“You will never escape my evil clutches! I have you exactly where I want you!” Maili gave a very evil and very theatrical cackle as she knocked the king away from the board with her queen and set it in its place. With a smug expression, Maili sat back down on her chair, folding her arms across her chest. “I’ve conquered you again, papa. Now, reap the consequences.” She pulled the giant slice of cake away from Hoel’s elbow as Hoel looked at the king she had thrown to the floor with an angry, disappointed look.
“I’m going to stop playing with you,” he decreed, standing up before he could watch Maili eat his dessert with too many more yummy-in-my-tummy noises. “You’re a poor winner.”
“Then you better stop playing with her before she becomes too fat on cake, my love,” Hoel’s wife, Anwen, hummed from the corner before giving him a playful grin.
“You make it sound like I couldn’t beat her if I wanted to,” Hoel said, making a ‘harrumph!’ noise as he plopped down in the chair next to the fireplace.
“That is how I made it sound, isn’t it?” Anwen replied, stifling a laugh. She watched Hoel pout for a moment before she put down her sewing on her lap. “That’s what you get for teaching her. She’s not the first student who’s become the master, you know.”
A servant walked in before Hoel could properly protest. “Your mail, sir,” he said with a bow, placing the letters carefully down on the side-table next to Hoel’s chair.
Hoel grumbled some more as he eyed the stack of work, then divided his wife’s correspondences from his own before reaching over to hand the letters to her.
Maili came and sat next to Anwen with her piece of cake. “I need to get a pen-pal,” Maili said decisively. “It’s not fair that I’m the only person every night with nothing to read! I feel left out. I’m going to get a complex.”
“When you go to live with your husband, you’ll have correspondence coming out of your ears,” Anwen assured, but of course Maili’s face immediately broke into a frown. Every time her ‘husband’ was mentioned, her mood took a great change.
Maili hated her ‘husband’—although she never met him more than once, and that was the day he’d chosen her for his bride. They had been married by proxy, since her husband was in the middle of fighting a war, which had gone on for two years already.
The warlord, King Damen Vanguard, was a brute and a villain; she knew this when she first set eyes on him, though Hoel seemed to refuse to see it. Every night, she hoped that Hoel’s letters would give notice to Damen’s death, and every night she was disappointed.
She put her cake down on the coffee table in front of her and pushed it away with disgust. “I’m suddenly not hungry,” she grumbled.
Hoel, who knew better than to fuel her oncoming temper, merely reached over and took the rest of the cake she hadn’t yet consumed, saying, “Oh, good.”
Anwen passed Maili’s needlework to her in the next moment, issuing an unspoken demand to work on it. Maili took it with a scowl on her face.
Hoel began to flip through his correspondence, organizing it as he went to make sure the most important letters were on top. He grunted. “Maili, your husband wrote,” he said casually, as if he’d forgotten that every letter she received only filled her with dread.
Maili went pale. “Did… Did he write? Or did someone write on his behalf?” she asked, her tone sounding so hopeful.
Hoel looked up, his expression darkening. “His personal seal is on the letter, so I imagine he’s still alive and well,” Hoel informed her sternly. “Lass, this has got to stop. Damen is everything that you need in a husband, and he’s the first man I’ve trusted to tell what you are.”
Maili winced with shame, knowing that Hoel meant that she was a witch and not his true daughter, and that it was the most reprehensible secret he had. Telling anyone what she was had been a thing, indeed!
But Damen wasn’t worth divulging such things to. He was cruel; his servants feared him, although Hoel misinterpreted that fear as respect, and Damen was mean to her, although Hoel misinterpreted that, as well. When Damen threatened her or had firmly clasped her elbow enough for it to bruise, Hoel decided that Damen was merely demonstrating to her that he would be the head of their household.
When Maili heard that she was even promised to Damen, she had begged and pleaded on her hands and knees for Hoel to break the agreement. It hadn’t worked; it only got Hoel upset with her, and he had spanked her like some naughty child for acting ‘spoiled.’ Her marriage to Damen, even though it was by proxy, was heart-wrenching enough for her that she spent weeks in her room, crying into her pillows. It was now so definite, there was no going back on it. The only hope for her was that her husband would die in battle somehow before he could consummate their marriage.
“You’ve built him into this giant villain in your mind, but you’ve only met him for a week. I don’t think that’s a great enough sample of him to even form an opinion, my sweet. I’ve known him for a series of decades. You only disservice yourself by judging him,” Hoel continued to lecture as he opened up the envelope.
Maili had lived with Hoel and his wife for two decades now, and Damen had only appeared once. She was certain that Hoel had only spent at most a few weeks in Damen’s company the last few decades, if even that much, and that surely wasn’t a good measure enough for him to judge Damen in his own favor.
Maili didn’t say that; she didn’t want to be sent for the strop that night. She merely clenched her teeth down and prepared herself for the worst that Damen might have written.
Hoel read the letter silently rather than aloud. Maili just watched as he read the letter. She saw that Anwen was watching Hoel, too, with an expectant look on her face. Hoel’s brow eventually wobbled, as if a wave of emotion passed over him, a wave that he wanted to hide. Eventually, he put the letter down. He reached out his hand to Maili.
Maili looked at the hand for a moment before she slowly and bravely placed her hand in his. He closed his fingers and rubbed her knuckles tenderly with his thumb. She knew what he was going to say before he said it. Hoel’s eyes were completely black, but she knew him well, and knew a sad expression when she saw one, and there was only one reason Hoel would be sad at all. She felt a lump forming in her throat. “It’s time, Maili.”
Now the lump in her throat seemed to explode, choking her into a fit of sobs. “No!” she cried, clenching both of her hands onto his. “No, please! Don’t send me away. Don’t!”
“He’s collecting you himself at the end of the month, sweet one. He’s already on his way,” he told her apologetically. “You’re already his wife.”
She got up, throwing her sewing aside, and wrapped her arms around Hoel desperately. “Annul it! Please, please annul it!”
He stood up from his chair, grabbed her arms, and dropped her into his wife’s arms. There, Maili crumpled to the floor, wrapping her arms miserably around Anwen’s lap.
Hoel kissed his wife’s forehead and then walked out of the rooms toward his gardens.
Anwen stroked her fingers through Maili’s black hair, comforting her. “Don’t cry, my love. Hoel and I will visit you in the spring. It won’t be as bad as you’re thinking. I remember when my father sent me to Hoel, I thought my heart would break. It’s only looking back on it now that I realize how silly it was… I love Hoel more than life itself now. You’ll feel the same, if you give it time.”
Maili continued to sob in Anwen’s skirts, not caring if they would visit her in the spring. Soon, her life would be over… There was no happiness in her future.
Weeks later, and miles and miles away…
“We’ll be back by tomorrow evening at sundown,” Moriarty assured his eldest son. The seventeen-year-old stared back at him with far, far too angelic of an expression. It made him nervous. His son was many things: part nymph, part Huxian, part wizard, but one thing he wasn’t was an angel, not that his mother would believe anything else.
“I want you to keep a watchful eye on your brother, make sure the livestock’s fed, I want you to clean your room, get your studies done—”
“My studies are done, father,” Cole assured, helpfully handing Moriarty his coat. “And I’ve already cleaned my room.”
Moriarty squinted suspiciously, then looked down at the jacket in his hands. “Are you trying to rush us out of the house? Why?”
“Moriarty, really!” Alice chided, handing the baby off to the housekeeper. “Don’t give him a Spanish Inquisition.”
“Madame, I was around for the Spanish Inquisition and this is nothing like it!” Moriarty assured his wife and turned back to his son. “But I can make it just as ugly if you’re up to something,” he added.
“Father, you injure me to the core!” Cole said, putting his hand over his heart, still looking overly innocent. “Have I given you any reason to distrust me?”
Cole hadn’t, and that’s why Moriarty distrusted him. When Coleby was a boy, he was always getting into trouble—Moriarty had to take the lad back out to the woodshed three times a week! Now that he was too large for corporal discipline, his height nearly equal to his own, Coleby was still causing headaches left and right… but not for the last month. At this point, his eldest not making any trouble made him nervous, as if he was waiting for mounting pressure to blow the head off of a volcano. Alice had assured Moriarty that Cole was only getting more responsible and was becoming a man… but Moriarty had serious doubts about that.
Moriarty couldn’t help but remember himself at that age, however, and he wasn’t interested in responsibility. He was only interested in a good time. Fourteen was about the age that he was sure he learned how to really dupe his parents and get away with it. Of course, he had his older brothers to train him on the best ways to make his parents’ lives hell, while Cole was just the first-born. Somehow, that didn’t instill any trust in Cole. It just seemed more likely that Cole was going to try to ‘pull one over’ on his parents and royally fuck up.
“Remember that you need to be here when we get home,” Moriarty finally pleaded. Outside the estate grounds was dangerous—all sorts of evil creatures hunted and lurked in the dark of night. “Promise me that while we’re out, you’ll be safe.”
“I will, father. I promise, I’ll be safe,” Cole said, putting up his hand in an oath. This time, Moriarty believed him. One thing the boy never messed around with, and that was going outside at night.
Moriarty heard a sob and a tight squeeze under his knee. “Something’s got my leg!” he informed his wife with dramatic exclamation before looking down. Of course, his five-year-old was wrapped around his calf, sitting on his boot, and crying.
“I don’t want you to go!” he cried, sniffling wetly. “Take me with you, daddy! Please?”
“Sam, you would be so insanely bored, you wouldn’t know what to do with yourself. You’d be whining by the time we got to the opera,” Moriarty assured knowingly, then started the arduous process of prying the toddler off his leg. He pointed to Cole. “Son, lend me your boot.”
Cole groaned and looked upward as if he had just been asked to dig the Panama Canal. “Father, I just want to go upstairs and watch the football game! Why are you punishing me?” he complained as Moriarty finished prying Samuel off his leg and then he dropped the child onto Cole’s own foot. Samuel immediately wrapped his chubby arms around his brother’s leg and soaked Cole’s pant leg with tears.
“I’m not punishing you. I’ve giving you quality time with Samuel. He’s old enough for you to explain to him why football is far less silly than American hand-egg,” Moriarty assured lightly, then slapped his eldest playfully on his shoulder. Finally, Moriarty took his wife’s wrap from its hook on the wall. “My goddess,” he coaxed. “Naomi fully knows how to watch a baby. She’s had God-knows-how-many grandchildren. She and her husband must have bred like rabbits…”
“I only had two children. I only have seven grandchildren. The way you’re at it, Mr. Miles, you’ll have little wizards wreaking havoc every inch of the realm in another decade,” Naomi responded crisply, rocking the baby, which was only Moriarty’s third-born in the twenty years he and his wife had been married. When it came to Moriarty and the house servants, exaggerations and snark thrived. “And don’t think I don’t know what you’re doing on these little excursions to the Earthside.”
“An opera?” Alice said hopefully, trying to keep the truth from her sons. She slipped into the wrap her husband offered her.
“Maybe you’re doing that, too,” Naomi replied with a roll of her eyes. “But I can’t help but recall that Samuel was born exactly nine months to the day after one of these opera trips.”
“We’re going to London, not to Sodom and Gomorrah, Naomi, so put your fears to rest,” Moriarty assured the old woman. He then brought his wife’s knuckles to his lips and shared a secretive grin with her. Alice blushed and averted her eyes.
Naomi made an unhappy hum. “One more child, one more, Moriarty, and you’ll hire yourself a nanny. I’m to be keeping the house, not to incessantly coddle these—!”
“Have a great time, Naomi,” Moriarty interrupted with a gentlemanly bow of his head. He began to lead Alice out. “Don’t let the boys tear down the place.”
Alice stopped just to cup Cole’s face in her hands and kiss his cheek. “I love you,” she told him. She bent down and kissed the still-sobbing toddler’s head. “Be good, Samuel,” she told him, and then finally began to abide by Moriarty’s gentle pushes toward the door.
Moriarty was nearly at the door, when he was suddenly stopped by a bad feeling. He couldn’t exactly put his finger on what it was, but since his son was born, most of Moriarty’s bad feelings were caused by Cole, so he looked at him again and narrowed his eyes. “No shenanigans of any sort. I do not want to be called, and I do not want something to happen to anyone. Try to find something useful to do. Don’t loaf about and get into trouble because you’re bored.”
“Father,” Cole replied loftily, turning his body and feet, despite the considerable extra weight he still had on one of his boots, “loafing about is the last thing I plan to do, I assure you.” He saluted him by pinching the brim of his cap, bowed his head slightly, and then limped out of the room, Samuel still sobbing noisily on his leg.
Naomi frowned and looked accusingly at Moriarty, glancing at the direction that Cole had left the room. “What do you think he meant by that?” she demanded.
“Have fun finding out,” Moriarty said, finally pushing that ill feeling outside of himself. He had no time for it—he was going to shag his wife for the next two days straight and nothing and no one was going to stop him. He added thoughtfully, “Now pretend my cellular is off,” he said by means of ‘goodbye,’ and ducked out of the doorway, happily forgetting all of his troubles.
It was last time Maili would be standing in the gardens. The last time she’d smell that gentle perfume all around her… Probably even the last time she’d feel the sea breeze on her skin…
She felt like she was going to her own funeral. She even wanted to wear her black dress that day, but Anwen wouldn’t let her. Her adoptive mother had picked out a turquoise dress, the same color as her eyes, which was mostly made of veil-like fabric and flowed in the breeze. Anwen had claimed that Maili looked like the queen she was. Maili, however, felt like the dress made her feel like the slut Damen had paid for.
“What if I had a husband before?” she asked Hoel, her last attempt at an argument. She had made it before, but she was hoping that the time that had passed would cause a different response than last time. “I’m not a virgin, you know.”
“You are,” Hoel snapped at her.
“Because you made me one,” she sneered. Hoel had changed that about her not long after he’d found her on the beach twenty years before, healed that part of her no one else in all the worlds could heal, wanting her body to be as innocent of her past deeds as her mind was.
She wished she wasn’t. She wished she could disgust Damen somehow by not having a maidenhead.
“Do you remember your life before us?” Hoel countered.
She shook her head. “No, but that doesn’t mean—”
“If you were married, you no longer are. That life is dead for you. It’s ended. You were rebirthed by the sea, and sent to us, Maili. You are ours, no different than if you were born of our flesh. Damen is your true husband now. Don’t think on the what-ifs or could-bes.”
She turned and wrung her hands behind her back, knowing the question had upset Hoel, just like it had the last time. “I feel like I’m going to be ill,” she said, mostly to herself.
Hoel’s large hand wrapped around her forehead. “You’re fine,” he decreed.
Anwen came forward and took Maili’s hands into her own. “Darling, remember what I told you,” she recited patiently, her voice soothing and calming like a distant wind. “Be a good wife and he will become a good husband. Be patient, be hopeful, and be loving, and you will have a long happy life. Open your heart to him.”
Maili looked pleadingly at Anwen, but didn’t beg. A single tear escaped her eye and rolled quickly down her cheek. Anwen wiped it away, and that’s when they heard the carriage roll into their drive. Maili swallowed loudly.
“Take deep breaths and stand up straight,” Anwen instructed into her ear as she pulled Maili’s shoulders back. “Look like a lady—no, a queen. You’re a queen, Maili.”
Maili supposed that fact should excite her somehow, and maybe it would have had she not actually met her husband before. Knowing ignorance would have been much more blissful, she wished that she’d never met Damen and was just now meeting him for the first time, ignorant of what the man was truly like.
At the end of a ridiculously long procession of army soldiers and horses, the king himself finally trotted in and gave her a cocky smile from his horse, and she lifted her chin in response. “Great Hoel, you have kept my queen as beautiful as the day I met her. I thank you,” he said, bowing his head, and then he pulled a leg over his horse and jumped onto the ground.
She didn’t like Damen’s smile any more now than she had the first time. It seemed too confident to her, too snake-like. He came up to her and brought her hand up to his lips to kiss her knuckles. “I am finally at your service, wife.”
Maili didn’t say anything, but curtsied politely.
“You are most welcome!” Hoel said jovially when Damen finally looked over at him. Hoel embraced Damen like a long-lost son. “I hope you have an empty stomach, my lad, because we have a banquet planned.”
Damen gave a laugh and gestured to his men to get off their horses. Hoel’s stable boys rushed forward to take reins. Damen suddenly had her hand gripped in his own. “Lead the way then, by all means! My men and I are absolutely… ravenous.”
Ravenous was apparently a word that Damen wanted his virgin wife to hear; it seemed his hunger wasn’t just for food. Maili cringed as she walked behind him, drawing her shoulders up toward her ears.
After she was seated at the banquet, unfortunately next to her husband, she noted two maids in the distance, peeking behind a door, swooning at him. She raised her eyebrow and assessed Damen once more: he was handsome with his curly hair and his burning black eyes. But why couldn’t anyone see that it was just a mask? She knew there was a monster underneath; something behind his eyes said it all.
As well as did a groping of her thigh. He dug his fingers firmly into her flesh, through her dress. He leaned in to whisper to her, “Are you looking forward to finally consummating our marriage, wife? I know I am.”
“I bet you are,” she grumbled.
He shrugged and continued in her ear. “You know this obvious hatred of me is just making me rock-hard, don’t you? You’re playing into my hand, my little peach. I enjoy a little resistance in bed; I like the struggle. You might enjoy it eventually, but if you never do it’s your loss, not mine. Your consent is not needed for my seed to take root.”
She paled visibly and crumpled in her seat. She gazed toward Hoel, but he didn’t make any note of her desperate expression. She was lost, and she knew she should have felt more hopeless, but instead she began to feel a fire burning inside of her.
“Just so you know,” she said, hampering a smile. “I have all the power in the world to make your life completely miserable. I assure you that it’s in your best interest to cut this deal.”
He smiled back. “I wouldn’t even if you were only a piece of ass and a pretty face, my queen. Unfortunately for you, you’re invaluable to my rule…” He stopped as if to watch that mystery sink in. “Don’t worry, wife. If you’re good, I might let you out off of your leash now and again. And you will be good—you’ll find that’s in your best interest.”
It was all making sense now. He wanted her for more than an ally with Hoel. He wanted her for something else. “You want my magic, then?” she asked, and he merely grinned at her and drank his ale. She snorted. “Too bad. I’ll have you know that Hoel took care of that. I can’t use my powers any longer.”
As soon as Hoel felt her powers were getting too strong ten years ago, he made a special cuff that wrapped across her upper arm, one that matched her skin more like a tattoo than outlaid gold. She wasn’t sure what magic was in it, but ever since it had stopped her powers at the quick. She couldn’t use her magic to even light a candle any longer.
“Because of that cuff he has you wear? Oh, my queen,” he shook his head and chuckled meanly. “That’s so cute.”
“It can’t be removed,” she assured, although his confidence was making her own waver.
“Not by anyone but a wizard powerful enough to do it,” he replied with a shrug.
“And you just have wizards in your pocket, then?” she charged, her eyes sparking with fire.
He looked at her, and when he did, she could swear for a moment that his eyes turned silver. Just as quickly, they changed back, and his grin remained there. He put his mouth to her ear. “I guess you could say I have a wizard up my sleeve… And down my trews. You’ll see this evening when we’re more… intimately acquainted.”
If he had informed her of what he truly was just to get her to shiver, it worked. The fire in her flickered; there was no escape from a wizard, was there? This was truly going to happen. Damen had all the power he needed to make her do whatever it was he wanted, and if she told Hoel that Damen was really a wizard, Hoel would never believe her. And Damen seemed to know this very well.
An idea came to her just then: if Damen accidentally used his powers in front of Hoel, if she could make him angry enough that he tried to hit her or cast a spell on her… Hoel would see with his own eyes. Hoel was a demi-god, anyway; a wizard was no match for him. Hoel would protect her!
She waited to seize her best opportunity, squirming with impatience. It wasn’t until Hoel pressed Damen to take Maili onto the floor for a dance that she found the opportunity she wanted. Damen was a skilled dancer; it was going to take far more than stepping on his toes, but the punchbowl on the side of the floor—that she could reach if he would only lead her toward it.
“Soon, my queen,” he promised in her ear. “Soon I will re-teach you everything there is to know about pleasing a man.”
“You know who I was before I came here.” She didn’t ask it like a question; it was a statement. One that was very clear. He knew she was no true virgin, and she doubted Hoel would have told this companion of such intimate details about his adopted daughter.
“Oh, yes. You were a cute, naughty little slut then. You’ll be my naughty little slut now.”
This time she looked at him, hoping for recognition. There was nothing—she still had no memories of anything before Hoel found her on the beach. Absolutely nothing!
With a hard yank, she ripped herself out of his arms. The music stopped and she heard the sound of gasps around her already. She grabbed the punchbowl, which was far heavier than she imagined it would be, and slung the contents clumsily at him.
It worked, as in he was quite drenched by it. With a look of rebellion, she gripped the empty punchbowl closer to her like it was a shield. She could hear Anwen gasp, “Maili! What’s wrong with you?” from somewhere behind her.
Maili was barely listening; she was focused on Damen, watching him look down at his ice-cold, wet clothing, and then look up at her. He was shaking with anger, and she saw his dark eyes now flame over with red. Hope rose in her throat that he might try to send a lightning bolt out of his fingers or something equally dramatic.
Unfortunately, his eyes quickly returned to normal. Nothing happened; the lights didn’t even flicker! She nearly expected him to laugh, judging from his expression. “No need to gasp,” he told the room politely. “A queen is just a girl, under all. This girl apparently needs a little bit of guidance by way of manners.”
There were some light chuckles around her, and her cheeks blushed crimson. She pouted with disappointment.
“Maili—go to your chambers and prepare for your punishment!” Hoel decreed with a booming, growling voice. She shrank and put the bowl back, beyond humiliated that he would order such a thing in front of so much company!
Damen’s sticky, cold wet hand found her wrist. “I don’t think it’s necessary any longer that you discipline my wife, great Hoel. It’s a duty of mine, as her husband, to correct her.”
Her eyes widened. She looked toward her adoptive parents, but of course didn’t find any sympathy there; only dark, disappointed looks.
“It is your right, and you’re more than welcome to it,” Hoel replied. “She knows where her paddle is kept.”
Maili’s reaction would have been no different than if Hoel had decreed that she be drug outside and hung. “Papa,” she begged as Damen bowed and began to drag her out of the room. “If you love me at all, don’t put me in a room alone with him!” She didn’t care that everyone was listening to her, and her parents were surely growing more and more shamed by the moment. “He’s evil! Please believe me! Please! Papa!”
“You are ridiculous. You think a little ice and juice is going to get me to spoil every ounce of trust I’ve worked to get for half a century?” Damen charged in a low hiss, hauling her in the direction of her bedroom.
She didn’t reply, mostly because she did feel ridiculous.
“Well, now you’ve done it. You’ve given me reason to punish you. Does this please you, my dear? I was nearly dreading that I’d miss the opportunity to start your training on the same night I took you.”
“You’re a sadistic bastard,” she spat, resisting his every pull futilely.
“You knew that already, yet you still angered me. Does this make you a little masochistic? I certainly think so. I guess we’ll see.” He didn’t have to ask her to unlock her chamber’s door—he merely ran his finger over the lock and the door opened.
He yanked her into the room and shut the door behind him, then grabbed her sleeves and quickly pulled them apart, tearing the delicate material until the upper half of her dress was in tatters. She screamed and tried to cover her now bare breasts.
As she stood there in her skirts and shoes, trying her best to hide as much as she could with her arms, he stood back and looked at her like one might a piece of art. “Hoel said that you know where your paddle is kept,” he reminded her. “Pull it out.”
She shook her head and he raised his hand to her. She flinched, expecting him to strike her face, but he didn’t. When she chanced to open her eye, he said, “Do you want me to beat your face, my queen?”
She gave a sob. “No,” she begged. She had a horrible feeling that she wouldn’t even be able to run back to Hoel later on with a bruise on her face; a wizard might be able to quickly heal such injuries. Even so, once their relationship was consummated, which would be soon unless a miracle happened, there wouldn’t be much for Hoel to do.
Damen grabbed her upper arm with a tight, angry grip. “Then do as I say,” he hissed threateningly. “Get your paddle and bring it to me so I can spank you like a spoiled child and then fuck you like a woman.”
Her cheeks heated with embarrassment. “I hate you,” she told him.
He nodded and gave a sly grin. “I know.”