this for more than two decades.
It wasn’t that a human could have withstood such magical, solitary confinement well, but that a dryad couldn’t stand it at all. They weren’t meant to be alone, but to live in a grove, roots entwined, a small part of a living whole.
And then the voice came, like a dream, “This too you could have, my son. This too you could choose.”
He stood still, within her consciousness. He felt the bark – as it were – form upon his body, as his outstretched arms became branches.
It should have felt terrifying, but it didn’t. It was more the feeling of coming into your own house, of closing the door after yourself, of entering a space where you were safe and nothing could harm you.
But that wasn’t true, was it? He stirred, and felt as if the bark upon him cracked. He felt his mother’s mind, rushing to still the panic, but the panic wouldn’t subside.
His mother had been safe, like this, covered in bark, in a woodland glade, but the dragon had reached in and despoiled her, and taken her away to enclose in an evil spell, animating it and giving it strength. He wouldn’t be safe.
“The dragon could do so with the connivance of the king,” she said. “But there will be a new king now.”
But the dragon within Marlon was now alive and awake. Or if not the dragon – he didn’t think he, himself, could actually turn into a dragon. But there was dragon in him. And no wonder all his life he’d been caught between two natures, never sure what he was or what to do, both the dragon and the tree that burns, both the rooted communal being and the individual who longed to nest upon cold treasure.
But if he became the tree, wouldn’t the dragon rebel?
And the human too?
And then he felt his power rushing back to him.
He’d given his power to Gabriel, for his final fight. If the power returned to him, it could only mean one thing: Gabriel was dead.
Bark and quietness went flying, and the sacred stillness of the grove, as Marlon screamed, “No,” and his scream shattered the illusion and left him – cold and alone – in the middle of a whirlwind of magic.
Rings on her Fingers
Nell, in the space she was in, in which she was not Nell at all, pulled up all the defenders of the land, waking long dead warriors from their graves and bringing up the force of the land against the intruder.
Suddenly she felt a force join hers, and a polite voice she knew well say, “This too I shall take from you princess. I shall manage my own.”
She recognized Gabriel Penn’s voice, and in the next second, the forces of fairyland were pulled back, the land of Avalon was left without intruders, but more, she felt as though suckers had been attached to places of power, and were now being detached.
“My predecessor,” the exquisitely polite voice said in her mind. “Was not strong enough to hold fairyland, and he let it become a parasite upon other times and other places. I will not continue that practice.”
The feeding lines pulled back from all the places where they had been attached, and the magic of the land surged, luminous and clear and pure, so much magic.
In the center of it, Nell let it wash over her like a cleaning tide.
Once it was past, once the blinding light of it was gone, she pulled at the severed ends of the magic that had once knit land and king, the magic severed by Sidell’s crime and Sidell’s dark magic.
In a land in which the king is part of the magic of the land, and part of the heart of it, it shouldn’t be possible for an intruder to come between and to turn the king deaf to the land and the land against the king.
That it had happened at all had required unusual perfidy and dark treason, and a man endowed with the magic of two worlds.
Nell pulled back the threads that had gone into fairyland, through Sidell’s dragon-nature, and knit together the ends of the king and land.
For a moment, she was caught in the middle, as the land surged to its rightful sovereign, like a child long separated from its parents.
And then suddenly, with the surprise of something you know it’s coming, but which has been so long in arriving that you think will never now come through, the burden was lifted from Nell’s shoulders, the land from her mind.
The spinning around her of wishes and wants not her own, of places and beings that were, for a moment, like a part of herself, left her shaking. It was a relief, but the sort of relief one feels when a long illness ends in a quiet death.
She reeled under the blow of the withdrawal of power, and she, who had been multiple and ubiquitous, was suddenly just Nell, in a small body, and all too human.
She was also, she realized, in the royal palace. At least the hallway in which she found herself looked like an engraving she’d seen in a book about the royal palace of Avalon.
Facing her was an elderly couple. Though they were dressed like the upper class of Avalon, it took her a moment to realize they were the king and Queen.
Kings were, after all, supposed to be on thrones, and surrounded by majesty and might. Not in a hallway, looking surprised, and clutching at the hand of their equally-surprised looking wife.
But the majesty hit Nell immediately afterwards. She knew the power she had held, all too briefly, belonged by right to this man. She could feel him – even at the same time that he was just a middle aged man, in a restrained dark suit, being the land, and keeping all the places of power flowing through himself and to the land, defending all magical borders, clearing all magical snags, keeping the land in good order.
And he did it without letting his emotions affect it, without letting his real life intrude. She’d never be able to do it. Never.
She realized she’d said all this aloud, when the man’s tired face – how tired he looked. No, how ravaged, like the land that has endured the scouring wave of a tsunami will look ravaged and stripped of life and joy – essayed a small smile. “You learn,” he said. “You learn. And I didn’t do so well myself, daughter?” the last was said tentatively, as a question.
Nell swallowed. She felt the grime of the cave on her hands. She knew her hair was a mess. She was wearing jeans, which must seem very odd to Avalon eyes.
She was facing the king. And she didn’t feel in the least princess-like.
“I’m not going to force you to take the crown, you know?” the king said. “I’m not even going to force you to stay in Avalon. The land would be better for you, but God willing there will be time for me to train another successor. There are some cousins—”
For a moment there was immense relief. It was like having the land lifted from her shoulders. There was freedom. The door was open.
Nell could leave. She could go to Earth. She could go back to her normal life. She’d had her adventure, as grand, as important as anything she could have dreamed of within the pages of a fantasy novel. She’d had Antoine, who turned out not to be a villain at all, but a noble centaur prince, sacrificing himself for his kind. And if he’d also tried to attach the heiress to the throne to him, who could blame him. He was a prince. Giving up a throne for a throne, and a position of power for a position of power seemed only fair.
She had met Seraphim, and she’d known he could love her, and she could love him. She’d seen palaces and hovels and strange worlds most humans couldn’t even dream.
Now she could go home, and settle into life at the farm, the life she’d thought she’d have when she was a little girl.
It was a relief, a great freedom, an inestimable gift. She had adventure, and now she could have her life back.
She opened her mouth to speak, only then she caught sight of her mother. She couldn’t be anyone else – she looked like Nell herself, only aged, both by time and by a broken grief.
Catching her mother’s gaze, Nell knew the Queen had mourned the daughter she’d lost, the daughter she wasn’t allowed to search for. She read in those eyes the loneliness of years, when the Queen had tried to imagine how her child was growing up and how – the longing of the empty arms to hold the child she’d held all too briefly.
And now in them she read the resignation to let Nell go, if Nell must go, and a sort of sadness for the future she would also miss.
She looked back at her father and beneath the regal look, she caught the same fear, the same pain. The king and queen Nell could have refused. The throne she could have ignored. But not the longing in her parents eyes. They’d missed her growing up years, but they might yet see their grandchildren grow up. Would, for sure, see them grow up if nature allowed, because princesses don’t decide their own marriage.
Farm and normal life vanished. She was the princess of Avalon, and one day she would carry on her shoulders the burden her father now carried. And her son or daughter would carry it after her. She was not Nell, herself, alone, but a link in an immutable chain, forged before her birth and extending well into the future.
Slowly, slowly, she sank to her knees. She inclined her head. “Sire,” she said. “Father. I would like to be allowed to resume the duties I should have had, and to learn to carry your burden one day.”
There was a moment of silence, and then, to her shock, to her trembling surprise, the king and queen were pulling her up, hugging her, being human and warm and parents. The Queen was crying, convulsively, a seemingly-unstoppable spasm.
“My dear,” the king said at last. “Amelie. There is nothing left to cry for.”
“I know,” the Queen said. “But sometimes we cry for joy.” From her sleeve, she took a handkerchief and dabbed at her face then, with what seemed to Nell as near-miraculous self-control, she took a deep breath, and the crying stopped. She smiled tremulously at Nell. There was a smudge on her cheek where Nell had kissed her, and Nell’s handprint was on the king’s shoulder.
The King and Queen looked at each other and didn’t seem to notice.
And then the Queen called out, “Come and bring my daughter some suitable clothes, and prepare a bath for her. The princess our daughter has come home.”
Duke and Duke
The man on the tomb woke up and sat up, and Seraphim realized that while it was his father, it was his father as he’d never before seen him. He’d supposedly died only a year ago, but his hair was all white, and his face lined. Yet, his eyes had the same carefree, roguish shine Seraphim remembered.
And Seraphim’s mother looked up. It was her, who’d stood by the tomb.
“Your father guided me here,” she said. “When I was lost in the paths of fairyland. His projection… his spirit, found me and brought me here, where his body was. Here, where he could keep me safe.”
“His… Body?” Seraphim said approaching.
Into his half-unbelieving ears, his father poured a tale of how the old king had kidnapped him, to use his magic as fuel for fairyland. “He left a changeling to die in my place, an aged fey in my form.”
“But why?” Seraphim said, striving not to show that in fact this was the final blow. He’d had pride stripped from him, and love too – because he knew better than to think he could aspire to Nell – and now his title, the title he’d resented but strived to deserve, was taken from him too.
And the heart could not stand it. But it had to stand it. This too he would endure. This too he would survive. His father was the duke, and Seraphim would return to being a dutiful son. It wasn’t as though he had illusions about the Duke’s ability to actually perform his duties. It wouldn’t do. No. The Duke would be the Duke, and Seraphim would retreat to the obscurity of managing everything – at least what papa didn’t squander. The Duke would, Seraphim supposed, resume his duties as witchfinder. And Seraphim would have the estate management and the books to balance. And in the fullness of time he’d find some nice, steady girl to marry – with Papa’s consent – and produce children for the succession.
It was what would have given him great joy, even a year ago. But now… Now he’d have to do it alone, without Gabriel’s supporting presence. And he’d have to learn again the quiet ways of keeping papa in check.
He looked at his mother, saw her looking at his father, realized that – despite all his faults, his roguish inability to keep himself to her only – she loved him. She was glad he was alive. Seraphim ought to be glad for her.
But Seraphim’s father was looking at the young man with Seraphim, and Seraphim realized it must seem very odd, since they were both mostly naked and looked like they’d crawled through a furnace. He opened his mouth to explain. “This is Raphael. I don’t know his sur—”
“His surname is Ainsling. I met his mother on Earth,” Seraphim’s father said. “Barbara, before I met you. I was trying to forget—” There was a pause. “His mother died giving birth, and his aunt took him to raise. I have… visited. But he disappeared. Two years ago. We thought–”
The young man nodded. “I was lured with, of all things, a job advertisement. Sidell…”
“Ah,” the duke said. “Ah.” Into the silence poured all the horrors that Seraphim could well imagine, of two years in that cave. He’d never ask the man – his older brother? – what it took to survive, in that place where so many were now skeletons. There were things you can’t want to know, even if someone else had to live through them. And besides, Seraphim’s all too vivid imagination told him he didn’t want to know.
The angel names given his children was something he must get out of Papa and soon, though it might not mean anymore than a personal eccentricity. But right then there was something more pressing, “You’re older than I,” Seraphim said, in a controlled voice. “That means you’re the heir.”
“Not for all the tea in China,” the man said.
“Nonsense, Seraphim,” the duke said. “His mother wouldn’t marry me… And then I met your mother.”
Seraphim was going to ask more – about Raphael’s mother and who she was and, giving the man’s resemblance to both himself and Gabriel, whether his mother too had looked like the fairy princess who’d captured the duke’s heart. But all sound stopped on his lips.
A centaur had galloped up, and now crouched upon its front knees, in the way centaurs did, that passed for bowing. “The king of fairyland,” he proclaimed. “Wants to speak to all of you.”
A Moth To the Sun
Marlon found himself, suddenly, in an immense white hall. Confused he looked up. Shocked, he said, “Gabriel!”
Gabriel sat on the throne of fairyland, a throne of crystal and light. And yet, he wore the clothes he’d worn as the servant of the Darkwaters – a somber suit of good stuff, nothing too expensive, but respectable enough – and looked just like the old Gabriel.
He might have been the incoming student, sitting quietly in Marlon’s lecture, so many years ago. Oh, older, perhaps, but the same cursed green eyes that had looked up at Marlon’s with an odd sort of hopelessness, now looked down at him from the throne.
Gabriel smiled, a smile that looked sadder than his eyes, and said his real name, in the Elven tongue, in liquid syllables that the human tongue couldn’t hope to pronounce, then added, “But you may call me Gabriel.” The sad smile again. A deep breath. “You saved me. By giving me your magic, unquestioningly, at the right time. You saved me, and you let the prophecy happen. In exchange, I can give you—” Another deep breath, and those despairing eyes gazing into his. “I can offer you a title in fairyland. Pick what you want. Duke or Marquis, or what you wish. Only… Only stay, Marlon. Stay in fairyland and be of us.”
Marlon looked up. The ice-looking throne, and Gabriel upon it, looking as he always had. And then he saw the trap. There were always traps in fairyland. One had to watch for them. And to expect plain dealing from its king, was akin to expecting dryness from a rain storm. “Gabriel,” Marlon said.
Gabriel looked as he’d always done, but he wasn’t. He’d pulled his majesty back into himself, to appear inoffensive and mortal. He had chosen his old clothes to lull Marlon into believing nothing had changed. But Marlon’s magical eyes could see the tendrils of power infiltrating and expanding everything, twisting and writhing through all that was fairyland, which was to say the heart of magic, slowly expanding through all the universes.
The power, so immense, on that throne, was not something that Marlon’s all too mortal mind could even comprehend.
If he stayed, if he continued to love the small part of it that was Gabriel, Marlon would be consumed as surely as completely as a moth in love with the sun.
He felt as though his heart were being pulled from his living body, but he had once already tried to hold on to a love that could no longer be, and through it created a living hell for what remained of the man he’d loved. He bit at his lower lip, a quick glance of pain, to recall himself to reality. “I can’t, sire. I can’t milord. I am not wholly of fairyland, and I have duties. For if you are here my natural father must be death, and I must – I believe I am the last of the line.”
He felt as though something snapped. Gabriel had been holding on to one last forlorn hope, Marlon realized, and, being the king of fairyland, hadn’t been able to prevent himself from holding out one last enchantment, a magical trap to convince Marlon to fall in on the side the king wanted.
A long silence, and then Gabriel laughed, a laugh that sounded surprisingly like his old laugh, but which echoed in strange harmonics that resonated with the magical parts of himself. “I should have let you keep the slave spell on me, my friend,” he said, softly, amusement and sadness mingling in his voice. “Then they couldn’t force me to be what I must be. It cost me more than you can guess, to give up that mortal life—”
He was silent again, and when he spoke again, it was with the force, the majesty of the sovereign of fairyland, “Go then from us, Lord Sidell. Yours is an old and respected title. May you bring it the honor it should have had. We shall speak with our brother the mortal king of Avalon to end your exile and give you what is due to you.”
And like that, Marlon was alone in his lodgings. In the corner lay something. He didn’t need to look closely to know that what remained of Ayden Gypson had also left him.
There was relief in it, of course, and joy too, for Ayden’s sake, but he’d never known he could feel so thoroughly, so unutterably alone.
Seraphim found himself before the throne of fairyland. It was hard to tell exactly what the room looked like. It seemed to extend in all directions, and be full of people, but if you turned your head, all you saw was white marble pavement extending till forever.
Gabriel sat on the throne, only it was not Gabriel. Not the brother that Seraphim had known, the friend he’d shared his adventures with. Instead, it was something … not human. There was the human there, but submerged, like the dark shadow at the center of a light.
Dark wasn’t exactly right, either, since Gabriel seemed to be attired in something that might well be woven crystal and light. And yet, his expressions were the ones that Seraphim knew.
There was gladness and relief at seeing them, at knowing they were alive and well. There was amusement and affection in his look at his father, and affection and slight sorrow in his look at Seraphim, and a look at Raphel that told Seraphim that Gabriel at least knew very well what the man had had to do to survive in the dragon’s den, and didn’t like it any better than Seraphim liked his own imaginings.
They stood staring at Gabriel. Belatedly it occurred to Seraphim, they ought to bow, but then Gabriel was speaking to their father. “Father,” Gabriel extended something. It was a small circular silver object, and it took Seraphim a moment to realize it was his father’s pocket watch. “It might have kept you from being killed,” Gabriel said. “But might I say it is a bad place to keep a soul? I would take it now into yourself, sir, and trust on more mundane protections.”
And their father, who had never in his life looked embarrassed, now managed it. He said, “Well, with Sidell on the prowl… Well…”
“It was almost captured several times,” Gabriel said. “And then it was lost and it took me all my power to retrieve it from where it was fallen. Take it, sir. The rest of us carry our souls with us, and you might find, it helps you act more human, more humanely, than you have done.”
Like that, and while their father did something with the watch, he turned to Seraphim, “You will resume your duties, brother,” he said. “And I have not forgotten how difficult those were, because of the lack of funds.” There was a gesture, and then, from the dark, something that was no more than a sketch of light – with wings? – put a large trunk in front of Seraphim. “Those, my brother, are for you, and for the education of the young ones, Caroline and Michael, and I assume the education of prince Akakios, too, who barred himself from our world through his choices. You will have to provide for him, and I’m providing for you.”
“Fairygold?” Seraphim asked.
A laugh that was much like the old Gabriel’s. “No. We do know, in our long lives, of gold that was buried and forgotten. That’s all this is. It will be transported with you, when you go. May you use it in health and for your house’s honor, Duke.”
Seraphim blinked. “I am not—” He started, but didn’t finish. There was the sense of his mother’s arm, clutching at his father’s, the sense of something that wouldn’t be said, but that his parents had talked about long before he’d seen them again.
“Ah, I have no intention of resuming the position,” his father said. “Just reversing the succession. Parliament. A whole lot of bother.” He cleared his throat. “Your mother and I… That is, I have identities and lives and… sometimes property in other worlds, and I only strayed because your mother couldn’t go with me, and now—”
“I shall make paths through fairyland free to you,” Gabriel said. “So you can cross wherever you wish to go.”
Seraphim thought, suddenly, that he was the most despicably inconsistent of creatures. He’d thought he wanted his title and his responsibility back. He’d thought—
But now it fell on his shoulders like a crushing burden, he realized even the gold at his feet was not enough to make up for the pain in his heart, for the loss of Nell. And that the duke of Darkwater could even less afford to break decorum than Seraphim Ainsling could.
Gabriel had turned to the other man, “And you my friend, when you arrive at your place, on Earth, you shall find in it those bits of the dragon treasure that will be of use in your land. Go from us, and strive to forget the years the dragon ate.”
Raphael disappeared, and Seraphim’s father, his arm around his wife, turned as though to go, and Seraphims aid, “Wait. Why the angelic names?”
The duke looked puzzled. “I thought they would protect you. I thought you’d need it.”
“Likely,” Gabriel said, amused, as the old duke and the duchess vanished.
“I wonder,” Seraphim said. “If there is a Uriel somewhere.”
“I wouldn’t bet against it,” Gabriel said.
“I am going to miss you,” Seraphim said.
“I will miss you too,” Gabriel said. “As much as I can miss anything. As much I can remember, brother.”
Like that, Seraphim found himself standing in the middle of his bedroom, in the closed-up house at Darkwater. There was a very large trunk at his feet, which he was sure was full of gold – gold that couldn’t begin to compensate for the loss of a mother, or a love, or even a brother.
But the Duke of Darkwater didn’t cry. He presumed now, with Sidell’s plot unraveled, he was no longer hunted. He must get his servants back, and his family. And he must see to Akakios’ settlement and education. And he must see to Caroline’s education too. And Michael’s. And he must, in the fullness of time, pick a bride.
The duke of Darkwater had a lot to do. Crying was the one thing he couldn’t give time to.
Breakfast In Family
“I don’t understand,” Caroline said, pettishly, over the breakfast table. “Why I must go to boarding school. Or why Michael must go to a different boarding school.”
Perusing the paper in front of him, with unseeing eyes, Seraphim said, “Because there are no schools that take both boys and girls. Because now that mama is no longer with us, you must learn things of deportment and dress which I am simply not qualified to teach you. Because you will eventually be presented and have to maintain your status, so that you can marry Akakios when he comes of age.”
“I don’t understand either,” Caroline said. “Why the king made Akakios a duke. He is a prince.”
“Of centaurs, which don’t exist in our world. The prophecy bars him from fairyland, and he can’t turn into a centaur here. So, we are paying for his education and the king has made some sort of exchange with fairyland, which has created him an earldom. You will be well provided for.”
“I don’t want to be well provided for if it means going to school and only seeing all of you on holidays.”
Seraphim didn’t answer. His eyes were fixed on a picture in the front page of the paper.
“And I don’t understand either,” Caroline said. “Why Nell must marry the nasty prince of Lombardy. And I don’t care if everyone thinks it’s so romantic. It’s not. I saw at her coronation as princess, how she looked at you. And I saw how she looked at you when you were officially created the King’s Witchfinder. It isn’t right for people to marry people they don’t love.”
“Sometimes,” Seraphim said. “It is their duty.” He had tried to do his duty. He’d offered to marry Honoria. It had only got Jon to laugh in his face and say “For a mad woman, clean out of her head, who needs to be led around by her hand, and have everything done like a toddler, my sister attracts a lot of marriage proposals.”
“A lot of—”
“I saw Sidell this morning,” Jonathan said. And to Seraphim’s face. “The son. The one we knew as Marlon Elfborn. I understand he was your brother’s—” For a horrible moment, Seraphim feared that Jon was about to say something graphic that involved the word “tup”, but he seemed to be a different Jonathan, these days. “Well, never mind that. He offered for Honoria, and I accepted.”
“My dear Seraphim,” Jonathan said. “The child she carries is his half brother. He feels obliged to look after her and the child. And it is succession for him. And unlike you, he will not feel the need of a woman for his present comfort.” He grinned, the impish grin of the old Jonathan Blythe, even though he sat in his office, and wore a mourning armband for his father, who had blown out his brains in this same office. “My dear Seraphim! He made me the most stiff-lipped speech, about his duty and how one isn’t put in this world only for one’s own pleasure.” A deep sigh. “He could have been you. As though I didn’t have duty enough in my own life. It is all very depressing.”
It was all very depressing. If Seraphim had been allowed to marry Honoria, at least he would have had an excuse for how barren and empty his life was. Duty and more duty. It was all duty.
Lord Sidell sat in his office, looking out the window over his lands. From where he sat there was a copse of trees visible, turned all the autumnal colors.
He got up and paced to the window. His son – well, the one the world would always know as his son – had been born yesterday, a healthy lad, more human than Marlon himself and perhaps more stable, since there was nothing of dryad in him, and the dragon was very little.
Marlon had felt it incumbent upon him to keep the child from the homes for magical orphans, to keep him from opobrium and shame. He would be brought up as the legitimate son of the son, and he would grow with an adoptive father who would, Marlon thought, be very able to love him, despite everything.
It would be interesting to see a child growing up, to teach him to fish, to read him books.
For now, there was a nanny hired, because the little tyke’s mother wasn’t capable, even, of looking after herself.
He’d been told she would not last long, and he mourned that. Though she was a shell of a woman, his duty to her, the supervising of her nurses, the daily visit to her chambers, in which he reassured her that all was well and she was safe, were anchors in his life.
Now the child and having the child raised as normal, as average as possible for someone with dragon blood must be his anchor. The one anchor he wanted he could not have.
He had this: the title he never wanted, the lands he never coveted, the child he hadn’t sired. On his grounds, too, he had Ayden’s grave. He knew no essence of Ayden remained behind, but he visited the grave in the evenings, and it gave him the solace of memory of a time not so duty-bound.
He heard a sound behind him, the clearing of a throat, and turned around, sure it was his butler, Miller, with some minor point of household etiquette.
Instead, he found himself looking at familiar features, familiar dark, curly hair, familiar green eyes. He looked wholly human, though he was wearing clothes a little better than those expected of a servant.
“Gabriel,” he said. And then, “Is it really you? How is it possible?”
“It is really me,” he said, and there were almost no magical echoes in his voice. “Not for long. A few hours. Now and then. But once you learn to control it… I can be me. On Earth, I can be me. Now and then. For a few hours. If you would—”
A long time later, Marlon said, “You’re not going to do something foolish and pretend to age along with me, are you? Because it won’t fadge, my dear. I’d know. And it would be worse than—”
“You won’t age very fast,” Gabriel said. “You have too much fey blood for that.”
“No. But I will age faster than the eternal king of fairyland.”
Gabriel sighed. “Yes. And no, I won’t pretend.”
Marlon squeezed his hand. It felt warm and alive and human, and a little calloused, as it had been. “Good,” he said. “Good.”
She couldn’t take it. She couldn’t endure it. One more official portrait with Louis Hess, the Prince of Lombardy, and she was going to go completely insane.
Nell could take the lessons in magic, the lessons in managing a kingdom, even the lessons in deportment and attire, but she could not endure pretending to be in love with someone while her heart was breaking for Seraphim. Not that there was anything wrong with Louis. At least not that she knew.
“I wasn’t in love with your papa when we married,” her mother told her, while they looked over the wedding clothes, one more time, on the eve of the wedding.
Nell sighed. Her mom looked up at her, and Nell had the impression there was laughter behind her eyes, though she looked grave. “But I wasn’t in love with anyone else, either. And I’ve seen the way you look at Darkwater.”
Nell made a dismissive gesture.
“The thing,” her mother said. “Your marriage to the prince of Lombardy was decided before you disappeared and your father couldn’t stop it or go back on his word.”
“I know, Mother. We’ve been over this.”
“Yes, well.” Her mother smiled. She went to a corner and came back with a valise. “Look, your father can’t break the contract, but it doesn’t mean it can’t be broken. And once it’s broken, it can’t be put back together. We’ve made arrangements…” The smile turned into a grin. “We’ve not waited and prayed to get our daughter back all these years to see her made unhappy. Go, Nell, seek your happiness. We will be ready to pardon when all is done.”
In The Night
“Milord, there is a gentleman wishing to speak to you,” the footman told Seraphim, who looked up from the ledger he’d been frowning at, without seeing it for hours. The room was too quiet. The house was too quiet, now that he lived here alone. And there was no shortage of money and—
And Nell was to be married tomorrow, and forever out of his reach. Not that she’d ever been in it.
“Yes?” he said welcoming this distraction.
“He is at the door, with a carriage.”
“He says the princess royal has had a horrible accident, and she wants to see you, she wants you at her bed side before she—”
“Nell!” Seraphim said. This was worse than the idea of her marrying. He got dressed in his coat, and his hat, he got his cane, all in a rushed dream. He ran down the stairs.
The young man waiting at the bottom was vaguely familiar as one of the king’s secretaries, which surprised him, since he was wearing a driving cape, and the attire of a coachman. But he supposed even in extremis, the royal family must keep these things private.
“She asked that you come, your Grace,” he said.
“Of course. Of course,” Seraphim said, plunging into the open door of the carriage.
The carriage was dark. There was no lamp lit inside, as there would be normally, but he was too panicked to worry, and then, when he thought to worry, his eyes had started to adapt, and the carriage was bowling along at a fantastic speed over cobblestoned roads, rocking so hard he was afraid it might tip.
But his eyes had started adapting, and he could see, sitting opposite him, very pale, very composed, Nell in a traveling dress and hat.
“Nell!” he said. “What is the meaning of this?”
“We’re getting married,” She said. “There is a priest waiting to marry us at Canterbury, in the dead of night.”
“What? But– Nell, you can’t be eloping with me!”
“I’m not. I’m kidnapping you and marrying you.” Her little face was very serious.
“But… my dear… your duty…”
“I will do my duty,” she said. “But mama said it is no part of my duty to sacrifice my heart for an old treaty.”
“Lombardy will take offense.”
“Well, then let them.” She looked at Seraphim very seriously. “We’ll send Jonathan Blythe to them. They’ll end up believing this was all their own idea.”
Seraphim opened his mouth, closed it. He thought of his lonely study, his lonely life. “My dear, we can’t, we—”
“Seraphim Ainsling – if you don’t want to marry me, tell me now, and I will order the carriage turned around.”
He opened his mouth. He closed it. “You know very well I can’t tell you that.”
“Very well. We have an hour before we get to the chapel.” She smiled at him. “And it’s a very long time since you last kissed me.”