Chapter 1: Summer Solstice
“Still ‘round the corner there may wait
a new road or secret gate,
and though I oft have passed them by
a day will come at last when I
shall take the hidden paths that run
West of the Moon, East of the Sun.”
- J.R.R. Tolkien
Nestled deep within the mountains of northern Britannia is a hidden kingdom. It isn’t hidden in the sense that no one knows about it, but rather in the way that no one, unless expressly invited, can pass through the stones that mark its borders. Once, it was open to all, but then tensions between the Clans rose and the barriers were closed to protect the citizens. Many of them knew how to wield a blade only in theory and would die should an enemy squadron make it into the city. Despite this, the isolation of their home, the denizens are cheerful enough. Their queen sees to their needs graciously – and how other nobles might have scoffed at her for listening to every complaint, no matter how slight – and the market is always vibrant and full of life. Four times a year, the gates are opened for travelling merchants to come and celebrate the lunar holidays, and those weeks are dedicated to festivals in which nightly displays of magic and fireworks draw smiles from even the most taciturn of spectators.
Perched easily on the steps that lead into the market, a girl watches as vendors begin arriving, each haggling for the best spots to hawk their wares. She is slight, almost fae in her appearance, with delicate features, pale skin, and slender fingers, and her gray eyes glitter with amusement and curiosity. Dark hair, messy and unbound, waves in the morning breeze. Dawn was barely an hour ago, so it is still pleasantly cool, and the scent of warm spices drifts from her favorite pastry shop, yet she ignores the faint rumbling of her stomach to observe the newcomers. Some of them are humans, perhaps the sons and daughters of those she’s seen before but who are now too old to make the trip. Others bear the telltale signs of Belialuin, the scholarly robes and magic coiled tightly around their souls. The fairies will arrive later – they seem to favor noon – and the giants will be in the open space between the market and the wall, where there is room enough for their size.
Only two Clans have sent no word of their arrival. The girl hopes they will come, as their wares are often the most interesting of the lot, but her mother is certain they will not, that the tensions between them will keep them away despite the knowledge that this place is a neutral territory. She frowns, wrinkling her nose at the thought of the conflict. It seems silly to fight over something that is so abundant, but her mother had told her that there are wounds that have been festering for a long time, and that not all share their views about the availability of magic. For them, it is as easy as simply being , as natural as being alive. For others, it is a fight, and sometimes they take it by force. Though there are hostilities, so far there has been nothing more than a few skirmishes, so she crosses her fingers and waits, knowing that they will arrive soon if they intend to join the festival.
Across the square, a woman argues with one of the Belialuin mages, obviously intent on using the spot that they both had seen. Nearby, a man sets up a cart in front of an awning, piling it with wooden carvings of various sizes. The permanent shops are beginning to open, the blacksmith displaying his wares while the butcher packs cuts of meat on ice, and again her stomach reminds her that she has yet to eat. Casting a look of what might be longing at the entrance, she slides from her seat to make her way to the baker, who favors her with a warm grin as she steps in the door. He chatters idly about the upcoming celebration and the state of the wall, pausing only to inquire after her mother as he hands her a steaming roll dusted with cinnamon and sugar. Swallowing a mouthful of hot bread, she replies that her mother is well, just busy, and leaves with his blessings ringing in her ears.
Her mother. Nemain, the Witch Queen, a being strong enough to act as a host for the powers of the Nameless God that created their Clan. It is thanks to her that the wall stands, and it would fall if she were to die before its power could be given to her daughter. She had broken the conventions of their Clan, and irritated many of the nobles, when she had taken a common warrior as her consort, but those mutinous whispers had died when he had bested every champion sent against him in the ring. Munching on her breakfast, the girl wonders if every adult is so irrational. It certainly seems that way, with the conflict brewing and the staunch refusal of either side to negotiate with the other, and even her study of the vendors lends credence to the idea. She licks the remnants of sugar from her fingers, eyeing the squabbling pair from earlier; the woman has moved to the spot next to the one she wanted, and is muttering as she sets up her stand.
“Little bird,” a voice calls out. It is rough but warm, honey poured over gravel, and she turns with a delighted squeal to see her father striding from under the arch that marks the entrance to the market, clad in the tunic that marks him as her mother’s consort and protector.
He catches her when she runs and leaps, spinning her through the air and laughing. Caim is a tall man, lean and limber, with the same dark hair as his daughter, those his shows red highlights under the sun, and his eyes flash golden in the light. Smiling, he sets her down, letting her grasp his hand and pull him back towards the palace. He has been gone for weeks, meeting with the mortal kings, and is pleased to be home once again, where he knows his daughter and wife are safe. These are dark times; whispers of unease are spreading through the tribes of the south, and there are rumors of raids being conducted on outlying villages, raids that leave all either dead or enslaved. Still, Cailleach is well-guarded, and he allows some of the tension to fade from his shoulder as they pass through the palace gates, which, as always, are open so that anyone may come through to seek audience with their queen.
“Mama!” His daughter is moving up towards the study before he has had a chance to kick the mud from his boots, and he chuckles as he watches her bound up the stairs. “Papa is back!”
The sound of a door opening resonates from above, and then Nemain is standing at the top of the staircase, gray eyes warm even as she gently scolds their daughter for tracking dirt on the floors. For a moment, he is a youth again, barely in his prime and stunned by the fair-haired beauty of the queen as he is introduced to her as her guard, tongue a lead weight in his mouth as she smiles at him and bids him good luck. He had known then that he would live and die for that smile and had spent many a night hoping to be the one assigned to her as she went about her daily tasks. Now, though, she is sweeping down the stairs, gown simple yet elegant, and he leans down to press a kiss to her temple and smells the sweet scent of her perfume. He catches his daughter’s expression of comical disgust as he pulls away and silences a laugh before it escapes him. They all know that she doesn’t mind the affection between her parents, but she pretends to out of some sort of amusement.
“How were your travels? Any news from the kings?” Nemain murmurs, and he shakes his head. What he has is nothing good, and he has no desire to spoil the festivities for his family. Reading this in the set of his jaw, she nods and steps away, favoring him with the smile that had ensnared him so long ago. “I hope you aren’t too exhausted. There’s much to be done before tonight.”
Caim brings her hand up, ghosting his lips across it as he replies, “I live to serve.”
“Daughter mine,” Nemain says, turning to fix her with a pointed look, “I believe you were supposed to be studying with your grandmother this morning.”
“I wanted to see the merchants come in,” she mutters, but she’s already heading up to the second floor, where Macha keeps her study.
Once she’s out of sight, Nemain sighs, shaking her head, even as she smiles. “Honestly, sometimes I wonder if a Changeling was left in her place as a child.”
Upstairs, the girl wanders the hall, eyes straying to the window. It would be easy to get it open and clamber down the ivy that she knows is on the wall outside, but one does not make a promise to Macha and break it without consequences, so she takes a deep breath before knocking on the door in front of her. Her grandmother opens it, takes one look at her half-pleading, half-eager expression, and then sends her away with an excusal from the day’s lesson. Free from her obligations, she dashes back down the stairs, ignoring the voices of her parents as they drift from the reception room in favor of returning to the market as quickly as possible. It is almost noon, and she wants to see the fairies arrive, the sunlight turning their wings into lovely mosaics of color. In the square, streamers wave in the wind, small lanterns that will contain witchlight after sunset swinging from the twine strung between the different shops.
The fairies are just passing under the arch as she claims her earlier spot, following their king, Gloxinia. His wings are large and vibrant, drawing the appreciative gazes of everyone in the square, and she is not alone in the way she leans forward to better see the way they turn to stained glass in the light. Next to him is his advisor, a pretty, tawny-haired fairy named Gerheade, and they are followed by fairies of all ages and sizes, some with wings and some without. They pause only once, ascertaining that their usual place is open, and then some of them disperse to flit about the other carts, examining the wares with a curious wonder. The rest stay behind, laying out a blanket that looks as if it is woven from the finest silk on which to place the items they’ve brought. She catches sight of a flute and what looks like a basket of some sort of fruit before deathly quiet settles over the market, and she looks up in time to see another procession arrive.
They are led by a man with dark hair and closed eyes, a thin smile playing faintly across his lips as his wings fold against his back. Standing slightly behind him are three others: another man with grey-toned skin and three faces, a boy whose sandy hair is only slightly darker than the hooded garment he wears, and another youth with long, messy hair and a slightly uneasy look on his face. The others in their group shift, peering around warily, and she sees with some dismay that almost all of them are armed, something that is strictly forbidden during the festival. Even Gloxinia, usually so easy-going, is watching them with something akin to distaste, though his face falls into boredom when the dark-haired man’s eyes land on him. A hand clasping her shoulder makes her jump, but it is only her mother, who gives her a weary smile before heading to meet the newcomers, and she follows behind her at her father’s side, glancing nervously between the two. No one, in her knowledge, has ever broken the treaty so blatantly, and she is worried for her mother and afraid of what she might do in response.
To her surprise, Nemain greets them warmly. “Well met, representatives of the Goddess Clan. All are welcome here, on the day of the Solstice.” Voice hardening, she adds, “Though those who come bearing weapons that are not for sale must leave them in our care.”
The dark-haired man inclines his head. “Well met, Your Majesty. I apologize for the infraction. Some of my brethren were uneasy at the prospect of being without them. They will, of course, hand them over.”
With a gesture from him, the ones with swords step up and give them to the servant whose job is to find a safe place to store them for the duration of their stay. Once he has gotten their names, he turns to head back to the palace, and Nemain relaxes. “You have new faces with you, Lord Ludoshel.”
“As do you.” He smiles again, but there is something off about the expression, some haughtiness hidden just beneath the surface. “I introduce the newest of the Archangels, Sariel, and this,” here he pauses, and the messy-haired boy steps forward, wings drawn close to his back, “is my younger brother, Mael.”
“Well met,” Nemain replies, and Caim echoes her. “You have missed the last few gatherings, which is perhaps why you failed to recognize her, but this is my daughter. Alessa, come greet our guests.”
The girl inches around her father, and he strokes her back soothingly as she moves fully into the scrutinizing gaze of Ludoshel. “Well met,” she murmurs, chancing a glance at the boy, Mael, who looks as nervous as she feels. A soft caress of her mother’s hand against her head reminds her of proper etiquette, and she straightens and tries to look inviting. “If it would please you, I can show you around our city.”
Mael looks to his brother for guidance; at the slight nod he receives, he turns and opens his mouth, but, before he can speak, the sounds of the gates opening draw everyone’s attention. The goddesses tense, some of them reaching for weapons they no longer have, as the last of the Clans arrives, wreathed in darkness and exuding a cool cruelty that has some of the vendors shying away instinctively. A young man with messy golden hair and glittering black eyes leads them, the mark on his forehead seeming to writhe as he turns his head to stare coldly at those who he deems to be too close. Others follow, all with various marks etched onto their skin, all with the same dark eyes, and the girl doesn’t need to look at the thin line of Ludoshel’s mouth or the fear in Mael’s gaze to know who has walked into the market square. As the leader stops in front of her mother, her eyes travel once again to the mark that stains his skin.
The Demon Clan has arrived in Cailleach.
Some half-buried instinct warns her that to show that she is frightened would have consequences, so she keeps her back straight and meets the leader’s assessing stare with one of her own. To her surprise, the corners of his mouth twitch, and then he addresses her mother. “Well met, Witch Queen,” he drawls, sounding as though he would rather be anywhere else. “I am Meliodas, eldest son of the Demon King.”
“Well met, Lord Meliodas.” Gracious as ever, Nemain smiles. Looking at her, one would never believe that she was the only thing standing between Britannia and utter ruin. “Will you and your retinue be staying for the festivities?”
At this, Meliodas scans the square, and his mouth twists briefly with disdain. “No. My father only wished for us to bring his gifts and see them delivered.”
A few of the demons behind him seem disappointed, but wisely refrain from arguing. Instead, they fan out, moving from shop to shop, as Meliodas and two others are led by Nemain and Caim towards the castle. The girl watches them go, worried for her parents, chewing lightly on her bottom lip. She could follow, of course, but that would show preference for the Demon Clan, wouldn’t it? A low noise draws her attention back to the Goddess Clan; Ludoshel is no longer smiling, and on his face is an expression far colder than the one the prince had worn. When he catches her looking at him, his smile returns, as benevolent as before, and she almost wonders if she imagined the loathing she’d seen only seconds ago. He gives a gentle command, shaking the others from their stillness. As they leave to peruse the offerings, Ludoshel steps towards her, hand on Mael’s shoulder.
“I hope that such a rude interruption has not led you to rescind your invitation?” His voice reminds her of oil, but his words are polite enough that she disregards the way her skin crawls under his full attention.
“Not at all,” she replies, remembering the way her mother had told her stand and speak. “It would be an honor to show Mael our city.”
Ludoshel nods. “Then I leave him in your capable hands.”
With that, he joins his brethren, leaving her and Mael standing beside the gate. He still looks anxious, tracking Ludoshel’s departure with wide eyes, and she almost feels sorry for him. She takes the opportunity to study him more closely; his hair is lighter than his brother’s, the color of clouds when the sky is overcast, and, despite his attempts to style it the same, strands of it stick out messily. His eyes are a pale green, with the symbol of his Clan overlaid on top of his pupils (can he deactivate it? Or is it permanent?), framed by sooty lashes. While Ludoshel wore regal robes, Mael is dressed in a high-collared coat that ends at his knees and pleated trousers, both colored pale in the typical Goddess Clan fashion. The wings that extend from his shoulders and waist are large, if a little unkempt, and they look as though they’d be softer than cotton if she were to reach out and touch them.
“So,” she says after a moment, and he jolts, turning his head to face her, “are you ready to see Cailleach? Everyone has decorated for the festival, so the city is at its best.”
He swallows, shifting his weight. “That would be . . . Yes, please.”
“Follow me, then! We’ll stop at the baker’s first! No tour would be complete if we didn’t start with his pastries. They’re divine .” Smiling, she holds out her hand.
He stares at it for so long that she thinks he won’t take it, but then he does, palm clammy against her own. “Thank you, Ales –”
“Moth,” she interrupts, not unkindly. “Just call me Moth. Everyone does.”
Chapter 2: The Festival
In which a new friendship is forged and magic comes alive.
“If you are a dreamer, come in.
If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar,
a hoper, a pray-er, a magic-bean-buyer,
if you’re a pretender, come sit by my fire
for we have some flax golden tales to spin.
Come in, come in!”
- Shel Silverstein
Moth, as promised, leads Mael to the baker first, who gives them both a subtle wink before handing them the same treat Moth had eaten for breakfast, still warm and steaming from the oven. The goddess seems wary at first, but his expression changes to one of wonder when he takes a bite, and the rest of the pastry disappears so quickly that she’s afraid he’s going to choke on it. After washing it down with a bit of crisp cider – how Mael’s eyes had widened when she’d willingly paid a silver coin for the drinks made her smile – the two begin a meandering trail through the square. They pause at some stalls just long enough for Moth to explain who owns it and what they’re selling and stay long enough at others to properly look over the wares. At one shop, she buys a small pendant for her mother, a lovely bit of onyx suspended from a silver chain, and he stops at another to look over the books with avid interest. Her offer to buy one for him is declined, and they move on, though he glances back as they leave.
“Hello, there,” Gloxinia greets them cheerfully as they make their way towards the tree he’s perched in. Gerheade looks up from the flutes she is sorting to grace them with a soft smile. “It’s been quite some time since I’ve seen you, little princess.”
Moth only looks up at him with an expression of anticipation, and the fairy laughs as he glides down gracefully, sleek red locks falling around his shoulders. He knows how much she looks forward to his Clan’s visits to Cailleach, and the open wonder and joy she shows in their presence has softened his neutrality towards her quite a bit, so that he views her with the same mixture of fondness and fatherliness that he would a newly grown fairy. The goddess accompanying her, though . . . Well, he muses as he stretches his wings, hiding a grin when Moth lets out a sound of admiration, at least it isn’t Ludoshel following her about like a puppy. The girl claps her hands, the skin still unmarred by the markings that will one day weave over her fingers like vines, laughing when he bows playfully in her direction. If there is one thing that he knows she loves to see, it is the way the fairies dance, and the lightness watching it brings.
“What are they doing?” Mael murmurs, moving closer to Moth as though he intends to hide behind her.
She smiles, bouncing lightly on the balls of her feet. “They’re going to dance!”
The words have barely left her lips before Gloxinia spins, one arm extending towards Gerheade. The fairies flit and fly, twirling around each other, some partnering up and others dancing alone, all moving to the beat of music that comes from their blood and magic, radiating out from their king. Moth is still smiling when she grabs Mael and pulls him into the center, letting the joy and feeling of peace fill and move her limbs until she is spinning. Mael bites his lip, flushing when she reaches out for him, but he allows her to pull him into a carefree dance that almost seems like a haphazard waltz. Soon, even he is lost to the sensation of Gloxinia’s power, and his wings flare and twitch as if he is tempted to join them in the air.
All too quickly it’s done, Gloxinia dropping into a cross-legged sit as the other fairies return to what they were doing before, and Moth and Mael join him, each drinking greedily from the cups of clear water he provides. Remnants of the silent music remain, filling them with warmth, and the fairy king’s eyes twinkle as he leans forward, brushing his hair out of his eyes with a hint of impatience. The two youths copy his posture, Mael’s wings folding around his shoulders and Moth, still smiling, reaching up to tuck errant strands of her hair behind her ears. Gloxinia studies them, the way their skin glows from exertion and the quiet power that runs through the girl’s veins, not yet awakened but close to it, and he holds out his hands, magic disguising the gifts he offers them. As Moth reaches for the one closest to her, gray eyes sparkling, he finds himself wondering yet again if there is something that sets her apart from the others of her Clan, finds himself ever curious about the skin that does not darken or burn in the sun and the slenderness of her features.
“Oh!” She gasps, pulling back with delighted surprise. He has given her a pendant carved from a piece of dark wood, the surface polished until it gleams red in the shifting light. On its surface, whorls and eddies like an ocean current trace lazy, graceful paths, and a strand of leather has been carefully driven through the center, so it can be worn as a necklace. “It’s lovely!”
Next to her, Mael lets out a similar noise, cradling his gift carefully in his palm. A small dagger, sheath carved from the same glossy wood as Moth’s pendant, sits in his hand. It is little enough that it can be hidden easily on his person, meant more for decoration, he thinks, than actual fighting, but it’s obvious that care went into its creation. “Thank you,” he says quietly, and the fairy king nods in response.
After fastening the pendant around her neck, Moth reaches into the satchel at her side, carefully drawing out a string from which several pieces of colored glass sway. When Gloxinia takes it, holding it up to the light curiously, she blushes. “I . . . It reminded me of your wings.”
He smiles gently, laying it delicately across his leg. “I will cherish it always, for gifts that come from such thoughts are the most precious of all.”
The fairy king turns his gaze to Mael, who shifts uncomfortably under his curious stare. When the goddess reaches back and plucks a feather from one of his wings, Gloxinia arches a delicate brow but takes it, lips twitching in amusement. “I didn’t know about the gifts,” Mael mutters, wishing nothing more than to disappear.
“This is your first festival?” When Mael nods, Gloxinia relaxes, tucking the feather under his sash. “The act of giving gifts is symbolic, but not necessary. Only give them to those you truly wish to, and only accept the ones given out of generosity.”
Mael blinks, and Moth nudges him lightly. “What he’s trying to say is that it’s okay. A lot of people don’t know about it their first time, and still more only come to sell, not give things away. He also,” she adds, “means thank you .”
“Yes,” Gloxinia agrees, his tone teasing. “I do. How rude of me to forget to say it. Now, run along. There’s more to see before night falls.”
Moth must agree, because she stands quickly, repeating her thanks as she starts to leave. Mael catches up with her just before they pass the next stall, and he turns the dagger over in his hands, wondering why it had been gifted to him if he had nothing to offer in return. It’s only when they’re far enough away that he’s certain they won’t be overheard that he stops, reaching out to tug at the back of Moth’s tunic until she turns, brows furrowed quizzically and head tilted. He wonders if it would be rude to ask her to look somewhere else; her eyes – like the sky before a storm, dark with strands of lighter gray streaked throughout and green and gold flecks that catch the light – make him feel uncomfortably warm. He can almost hear Ludoshel’s admonishments to stand up straight and speak clearly in his ear, so he does his best to gather his thoughts so he doesn’t sound like a fool.
“Why did he give me this?” Moth only blinks, and he feels the tips of his ears burn. “I don’t . . . I mean, the gifts . . . I don’t understand.”
She reaches out, using her fingers to close his around the dagger’s sheath. “The idea of the Solstice is to celebrate life and its possibilities. People give gifts to the ones they care for, or the ones they want to see smile, and they don’t expect anything in return.”
“Then why did he say to only take the ones given out of generosity?”
“Some . . .” Moth frowns. “Some people try to use them to bargain for favors. But the gifts are meant to represent blessings , a passing of goodwill from the one who gives to the one who receives.”
“Blessings,” he echoes, confused.
Moth nods, turning her attention to her satchel as she digs through it. “Speaking of which . . . There!” Grinning, she pulls out the book he’s paused to admire, a copy of a collection of poetry, and a leather-bound journal with gilded edges. “Happy Solstice, Mael!”
He only stares. “What?”
“I saw you looking at it earlier, remember? And, since it’s your first Solstice, I thought it would make a nice gift! The journal is for whatever you want.” She holds them out, waiting patiently as he takes them, slowly opening the book and leafing through the pages.
“I don’t –”
“Have anything to give me?” Smiling gently, she shakes her head. “That’s not the point. I wanted to give you something, so I did. I don’t expect anything in return.”
Mael holds them close, feeling bewildered as she turns away and weaves through the crowd. Blessings? Only the Goddess Clan can bestow those, or so he’s been taught, and he hesitates as he runs his fingers over the journal’s spine to see if perhaps some of his Clan’s magic is nestled in the leather. He feels nothing but the supple material, and his disappointment is negated only by a tinge of fear when he realizes that he’s lost sight of his guide. Frozen in place, he scans the market for some sign of her presence; panic begins bubbling beneath his skin as more and more people pass with Moth still out of sight. He doesn’t notice how tightly he is clutching her gifts, nor does he think to head over to where his Clan has set up a small display. It’s with a surge of relief that he spots her by a smithy, and he’s quick to make his way over to her.
Moth is deep in conversation with a boy who looks only a few years older than her, an apprentice by the apron he wears and the soot staining his face and arms. Mael waits at what he hopes is a polite distance as the two talk about the different pieces on display, an assortment of weapons and finely crafted decorations, until she decides on a pair of leather braces and pays for them. He doesn’t know what expression he wears, but whatever it is startles her enough for her to ask him if he’s alright. When he nods, still feeling shaken, she leads him to a small stand and buys two mugs of steaming hot cocoa, warm enough to ward off the chill in the air that comes with the setting sun. They drink it under the shade of a nearby awning, Moth pointing out the people she recognizes and telling him where they’re from and what they sell, and he nods and asks questions if only to keep himself from feeling drowsy. The hot cocoa is rich and sits comfortably on his stomach, making him content and a little sleepy.
“The fireworks will start soon,” she says, and he jerks himself back into an upright position, embarrassed to realize how close he’d come to nodding off. “They’re one of the best parts of the festival. It’s said that whatever wish you make on them will come true.”
“Have you made any wishes?”
“Everyone does, I think.” She points to the castle ramparts, where he can just make out the shapes of servants moving about. “They’re setting up now. We should find a good place to watch.”
He lets her take his hand and lead him through the crowd. On the way to wherever they’re going, they pass by the fairies, and he’s keenly aware of the way Gloxinia watches them, his eyes curious. Finally, they reach a small bridge; Moth slides through the gaps in the crowd until they’re at the railing, where she climbs up to sit on the stone. After a moment’s hesitation, Mael follows, tucking his wings in close. He doesn’t know these people, and he’s heard stories of goddesses taken so that their feathers can be plucked to be sold on underground markets. As if she senses his concern, Moth slides close enough that their shoulders brush, turning towards him with a vibrant grin that he does his best to return. More people arrive, some standing on crates they’ve brought from their stalls. Moth leans in, voice just loud enough to hear as she murmurs to him.
“Last year, I wished for a friend to spend the day with.”
Then the fireworks start, and Mael stares in wonder. The witches have weaved their magic into each one, and dragons of flame soar above the castle as knights made from silver sparks joust beneath them. The watchers cheer as one knight is knocked off his horse only to explode in a flash of brilliant color so bright that he shields his eyes. Blue wolves race along the water’s surface, bats with wings of starlight flutter just out of reach of the crowd, and golden lines trace the shapes of the constellations above, fading as soon as the picture becomes clear. Vaguely he’s aware of Moth taking his hand as one of the dragons breaks away, diving towards the bridge. At the last second, when it seems that it will hit them, it swerves back into the sky, fading into an explosion of red and orange stars. Mael remembers what Moth said about wishes, and he closes his eyes and prays for more days like this, for a chance to come back and see the odd girl who he would like to one day call his friend.
The sky grows quiet, and the crowd shifts in disappointment. Some are turning away to leave when light begins branching out from the gates of the palace, tendrils twisting together and growing until they form a giant tree with apples of silver. Mael watches, curious, and he is among the ones who let out shouts of surprise when the tree explodes, showers of coins raining down upon the city, one landing in the hand of every person present. He brings his own to his face, curious at its warmth, ignoring the way those behind him laugh and chatter as they move away until only he and Moth remain on the bridge. A slender hand curls around his wrist, and he looks up to see Moth smiling at him, a coin resting in her open palm. He opens his mouth, closes it, opens it again, knowing that he wants to say something but not knowing what, and she laughs softly and taps his silver with her finger.
“It’s real,” she tells him, “though I wouldn’t use it to buy anything. They’re enchanted.”
He blinks. “With what?”
“Small things, mostly. A spell so they never dull, another to keep them from breaking. They’re meant to be keepsakes.” At his look, she grins. “If you want other spells on them, you can take them to the Belialuin scholars and they’ll do it, sometimes for free.”
Mael considers that. “Could they . . . I mean . . . Could they put a spell on two coins?”
“What sort of spell?”
“If you wanted someone to know when you were thinking about them,” he blurts out, and immediately a blush stains his cheeks. He’s thankful it’s too dark for her to see it – or so he hopes – as she tilts her head.
“I suppose they could,” she says slowly. “Why?”
He pauses, stumbling to get the words out. “You . . . I mean, we’re friends, and . . . I thought . . .”
Moth lets out a soft, “Oh,” and says nothing else. Then she slides off the bannister, and he wants to find the nearest wall and beat his head against it because of course she wouldn’t want that. “Are you coming?” There’s a teasing tone in her voice, but nothing cruel.
“To find a scholar.”
His face breaks out into the first true smile Moth has seen all day, and she’s stunned by the difference it makes. He was cute before, nervous and shy and not quite sure of himself, but the smile makes him radiant in a way that one would have to be blind not to see. This time he’s the one who takes her hand, leading them back into the square, though he follows her to the Belialuin scholars. The one sitting at the tent’s opening is young, with dark hair and violet eyes, and she watches them with curious detachment as they approach. Laid in front of her are scrolls with various runes and markings, as well as what looks to be a map and some sort of letter, but she moves them to the side once they’re in front of her. Ten minutes later, they leave with coins that will warm whenever they hold them and think of the other, and it’s with some regret that Mael breaks off to rejoin his brother as they pass him. The Goddess Clan will leave in the morning, but Moth promises to see him off before heading home.
That night, as he tucks himself into his bedroll and tries to ignore the raucous singing of the goddesses who found ale, he clutches his coin in his palm and closes his eyes. Seconds later, it heats beneath his touch, only a flicker before it cools. Then it grows warm again, and he smiles, holding it close to his chest. My friend, he thinks, pressing his face against his pillow. As he drifts off, the wish he’d made comes back to him, seemingly whispered on the midnight breeze. I wish to see her again soon.
Chapter 3: The Usual Events
Something wicked this way comes.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods,
there is a rapture on the lonely shore,
there is a society where none intrudes
by the deep sea, and music in its roar.
I love not man the less, but Nature more.”
- George Gordon Byron
The instructor’s voice is quiet, but not cold. If anything, he sounds somewhat amused by her inability to land a hit on him, and she supposes she must make quite a sight with her hair a mess and sweat sticking her tunic unpleasantly to her skin. The man her grandmother had found to tutor her is small and stocky, with broad shoulders and thick legs, and his eyes are a deep hazel that looks black in the shadows of the room. They have been here since dawn, as they are every day of the week except for the seventh, and already fatigue makes her arms heavy. Still, she does as he says, bending down to pick up the dagger he knocked from her hands, gripping it the way she has been shown. He eyes her posture critically, but says nothing as she falls into a stance, body turned to the side with the dagger held so the blade is parallel to the line of her arm. He nods only once, a quick movement to show his approval, and then he falls into a similar position, though he holds no weapon.
Moth circles him warily, trying to remember all the ways she has tried and failed to attack him before. When he shifts his weight onto his right foot, she lunges at his left side, only for him to pivot and grab her; she snarls and twists in his grip, bringing her foot down against the top of his toes, but he kicks her leg away before she can land the blow. One of his arms locks around her chest while the other flicks out to grab the hand holding the dagger. His grip is a cruel vice as he squeezes, intent on making her drop her blade, but she holds on and curls her legs up to her chest to shift her weight. He grunts in surprise as she slides out of his grasp, and she feels the tips of his fingers graze the back of her tunic as she darts away. She expects him to be angry – the point of her training is for her to learn how to fight, not how to run – but he grins and gestures for her to relax. She does so cautiously. The last time she had seemed too eager to be done, he’d kept her well beyond lunch, and she’d gone straight to her grandmother’s lesson with an empty stomach and aching bones.
“Good,” he praises. “You are small. This means that you will often face those who are larger than you are. You cannot hope to best them in strength, but if you are clever and quick, you can best them in other ways.” He tilts his head when the bells chime, frowning. “It seems our time for today is done. Practice your balance. We will resume tomorrow.”
She waits until he has left the room to trudge after him, already counting the bruises that will blossom overnight. Almost thoughtlessly, she reaches up to curl her fingers around the coin she wears around her neck, hoping that Mael’s training is going better than hers. The festival had been two months ago, and she had seen him only twice in that time, at the meetings held between the Witch Clan and the Goddess Clan to ensure peace, and there had barely been time for them to tell each other about their lives before he’d left. The warmth returns to the coin as she’s slipping into the bath, and she smiles as she runs soapsand through her hair. If she’s counting the days correctly, she should have a letter from him waiting when she’s finished with her afternoon lessons. That thought alone is enough to have her leave the water quicker than usual; if she cannot have it before the lesson, then she will finish early.
Macha is waiting for her in their usual room, which is the library. A stack of books rest at her elbow as she lifts a cup of tea to her lips, blowing on it while she watches the snow fall. Moth waits by the desk, knowing that to sit before acknowledged would earn her a scolding. There is a heartbeat of fear as her grandmother scrutinizes the white dress she has chosen to wear, but Moth relaxes as Macha leans back, waving for Moth to take the seat across from her. Macha had been the Witch Queen before Nemain, and some said that she was so old that she had known the rulers of the other Clans when they were children. The marks on her arms and neck have long since faded to a soft red that nearly disappears against her tan skin, and her white hair is, as always, pulled into an elegant bun. A shawl rests over her shoulders to ward off the chill, leaving only the waist and skirt of her gown visible.
“You’re early, little one,” Macha muses, voice as old and cracked as some of the scrolls from the founding of their Clan. “Usually I have to drag you in here by your hair.”
Moth is tempted to fidget under her scrutiny, but does not. “I wanted to finish early today, Grandmother, to see if I –”
“Have a letter. Yes, yes.” She sounds tired, a strange occurrence. Macha is usually vibrant, full of life and warmth. Perhaps it is the cold affecting her so, but Moth worries anyway. “Today we’ll be learning about the history of the Dark Court, and then we will move on to magical theory.”
Across from her, Moth winces. The Dark Court – the Witch Clan’s term for the Demon Clan – fills her with trepidation, as it does to everyone born in this time of tension and uncertainty. No one can truly account for why, after thousands of years, the Demon King had begun the process of breaking the fragile peace between the Clans, with some attributing it to his greed and others whispering that the Goddess Clan must have done something to earn his ire. Under her grandmother’s knowing stare, she reaches for the book at the top of the stack, nearly coughing as dust plumes into her face when she opens it. Occasionally Macha will stop her to ask a question about what she’s read or something she’s learned before, but the minutes pass mostly in silence, with only the crackling of the hearth’s fire to keep it from becoming overbearing. They break for lunch, a quick meal of honeyed ham and winter peas, before Macha slides the books to the other side of the table.
Knowing what comes next, Moth steadies her breathing. Her innate magic had awoken far earlier than expected, and it brought with it the beginning of these lessons and the tattoos that stain her fingers. The ink looks like vines, curling around her fingers and over the back of her hands, crossing the thin, double black bands that wrap around her forearms. The outline of a jagged star rests on her brow, a small dot in its center and even smaller ones resting in its six curves. Those tattoos seem to burn now as she reaches deep, finding the flow of her power and letting it wash over her, red smoke coiling around her palms. Macha watches, but says nothing, as she shapes the energy into small creatures – first a bird, then a wolf, and finally a cat – before she slides it around the stack of books and lifts them from the desk.
“Enough.” At the word, she lets the books fall, flinching when they slam against the wood. “You’ve been practicing on your own, I see. Very well. Take the next two days to rest. After that . . .” For the first time in her life, Moth sees her grandmother look uneasy. “After that, we’ll work on using it in combat.”
She nods and stands, murmuring quiet thanks as she leaves. The walk back to her room is quiet, the servants busy preparing for supper, and she uses the time to expand the edges of her power, letting it caress over all within its reach. Her mother is in the study, she learns, tired and distressed, while her father is in the yard, running a new batch of recruits through their drills. As for her grandmother, reaching back reveals only a sliver of doubt, but nothing else comes through. Shrugging, she opens the door to her quarters, smiling when she sees the plain envelope resting on her bed. As usual, it is a creamy shade of white, with only her name adorning the front in a haphazard scrawl and a wax seal bearing the Supreme Deity’s insignia on the back. Holding it carefully in her hands, she moves to the window seat, where the light is better, and then she cracks the wax and pulls out a thick sheaf of paper.
I hope all is going well for you. My training is still horrible, but it’s worth it if it means I can help my brother. I’m to accompany him next week on what he assures me will be a simple mission to check our defenses, but I can’t help but worry. What if we’re attacked by demons? What if I’m not strong enough, and he finally realizes that all my lessons are for nothing? After all this time, I still cannot find any trace of magic within me. Tarmiel (do you remember him? You met him at the festival.) assures me that it’s normal for siblings to develop their abilities at different rates, but my brother was younger than I when he first found his magic, and not much older when he was made an Archangel.
Speaking of Archangels, Sariel still teases me about my hair. I tried doing what you suggested, but he continues to make fun of it whenever he feels inclined to do so. The only ones who try to stop him are Tarmiel and Lady Elizabeth, and even they don’t have much luck. Brother says that he means no harm, that he only wants to show that he cares, but I cannot imagine how being cruel to someone would ever be an acceptable way to express affection. What do you think? Is it just how he is, or does he mean something by it? Are there people who treat you the same way?
I mentioned Lady Elizabeth above, but I don’t think I’ve ever told you about her before. She’s the daughter of the Supreme Deity, and often watches us train when she isn’t busy. Everyone knows that she’ll one day replace the Supreme Deity, but no one knows how. The Supreme Deity is the pillar of our Clan. Without her, we wouldn’t know who we are. But Lady Elizabeth is kind, and always listens to me and offers advice. Tarmiel says she’s pretty, and she is. Her hair is spun from silver and her eyes look like someone cut out two pieces of the sky. Don’t let anyone know I’ve told you this, but Ludoshel has mentioned that he intends to court her one day.
I was so excited when you told me that your magic had awakened, and I cannot wait to see your markings! Whenever I look at the vines in the garden, I’m reminded of you. Since I’m there quite often, I end up using the coin more than you might like. I hope I haven’t distressed you with it. Feeling mine warm up always makes me happy, because it means that you’re thinking of me. Sometimes it even gives me the courage to try harder. I think the others might have noticed it, but so far they haven’t said anything about it. Even Sariel, who I’m sure would love to mock me for having it, doesn’t bring it up. Part of me is glad for his silence. I’m afraid that brother wouldn’t let me keep it if he knew.
We gained three new recruits in our squadron yesterday. Jenna and Zaneri are siblings, but they don’t act at all similar. Jenna is loud and playful, while Zaneri tends to fade into the background. And Jelamet . . . I don’t know what to make of her. She always tries to pair up with me when we spar and has started following me around the palace. I’ve tried ignoring her, but she hasn’t left me alone. Lady Elizabeth says that it’s because she’s lonely and would like a friend, but Sariel claims that it’s because she wants to marry me one day. I hope Lady Elizabeth is the one who’s right.
I must leave for training now, so I’ll end the letter here. I hope to see you again soon. Perhaps at the next meeting?
Still smiling, she rereads it until she has the words memorized. It appears Mael is doing well – too hard on himself, as usual, but well all the same, and she’s pleased to learn that he’s progressed enough with his training to begin accompanying his brother. Though the idea of him on the battlefield fills her with worry, she knows that he longs for the day when he can stand beside Ludoshel as his equal. Bringing the paper closer to her face, she inhales lightly, catching the familiar scent of sandalwood and cumin that accompanies every letter she receives. Holding the letter to her chest, she stands and makes her way over to her desk to compose a response. Hers is full of the afternoons she spends in the market and the training that leaves her sore, and she tells him that he could always push Sariel off a cliff if he gets too irritating before ending her letter with the same desire to see him. Once it’s safely folded and sealed into an envelope, she places it on the silver tray at her side for a servant to take later.
She is halfway to her bed when a servant knocks and enters. Puzzled, she stares at him, and he bows and says, “Your mother wishes to see you, milady.”
He waits until she is outside to close the door, and then he favors her with a small smile as he leads her through the halls to her mother’s study. Nemain looks up from the papers scattered across her desk, dismissing the servant even as she beckons Moth closer. There are hollows forming beneath her eyes from a lack of sleep, and even a quick glance at the correspondence and documents in front of her reveals that there are many more restless nights to come. Still, she pulls Moth onto her lap, reaching up to stroke her daughter’s unruly hair as she reaches for one of the letters. It has been handled many times, the edges beginning to thin and yellow, and the paper is covered with a spiked, elegant scrawl that Moth has seen only once before. Nemain smooths it out on the surface of the desk, speaking to Moth when she is done.
“This arrived from the Dark Court today,” she says quietly. “The King wishes to send his sons and a small retinue of servants to stay with us for one week to talk of a potential treaty between the Clans. They will be arriving in four days.”
Moth stills, instinctively moving closer to her mother’s warmth. “Why doesn’t the King come?”
“He can’t. As an act of courtesy, we are barred from entering each other’s realms unless under dire circumstances. That is why we send our envoys to speak for us.” Nemain pauses, using her fingers to lift Moth’s chin until she is looking into her eyes. “One of his sons is young, close to you in age. I would like for you to accompany him around the city. Will you do this for me?”
“Of course, Mama,” she replies, and Nemain smiles at her wearily.
“Good girl. Now, off to bed with you. I hear you have an early start to your lessons tomorrow.”
Chapter 4: The Dark Court
Friendship is a funny thing. Sometimes it comes from the unlikeliest of places.
“You only live twice:
once when you are born
and once when you look death in the face.”
- Ian Fleming
The four days after her meeting with her mother pass in a blur. She is so nervous about the upcoming visit from the Demon Clan that she can scarcely focus in her lessons, and Moth walks away with enough bruises that her tutor gives her time off out of pity. Macha, too, notices her despondent mood and lightens her studies to reviews and light practice, but she has the feeling that her grandmother is also too distracted to make much of a good instructor. The palace is incredibly busy, with servants turning out rooms and ferreting out every speck of dirt before their guests arrive, and even the town is touched with an anxiety that makes the usually bustling market nearly lifeless. There is no joviality when she visits the baker for sweets, only a worry that makes the cinnamon clump in her mouth. Moth finds herself touching her coin more often than usual, and she’s worried that she’s causing Mael undue stress, but the warmth of it beneath her fingers soothes her frazzled nerves.
Dawn is cold the day of the arrival. Anais, the girl who tends to her rooms, is somber as she helps Moth into a gown that feels constricting at best and suffocating at worst. It’s simple, compared to some of the ones she has seen her mother in, black silk that covers her from neck to just below the knees, with a high collar and no sleeves, and she wonders if it was picked to appease the demons. Once her hair is styled (the front braided away from her face and the rest left to flow freely) and her feet are clad in black flats, Anais leads her from the room, departing once she is safely standing by her mother’s side in the reception hall. It has been transformed into a throne room of sorts, with an ornate dais holding an equally ornate throne for her mother. To Moth, it feels as if all the warmth has been removed from the room, usually used to hold banquets and dances. Standing slightly behind her mother is her father, resplendent in the dark armor that marks him as the Queen’s Consort.
Just as she feels that she must leave or scream or do anything to break the stillness, the door opens to admit the footman, followed by several demons. As before, they are led by the blonde youth, but this time he is joined by a boy who is unmistakably his brother; they share the same unruly hair, though the younger’s is silver instead of gold, and their facial structure is too similar for them to be anything other than family. Unlike the others, however, the boy seems more curious than haughty, and the power that flows from his brother is absent in him. They reach the foot of the dais, and the blonde lowers his head as the others kneel. Because he is royalty, he does not follow the same customs, and it is only his hand on the silver-haired youth’s shoulder that keeps him mimicking the others. Nemain waits patiently for a few moments, then she nods and the ones who were bowing stand, some of them looking more amused than others.
“Well met, Lord Meliodas. It has been too long since those of your Clan have graced my halls.” Courteous as always, there is ice underneath Nemain’s voice.
Meliodas meets her stare coldly. “Indeed it has, Your Majesty.”
Behind her, Caim shifts, but Nemain only glances over the retinue. “You have brought new faces with you.”
“My brother, Estarossa,” he introduces, and the silver-haired boy gives a shallow bow, “and his instructor, Chandler.” A demon with wild hair and a staff inclines his head. “The rest you have met,” he finishes, and Nemain’s lips twitch.
“I remember.” Moth steps forward at her mother’s gesture, acutely aware of the way Meliodas eyes her with a mixture of boredom and contempt. “My daughter, Alessa.”
“Well met,” she murmurs, and Meliodas dips his chin the slightest fraction.
“She will be acting as your brother’s guide for the duration of your visit. As such, his chambers are in the same wing.” Nemain turns a startling cool stare on Moth, but it softens when Meliodas mutters quietly into Estarossa’s ear.
“Then let her guide him there,” Meliodas says smoothly, “as you and I have much to discuss.”
Moth waits until her mother consents to step away from the dais, holding her head high as she passes through the gathered demons. Estarossa follows behind her, throwing one last glance at his brother before the doors close, and then trails silently along as she leads him up to his rooms. He seems appreciative, at least, when he sees the space he’s been given and how well it is furnished, but it’s obvious from the way his shoulders slump that he, too, is feeling the sting of their sudden dismissal. She thinks back to the last time she’d acted as a guide, leading Mael through the festival; feeling a sudden wave of guilt for assuming that Estarossa would be as arrogant as his brother, she clears her throat, waiting patiently for him to look at her before she speaks.
“There’s a baker who sells the best sweets in Britannia in the city, if you’re interested.”
His expression remains unreadable. “Sure.”
“Would you mind waiting while I change? This dress is . . . not entirely comfortable.” Moth attempts a smile and is relieved when he returns it tentatively.
She hurries back to her room, where she trades the dress for a plain gray tunic and black leggings. Estarossa is still waiting patiently in his room when she’s done; from the dampness of his hair, she knows that he’d used the basin of water on the dresser to freshen up. As they retrace their steps back to the lower floor, she points out the different rooms and explains what each is for (her whisper about sneaking into the kitchens if he wants a snack earns her a nervous grin), and they both relax as soon as they’re outside of the palace gates.
Moth notes curiously the way Estarossa seems more certain of himself now that they’re away from the rest of his Clan. Unlike Mael, who had been nervous during each of his visits and always seemed to gravitate back towards Ludoshel, Estarossa loses much of his trepidation, though a sense of melancholia remains. When he looks at her expectantly, she challenges him to a race, and his eyes light up as they dash down the stairs.
Moth wins – by being smaller and lighter on her feet, she supposes – but he doesn’t appear to care. In fact, he asks her eagerly if they can go again now that he knows the way, and she promises they will every day until he either outruns or catches her. Estarossa waits outside while she grabs the sweetrolls from the baker; they eat as they walk, with him looking curiously around at the different shops while Moth gives tidbits of information about who does what. He stops at the smithy, eyeing the different swords curiously. Some are black as night, with handles guarded by jagged steel obsidian plates, while others are thin enough that they’d be barely visible if viewed along the edge. She watches him lift and study each one that catches his interest, keenly aware of the way the blacksmith watches with his features schooled into a disapproving frown.
Estarossa picks up a small sword with a wavy edge, blinking at the dark steel folded into the center. “What’s this? It doesn’t look like it’d do much good in battle.”
“It’s called a kris ,” Moth explains. “At least, I think it is. The blade is forged to make it more lethal in battle. See the curves? They make it more dangerous and the wounds it inflicts harder to treat. A lot of people carry them as a sort of . . . back-up weapon, but a few train exclusively with them.”
He nods, setting it down. She almost asks him if he wants to buy it, but the foreboding look the blacksmith is giving them convinces her that it’s time to move on. “Come on. There are some other shops that might interest you nearby.”
As soon as they are out of the blacksmith’s hearing, Moth asks, “What’s your home like?”
“Warm.” Estarossa chews on his lip, glancing at her from the corner of his eye. “It doesn’t snow there. But we’ve got towns and villages, just like you do. And a lot of the people who live in them are farmers.”
“It doesn’t snow? Ever?” She stops, staring at him. The idea of living in a place where snow never falls is unappealing to her; in Cailleach, nearly half of the year is spent with it blanketing the city, and there’s a wonder in its muffled beauty.
Estarossa stops as well, turning and heading back to where she stands. “Sometimes it does,” he admits, “but not like this. I . . .” He pauses, and there’s something like uncertainty on his face. “I like it,” he says at last, and Moth nods.
“Have you ever built a snowman?” Estarossa shakes his head, and she smiles widely. “Then let’s do that tomorrow! Papa says that we’ll get fresh snow tonight, which is the best kind to play in!”
For a moment, she thinks he will refuse. Anticipation and wariness war on his face, then he offers a barely-there grin. “Yeah!”
They stay out until it is time for supper, pausing here and there whenever a trinket catches their attention. Snow begins to fall as they return to the palace; Moth wraps her arms around her chest, wishing she’d remembered to bring a coat, and she shuts the door behind them with a sigh of relief as the warm air chases away the chill. Anais is waiting for her in the foyer. With a brief curtsy to Estarossa, she beckons for Moth to follow her to prepare for the feast that her mother has no doubt ordered in honor of their guests. She lets the maid fuss over her hair – messy and hard to tame as usual – and fret over which dress she should wear, mulling over what it is she wants to ask. Anais would gladly do it, she knows, but her mother might not approve of her giving such a thing to a member of the Demon Clan. If it were to be used in battle, it could be traced back to them, but didn’t the Goddess Clan wield blades forged by their blacksmiths?
“Anais?” The maid looks over from the closet, brow arched in a silent question. “Loqi has a kris for sale at his shop. Could you buy it during dinner and deliver it to me tonight?”
Anais clucks, pulling a gown of midnight blue lace from the rack. “I could, miss, but whatever for? There’s plenty of swords in the armory if you want to use one.”
“It’s not for me. I thought . . . Prince Estarossa seemed interested in it earlier, and I thought it might make a good gift.” Blushing, Moth stares at her hands. She misses the curious way Anais looks at her, as if she’s said something she shouldn’t.
“I’ll get it for you, miss. Now, stand up so we can get you dressed.”
The gown is uncomfortable (Moth loathes the way lace scratches at her skin), but easier to move in than the one she’d worn earlier; with a low neck and long sleeves, it makes her look older than she is, and the color compliments her eyes nicely. Anais has her spin in place, reaching out to tuck errant strands of hair behind her ear, and then she is deemed acceptable and sent on her way. The hallways are empty, though voices resonate from behind some of the doors. One, a loud screech, has her hurrying to the banquet hall for fear of its owner cornering her. The footman shows her inside, announcing her name clearly as he leads her to her seat at her mother’s right hand, and her ears burn when so many eyes fix on her. She sits, keeping her chin up, refusing to be cowed in her own home, relaxing only when her mother clears her throat and the servants come in.
The food smells divine. Stewed potatoes and roasted venison, spinach creamed with slivers of carrots and herbs, soup made with fresh fish and molluscs, steaming rolls and fresh fruit line the table, and there is wine and ale for the adults and cider for those who are still too young for alcohol. Moth thanks the servant who fills her plate quietly, waiting for Nemain to start eating before she follows suit. For a while, only the sounds of silverware on plates and requests for more drinks fill the air, but conversation gradually begins flitting around the room. She lifts her eyes to look for Estarossa, finding him seated to his brother’s right a few places down, and the eager way he digs in makes her smile. The amusement fades, however, when Meliodas fixes her with a cold glare, so she drops her gaze back to her plate, appetite gone.
Nemain, seeing that she’s no longer eating, excuses Moth from the table, and she returns to the comfort of her room. A package on her bed – no doubt the kris she’d asked for – makes her uncomfortable instead of pleased, and she almost regrets sending Anais to retrieve it. The thought of Estarossa’s interest in it stills her growing discomfort, so she grabs a piece of paper and scrawls a hasty note, tucking it under the twine that holds the box closed before grabbing the gift and marching back towards the prince’s room. She finds the door unlocked, and it’s with a frown that she heads inside to deposit the sword on his bed, wondering if all demons are so careless with their belongings.
Back in her room, she sits at her desk, staring at the letter to Mael she had started yesterday. It seems silly now, containing nothing more than the idle musings of a bored girl; with a quiet huff, she shreds it and pulls a clean sheet of paper towards her, intending to start again. Instead, she finds herself sketching Estarossa’s profile, frowning over the wild locks of his hair. It’s only when the portrait is done that she reaches for another, done months ago the morning after the Solstice Festival, and she nearly gasps when she lays them side-by-side.
If not for a few small differences in bone structure, the two of them could have been brothers. Cousins, at the least. Moth looks between them, brows furrowed. There are stories of people who look alike, whether by chance or some sort of magic, but she’s never seen evidence of it before. Which is it, she wonders. Are they simply two of the few who look similar by happenstance? Or was some spell woven before they were born? Legends of men with shared faces who ended up on opposite sides of conflict make her hope for the former, that the two are not cursed to be mortal enemies later in life.
Chewing on her lower lip, she scatters sand over Estarossa’s portrait to dry the ink, placing it and Mael’s back in the leather portfolio that houses all her art. Then she reaches up, holding her necklace until it burns, wanting nothing more than for her friend to be safe. The one who walks in the in-between places, she prays, guide and protect those I hold dear. Let their lives be as still water without trouble to ripple the surface. Feeling weary, she curls into bed, not bothering to change into a nightgown.
Her dreams are wild and unpleasant, leaving her groggy the next morning. Moth bathes and dresses in her tunic from the day before, intending to show Estarossa around the forest that lies between their city and the wall. When she goes to see if he’s awake, however, she finds the room empty and tidy, with a note resting on the bed in place of the sword. She blinks, checking in the bath and the wardrobe as if he’s hiding somewhere, intending to play a prank, but the wardrobe is empty and only the faint hint of soap remains in the bath.
He is well and truly gone. A quick glance into the hall reveals that the doors to the other rooms are also open, and no sounds drift up from below that make her think she is late for breakfast. Oddly despondent, she heads over to the bed, sitting on top of the coverlet and reaching for the note. It’s written on a scrap torn from the one she’d left last night, an untidy scrawl marring its surface.
Thank you for showing me around the city, and for the sword. Maybe I can use it better than I can the broadswords Chandler insists on.
Reading the note, she is unaware of the conference being held in her mother’s study. Nemain, defeated, leans back in her chair, feeling Caim’s anger through the bond they share, as Macha shakes her head slowly. The gods are cruel, she thinks. Why else give her daughter such a burden? Alessa should be free to roam as any child would, free to laugh and explore and live her life, but the Nameless God has finally spoken, and its word is law. The cards in front of her have been shuffled and drawn over and over again in her attempts to find a different message, a different future for the one she loves above all else. My daughter , and she wants to cry, knows she cannot, even as sorrow tightens her chest. My only child. My heir. The faces of the Arcana seem to mock her; suddenly sick of looking at them, she sweeps them to the floor, ignoring Macha’s sound of fear when the cards scatter.
Calamity, the Nameless God’s voice echoes, ruin. Heart render. Death.
Chapter 5: Blood Pact
Some actions have consequences that will be felt for many, many years.
“Do I dare disturb the universe?
In a minute there is time
for decisions and revisions which
a minute will reverse.”
- T.S. Elliot
Estarossa had been surprised to find the sword he’d admired in his room after supper. He hadn’t given it much thought after leaving the smithy; Meliodas always sneered at the craftsmanship of the Witch Clan, and he hadn’t wanted to be in possession of something that would earn his brother’s ire. Reading the note had left him feeling pleased, if a bit uncertain; as a prince, he was often given gifts, but they were rarely things that he wanted and usually served only to appease his father. Would he be allowed to keep it? After drawing the blade from its scabbard and testing the balance the way he’d been shown, he’d decided that he would hide it until it was too late for it be returned. After all, no one would contest his having it once it was home with him and learning to wield a difficult weapon would surely earn him the respect of his peers. He’d hidden it under his bed before going to sleep, promising himself that he would practice with it in his room whenever he had the chance.
Now, trudging through the forest after Meliodas, he wishes that he’d brought it with him. His brother no doubt intends to use the early morning hours to train him personally, and he has no weapon with which to fight. Estarossa stares at Meliodas’s back, biting his tongue to resist the urge to ask where they’re going, and occupies himself by running through Chandler’s lessons in technique. It isn’t long before his thoughts drift – Chandler was a boring, if thorough, instructor who liked to drone on until it was all Estarossa could do to stay awake – and he finds himself thinking of the girl who’d acted as his guide. He’d expected the daughter of the Witch Queen to be arrogant, cold, and a bit dull, like the daughters of his father’s nobles, but she’d surprised him by being so utterly genuine. Whatever emotion she feels is displayed openly on her face, and, he muses, it is a nice face, too.
He’s so preoccupied with thinking about her that he almost runs into his brother’s back. Meliodas favors him with a mild glare as he stumbles to a halt, the mark on his forehead flaring with his irritation. “Pay attention,” Meliodas snarls, and Estarossa nods as he straightens up, hearts hammering wildly.
Glancing around reveals that they’re in a clearing, fresh snow burying everything until only vague lumps remain. “What are we doing here?”
Meliodas’s eyes narrow. “This,” he says coldly, “is the place where the Witch Queen will allow us to train.” There’s so much scorn in the way he says ‘allow’ that Estarossa holds in a wince. “Since we’re still refused weapons, we’ll be working on your mastery of Hellblaze.”
At that, fear trickles down Estarossa’s spine. He’s yet to master even the most rudimentary of spells (in fact, his own magic is still dormant, if it even exists), and he knows that to fail in front of Meliodas would lead to a truly horrible punishment. The last time he’d let his brother down, he’d been sent out to hunt a dragon and nearly been devoured, only the timely intervention of Meliodas saving his life. His throat is so dry that there’s a faint ‘ click ’ when he swallows, and his limbs feel like they’re weighted down with lead. Still, he nods, if a bit miserably, and heads to the center of the clearing, feeling Meliodas’s gaze burning between his shoulders. Reaching inside, he searches for any flicker of magic, watching nervously as Meliodas moves to stand opposite him, leaning against a tree.
“Well?” Meliodas snaps, and Estarossa twitches, biting back a retort.
Instead, he holds his hand out in front of him, palm facing up, brows furrowed in concentration. “Hellblaze,” he whispers, and thinks he might feel the faintest flicker of heat, but no flames sprout from between his fingers. The sound of Meliodas scoffing makes his ears burn, so he tries to ignore it. “ Hellblaze ,” he mutters again, a bit more irritably, and still no fire appears. He’s about to give up when he thinks of warmth in the cold streets, a pair of gray eyes alight with curiosity ; as if the thought is a talisman, flames spurt from his palm, black and amethyst swirling together. It isn’t an impressive show, but he’s so incredibly proud to have made any sort of magic work that he grins, letting the fire flicker and dance in front of his face. It isn’t until the sound of snow crunching beneath Meliodas’s boots reaches his ears that he snuffs it out and it looks up, surprised by the interest, not quite pride, on his brother’s face.
“Not bad,” Meliodas says, “if you were a child, that is.” Estarossa frowns, but Meliodas is already circling him, correcting his stance harshly. When he’s facing Estarossa again, Meliodas continues, “At least you can do it. Father was beginning to lose hope. He was wondering if the life of a scholar would suit you better.”
Estarossa bites his lip, stung by the cruel amusement in his brother’s tone. Meliodas is usually more lenient than this, understanding – if not pleased by – the fact that his magic has been painfully slow, nigh nonexistent, in its development. Something has put him in a foul mood, and Estarossa wonders if it’s how different Cailleach is to their own home, how they must follow the laws that so many of their kind think are beneath them. Perhaps sensing how degrading his words are, Meliodas lets out a slow breath, shoulders slowly relaxing, and reaches out to pat Estarossa’s shoulder. He’s torn between pulling away from the affectionate gesture and basking in it, and his indecision results in him standing stiffly beneath his brother’s hand. Meliodas withdraws, stepping back until they are an arm’s length apart, and settles into a stance that Estarossa knows means that he’s going to be awfully bruised by the time they’re done.
“Let’s see how the rest of your training is going.” Eyes cold, Meliodas waits until he’s dropped into a similar stance to snap, “It can’t be worse than your magic.”
Moth is in the courtyard when the brothers return. After nearly tripping over herself to get to her mother’s study that morning, she’d been relieved to hear that the Demon Clan hadn’t cut their visit short and were instead doing errands of their own. With nothing else to do, she had spent the time not devoted to her lessons seeing how many snowballs she could craft and hold up at one time. When Meliodas strides in, coat billowing around his legs, she lets her magic fade, and her smile follows suit when Estarossa limps in after him. Ignoring the way Meliodas’s eyes flash warningly, she runs to Estarossa, reaching out to brush her fingers along the bruise marring his jaw. He winces under her touch and she frowns, letting her magic flow carefully over the mark until it fades, wondering how his own brother could have put him in such a state.
He's staring at her, brows furrowed, when she pulls back, but he doesn’t say anything more than, “Thanks.”
“Where else?” At his blink, she amends her question. “Where else are you hurt?”
“Oh. Uh . . .” He offers a crooked, barely there grin. “Sort of all over, I guess. I was slow.”
Moth gapes at him. “All . . .? Are you serious?”
Estarossa nods sheepishly, and she clenches her teeth to avoid pestering him with too many questions. Instead, she places her hands on his shoulders, magic curling down his arms and around his chest as it seeks out any wounds to soothe away. A particularly nasty one on his lower back has her muttering a quiet curse under her breath, one that would have earned her a scolding and a mouth of soapsand had her mother been around to hear it. He slowly relaxes as she heals him, letting out an appreciative noise when the warmth spreads to his legs. By the end, she’s flushed and shaking, sweat beading on her brows despite the wintry air, but she still smiles as she steps away, watching as he slowly stretches. He’s so happy that she’s able to ignore the agony crawling up her spine as the pain of each bruise she’d taken away manifests itself, even though she knows that she won’t be sleeping comfortably for weeks. Magic , as Macha is fond of telling her, comes at a cost , but if this pain is the price for his then she will gladly bear it.
“That’s amazing! I didn’t know the Witch Clan could use healing magic.” Estarossa shakes snow out of his hair, beaming at her, and her stomach does a little flip.
“It’s not really healing,” she replies, one hand raised to keep the spray from hitting her in the face. He smiles apologetically, but she waves it off. “It’s more like . . . manipulating, I guess.”
Whatever he’s about to say is cut off by the snowball she’d used her magic to craft smacking the back of his head. Covering her face to stifle her laughter, Moth backs away, turning to take off in a sprint when he narrows his eyes at her. A stupid distraction, maybe, but she didn’t want him to pry too deeply, to learn that she had made his pain her own, and it works. By the time they’re called to supper, both are soaked and shivering, and Anais leads them upstairs with a cluck of disapproval. Moth bathes and dresses herself, not wanting Anais to see the ugly bruise that spans across her back from her hips to below her neck, and she grins when she meets up with Estarossa again in the hall, where he bows playfully and offers her his arm. Nemain arches a brow when they enter together, cutting her gaze to Caim when he lets out a cough that sounds suspiciously close to a chuckle, and Meliodas merely watches them, lips pressed into a thin line. When dinner starts, the demon to Moth’s left – whose name turns out to be Aranak – engages her in polite conversation.
She’s so caught up in answering his questions about where the best place to purchase armor would be that she fails to notice that, for the second night in a row, Macha has not joined them. It isn’t until she’s back in her room that she realizes that she hadn’t seen her grandmother since her lessons, and she pauses in pulling on her nightgown as she wonders if Macha is ill. Surely her mother would have told her, right? Unsettled, she tugs lightly at her coin, feeling a bit better when it warms again almost as soon as she’s let it go. She’s about to write a letter – maybe she’ll even tell Mael that demons aren’t all as bad as they thought – when someone knocks quietly at her door. Opening it reveals no one, but, when she looks down, she sees a small box resting just over the threshold. Curious, she picks it up and shuts the door before moving to sit on her bed, turning the package over in her hands. There’s a note slipped carefully under the string that keeps it closed; holding the box in one hand, she unfolds the paper.
Thanks again for the sword, and for taking care of me. I hope you like this. – Estarossa
Moth blinks, turning her attention back to the box. When she opens it, she lets out a little “Oh!” and reaches inside, pulling out a bracelet made from thin silver links hooked together. A small charm in the shape of a crescent moon dangles from one of the loops, and she can feel the durability spell woven into the metal. Smiling, she slips it over her wrist, and the sizing spell shrinks it until it fits comfortably there, tight enough to avoid falling off but loose enough not to feel snug. When had he gotten this? She can’t see Meliodas waiting patiently while Estarossa looked through the shops, but she knows that he didn’t buy it yesterday. The charm tinkles quietly as she lifts her wrist to admire the bracelet. She’d have to thank him properly tomorrow, she muses, burrowing under the blankets, maybe by taking him to the palace gardens? The maze there is wonderful, and he might like the fountain at its center . . .
On the third day, Moth takes Estarossa to the gardens, and they spend the afternoon hunting each other through the maze, a game of stealth and tracking that doubles as training. He learns quickly that she is near-silent when she wants to be, and only a few sudden shifts in the wind keeps him from losing too badly. There is an idea nagging at him, but it is not until the fourth day, when Moth is less lively than usual due to the news of her grandmother’s illness, that he realizes what it is. In the Demon Realm, there are few children his age in the court, and even fewer who willingly spend time with him. He is someone who is both feared as the son of the Demon King and mocked for his powerlessness, yet Moth treats him as though neither of those things matter to her.
Five days after he arrives, he brings up the idea of a blood pact. When Moth stares at him blankly, he stammers through an explanation of it being something that he’s seen other children do — which is true — and that he thought it would be a good idea. He thinks she will decline, but she smiles and agrees, telling him to meet her in the library the next day; he heads to bed, nervous and pleased all at once, wondering if she will regret it later, hoping she will not. He likes having a friend, and with her it is easy to simply be himself without the fear of being judged.
The sixth evening, the last before the Demon Clan leaves, finds them hidden away in a corner of the library, seated comfortably on the floor between two shelves and surrounded by various bandages and healing salves. Moth holds a small dagger in one hand and a book in the other, while Estarossa amuses himself by tossing grapes into the air to see how many he can catch in his mouth. He seems nervous, and Moth supposes that she can’t blame him. She is, too, and this is something that could get them into a lot of trouble, but he’d been the one to bring it up in the first place. When she finds the passage she’s looking for, she lets out a quiet ‘ ah-ha ’, causing Estarossa to move closer.
“Did you find it?” He sets the grapes aside, wiping his fingers on his trousers.
“Mhm!” Moth pauses to read a few lines, then closes the book. “They’ve got to be the same size and in the same place, and deep enough to scar, but that’s about it.”
Estarossa glances at the dagger she holds. “Are you sure about this?”
“You asked about it,” Moth replies, and Estarossa mutters something she doesn’t hear. “Are you sure about this?”
“Yeah. Feels . . . I dunno. Feels right.” He shrugs.
Moth studies him for a moment, then smiles. “Yeah. Besides, it’s not like it’s going to do anything to us.”
Estarossa nods, holding out his hand. After a brief hesitation, Moth hands him the dagger, wincing when he unsheathes it and cuts a line into his palm. He gives it back and she mimics him, surprised by how little it actually hurts, and then she places the dagger on the floor before holding her hand out to him. She thinks he might have changed his mind because he doesn’t immediately react, but then he reaches out and lays his palm over hers, pressing the cuts together.
“Blood pacts,” Moth says, smiling, “are a lifelong symbol of friendship.”
Estarossa grins back at her, curling his fingers over the back of her hand. “May it never be broken.”
“May it never be forgotten,” Moth adds, her own fingers resting over his wrist.
They stay that way for perhaps a minute – the book hadn’t specified how long to keep their hands together – and then they pull away. Moth bandages his hand first, and then he wraps hers, and then they set about tidying up and hiding the fact that they’d ever been there.
They leave together, chatting idly about a book that Moth has been reading and Estarossa’s training, and, to her relief, no one so much as glances twice at them on their way back to their rooms. Estarossa gives a little wave as he opens the door to his, and Moth winks, smiling when the sound of his quiet laughter reaches her. Inside her room is a letter, which she decides to read before getting ready for dinner. Mael’s words are comforting, a brief report of how his training is going better than he’d ever hoped followed by concern that he hasn’t felt his coin warm in a few days. Swallowing back her guilt over causing him any sort of anxiety, she writes a quick response telling him not to worry, that she’s only been busy with the Demon Clan’s visit and ends it with congratulations and a hope to see him soon.
To her surprise, she is seated across from Estarossa at dinner due to her mother needing to speak with Meliodas. He favors her with a quick grin before digging into his food, and she feigns disgust at how quickly he eats, though she has to fight a smile to do so. They don’t speak much, instead listening to the conversations around them, but they do occasionally exchange quick glances, often accompanied by an expression of either amusement or boredom, throughout dinner. Once it’s done, they walk back to their rooms together; Moth is about to wish him goodnight when he turns to her, looking hesitant for the first time in days. She waits as he collects his thoughts, toying with the bracelet around her wrist, and she’s about to ask him if he’s okay when he takes two quick steps towards her, wrapping her in a very awkward hug. His face is red when he pulls away, and he looks so nervous that she refrains from making a joke about how stiff he is.
“Thank you,” he mumbles, and she cocks her head.
“I don’t –”
“You’re the first friend I’ve ever had,” he explains quietly, “and the first person not to look at me like there’s something wrong with me. And I . . .” Estarossa pauses, looking away. “I was wondering if . . . If you’d write to me?”
Moth feels as though something is tugging at her heart. Reaching out, she pulls him into another hug, holding him until he relaxes against her. “Of course,” she replies, trying to sound cheerful, “so much that you’ll get tired of me!”
Estarossa shakes his head as he steps back, but he’s smiling again. “That’s not going to happen. See you in the morning?”
“You know it.”
She waits until he’s in his room to enter hers, leaning against the door after she closes it. What sort of life does he live that he doesn’t have friends, or at least someone to be kind to him? Even as isolated as she is, there are still plenty of people who she knows care about her, but he had seemed so lonely in those few minutes that she wonders if anyone has ever said a nice word to him.
Wiping irritably at her eyes, she moves to sit at her desk, searching through the papers scattered on its surface until she finds a clean one. It’s late when she finishes, and she eyes her work critically; a sketch of how Estarossa looked asking her for something so simple as a letter adorns the page, with only his name and the date at the top in lieu of a proper background. As she scatters sand across its surface, she wonders how she had ever thought he and Mael looked anything alike. Perhaps at first glance, yes, but they are so different in terms of personality that the physical similarities fade. As she curls up in bed, her coin warms, and is still heated when she curls her fingers around it. To her surprise, so quickly that later she will think she dreamed it, she feels the phantom sensation of a hand against her own.
Chapter 6: Fractures
A fair bit of warning: this chapter does delve into the loss of a loved one; if that is something that you need to avoid, I would suggest skipping down to Estarossa's point of view paragraphs. You'll miss a bit of world-building and set-up for later chapters, but nothing so important that you won't be able to figure it out later.
“It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one . . .
It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark,
and thinking there is one more stair than there is.
Your foot falls down, through the air,
and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise
as you try and readjust the way you thought of things."
- Lemony Snicket
The city is mourning.
Macha is gone. There had been no way to avoid her death; she was simply old and sick, and one night she went to bed and did not wake the next morning. As is custom, her funeral will be held on the seventh day, the day of rest, with a feast in her honor hosted that night; until then, her body rests in the crypt, where healers anoint it with herbs and spices befitting her rank. Without her, without her warmth and love, the castle feels empty, as if every good thing left it on Macha’s last breath. To show their grief, the servants and surviving members of her family wear white (black is the color of suffering, and death is an end to that), and they fast the day before the funeral so that the food they eat afterwards will taste all the richer, will remind them of the beauty and fragility of life.
Rain patters against the window Moth sits by, like fingers tapping on the glass. She watches it, too lost in her thoughts to take joy in it like she usually would. Two letters rest in her lap, one from each of her friends, but their contents are too vibrant and feel almost vulgar in this time of sorrow, so she merely runs her fingers over the pages, feeling the lingering energy of the writers. A simple dress of white cotton covers her frame, which has begun to fill out as she reaches towards that stage of adolescence between childhood and adulthood, and matching white slippers adorn her feet. Soon Nemain will come for her, and she will wear the circlet of silver around her brow as they stand in the courtyard to send Macha off to join the stars.
Her throat closes. When tears begin to fall on the letters, threatening to smudge the ink, she wipes furiously at her eyes and sets them aside, unable to bear looking at them. Her grandmother, who had taught her everything she knows about magic and how to use it, how to let it flow as naturally as breathing, who had told her the stories of their ancestors and soothed scraped knees with gentle fingers, is gone , and yet the world still turns. To her, it is fractured, incomplete, a puzzle missing the final, central piece that will hold it together and make the image clear. Tomorrow, the shops will open as they always do, but will the food taste as sweet, the jewels shine as brightly? She doesn’t want them to but knows that they will.
It is Caim, not her mother, who comes for her when the bells chime noon, and it is he who draws her into a soothing hug, stroking her hair away from her face. They walk together, consort and princess, father and daughter, to the courtyard, where Nemain stands silently by the pyre she will light. A shroud covers Macha’s face, and the robes she is dressed in are woven with threads of silver and gold to pay respects to the sun that brings them warmth and the moon that brings them solace. There are no eulogies. Nemain repeats the old prayer of passing, a wish for the departed to become another constellation to guide those left behind, and then she places the torch to the kindling, stepping back only when it is truly burning.
They wait and watch as it burns, fire twisting through the air. For a moment, Moth wants nothing more than to reach out, to yank the shroud from Macha’s face, but her father holds her tightly and the urge fades. Finally, when the pyre begins to collapse in on itself, he leads her away, taking her back to her room. If she wishes to avoid the feast, he tells her quietly, then he will find an acceptable excuse to give her mother. She doesn’t know what to say – she is tired and weary and numb in a way she has not been before – and he must see it on her face, for he tells her to rest and to send anyone who might try to make her attend the banquet away. The sound of the door closing behind him feels too final somehow, as though it is the physical manifestation of what she is losing. Tears pricking her eyes, she rips off the dress and kicks her shoes into the wall before collapsing onto her bed.
Her coin heats against the hollow of her throat; suddenly furious and not knowing why, she yanks the chain until it breaks and hurls it across the room, rolling onto her side as the coin hits the wall with a muffled clink . She does not want to think of him, of either of them, not when her grief is so fresh and raw. What comfort could they bring? The dead do not come back to life, no matter who prays for it, and any solace her friends might offer would feel hollow. Curling in on herself, she wraps her arms around her body as if to hold herself together, letting her tears stain her pillow. Do not mourn for me, Macha had told her once, when I pass. Do not insult my memory by forgetting all but my death. Remember that I lived, and that I loved. It becomes too much, the empty space where her grandmother should be, and a sob rips out of her throat, warbling into a cry of despair and loss. Come back, please! Come back!
In the Celestial Realm, Mael stares at the coin in his palm, mouth twisted with worry. It has been cold for three days, and sometimes sorrow seems to radiate from it with a heartbeat’s pulsing rhythm. His fingers close over it, trying once more to gain some sort of sign that Moth is there and is okay. When it remains cool, he brings his fist to his mouth, pressing his lips against his knuckles as he furrows his brow in concentration. Where are you? He stands there, eyes closed, waiting for the answering flicker of heat that always, always comes. Finally, he lowers his hand, rubbing his thumb thoughtfully over the engraving on the coin’s surface. He is about to leave – he is due for training soon, and Ludoshel would be displeased if he were to be late again – when a pang of grief so strong that it tears his breath from his chest rips through him. Trembling, he studies the coin, but it is lifeless once again; more afraid than before, he turns and heads from the room, intending to ask when their next meeting with the Witch Clan will be.
In the palace of the Demon King, Estarossa is busy cleaning his sword. Chandler had despaired when he’d brought it to his training session the morning after his first visit to Cailleach, claiming that a kris was far too advanced for him to master. He has come a long way, thanks in no small part to Moth’s continuous encouragement and the tips she gathers from her own tutor, and he cannot wait to show her how easily he wields it now. His fingers are closed over the hilt when something tugs at him, something dark and cold and empty, and he lifts his head to peer around his room curiously. The scar on his palm ( blood pacts, Moth had said as they pressed their bleeding hands together, are lifelong symbols of friendship, and he’d grinned at her) itches. Rubbing his thumb across it absentmindedly, he stands from his seat and moves to the window, leaning out until he can see the northern sky. Moth . . .?
One day passes, then two. On the third, Moth forces herself to sit down and write replies to both letters. She means to keep them vague – a little lackluster, perhaps, but nothing that will clue Estarossa and Mael into how truly horrible she feels – but they end up full of her sorrow and rage. She reads over them with dull eyes, debates on trying to write them again, and then decides to send them as they are. It is too much effort for her to force cheer, and her friends can interpret her words how they wish. When Anais enters the room holding a tray of food, she hands her the letters and takes the meal – stew and bread and fruit – to her desk. She isn’t at all hungry, but she forces herself to eat anyway, knowing that she needs the strength if she’s to return to her training. Each bite turns to ash in her mouth, clogs her throat when she swallows, and it is a struggle to finish her lunch.
On the fourth day, the gates are opened to admit representatives from the Demon Clan. Moth stands behind her mother’s throne as Nemain greets them and accepts their condolences and gifts, scanning the crowd for a familiar mess of silver hair. It’s with disappointment that she realizes that Estarossa isn’t there, but a gift is handed to her that is addressed with her name in his usual untidy scrawl, and she almost smiles when she opens it to see a set of matching daggers forged from black steel. Beneath them is a book, and on its first page is a small note and a moth’s wing, the latter varnished carefully so it adheres to the paper. Turning the page, she sketches out the daggers and writes a note of her own, and then sets the journal aside to give to Anais in the morning. An easier way to share thoughts, she muses, and her eyes stray to the coin, which Anais had picked up and placed on her dresser.
The seventh day, the day of rest, dawns bright and warm. Moth has just joined her parents for breakfast when the footman rushes in, bearing a request for entry from the Goddess Clan. Nemain calls for more food to be cooked and places to be prepared at their table, and they stand when the procession enters, led by Tarmiel. The Archangel’s sorrow is sincere – he is old enough, Moth supposes, to have known Macha during her rule – and he pulls her aside after dinner to hand her a carefully wrapped package. His black on gold eyes are watery as he pats her hand, murmuring sympathetically about how he understands what she must be feeling. She cannot find it in her to be angry at a statement that would usually ruffle her, so she merely thanks him and pulls away, heading to her room. Inside, she sets the package on her bed and studies it.
It is undoubtedly from Mael. Only he would take so much care in wrapping a gift, choosing her favorite colors and carefully printing her name on a piece of paper tucked under the ribbon. Her lips twitch as she puts equal care into unwrapping it, trying to keep the box as pristine as possible. Inside is a blanket made of fabric so soft and warm that she wonders how it was made even as she lifts it out and pulls it around her shoulders. When she lifts part of it to her face, the scent of sandalwood and warm spice floods her nostrils, and she does smile. Did he sleep under it? Is that why it smells so like him? Under it is a stack of scrolls – the large ones unroll to reveal incredibly detailed maps while the smaller ones contain sketches and quick notes about what was drawn – and under them is a box of some of the finest tea available.
The note expresses his concern and worry and includes a carefully worded invitation to a gala being held in honor of the Lady Elizabeth’s birthday. Moth pauses as she thinks of whether she has anything important to do that day, then scribbles a quick reply in which she asks what she should wear. With everything taken care of, she turns to her bed, curling up on top of it and tucking the blanket beneath her body. Almost as an afterthought, she reaches out to pick up the coin, finally holding it to her chest and letting heat spark beneath her fingers. Immediately it warms, and it stays warm as she drifts off, a spark of sunlight held within her hand. She does not know how relieved Mael is to feel her there, nor how he keeps his own coin cradled carefully in his palm as he falls asleep, afraid that it will stay cold if he lets go.
Miles away, Estarossa is in the practice yard, grip loose on his sword. It is late, far later than his usual hours, but he is too anxious to rest, so he tries to clear his mind and focus on the new drills he has been shown. All he can see is the letter, that damn letter , with grief spilling from every word on the page; no one had known about the death of Macha until after the ceremony, per Witch Clan customs, and he hates that Moth suffered alone while he prattled on about training exercises . Lips curling into a snarl, he swipes savagely at the dummy, jarring his arm when the blade strikes the wooden post that holds it up, and he shakes his arm with a curse to ease the tingling in his fingers.
Moth laughing as she ducks underneath a snowball. Another swing, this time augmented with Hellblaze. Moth smiling as they pressed their palms together. He twists on his heel, bringing the blade over his shoulder. Moth snorting water out of her nose when he made her laugh at the Winter Solstice and swatting his arm even as she grinned. It sinks into the dummy, and he rips it out viciously, straw scattering across the ground. Moth plopping a sloppily woven crown of flowers on his head and proclaiming him Prince of the Forest. Another slash removes the dummy’s head, and he swings again to cut it in half before it hits the ground. Moth. Moth. Moth. Yelling, he hurls the sword, barely hearing how it ‘ clang ’s against the dirt, pressing his hands over his eyes.
“Estarossa?” He whirls around, surprised to see Aranak staring at him with sleepy eyes. “What are you doing here at this hour?”
Out of all the Commandments, Aranak is perhaps the oddest fit. As the Repose, he keeps an even temper and, when not slaughtering Goddesses, is what some would call compassionate and others would call weak. Smaller than Calmadios, but still larger than the others, his heavily scarred face is usually composed in an expression of polite interest. Now, however, he looks genuinely concerned, and Estarossa flushes under his scrutiny. When he refuses to answer, Aranak sighs and walks over, stooping down to pick up the sword he’d thrown and studying the blade idly. When he beckons Estarossa over, there is no choice but to comply; royalty or no, Aranak is his senior and could make his life difficult if he were to report his conduct to Meliodas.
“Is this about the Witch Queen’s daughter?” Estarossa starts and opens his mouth, but Aranak cuts him off, “I noticed the two of you seem close. When someone you care for is hurting, it is . . . difficult to deal with the feeling of helplessness.”
The Commandment of Repose pauses, and Estarossa says quickly, “It isn’t like that. She’s -”
“Your friend.” Aranak smiles lazily. “There is no shame in it. As the son of the Demon King, it would be awkward were you not to be on friendly terms with her. If there is ever a time, when she and your brother have ascended to their respective thrones, that you are sent as this Clan’s emissary, that friendship will be useful.”
Estarossa pauses, considering what to say next carefully. He has known Moth for years, has continuously exchanged letters and gotten himself placed on as many visits as he can, and to know that his fondness for her has not gone unnoticed is worrying. “What does my father think?”
Aranak shrugs. “I don’t believe he knows. Meliodas does not mind it, and that is enough for the rest of us. If, however, you are truly this worried, perhaps she is more than your friend?”
“No,” Estarossa denies hotly, “she isn’t.”
“I see,” Aranak muses. “Well, we are scheduled to send an envoy in two weeks’ time. There is another festival coming up, and our place in it is under fierce debate from the Goddess Clan. I would suggest asking to go along, if only to put your mind at ease.”
Estarossa blinks, stunned by the cavalier acceptance Aranak shows. Then again, with the Witch Clan seen as potential allies . . . “I’ll do that.”
“Good. I’ll leave you to your training, but do try not to break any of the equipment,” Aranak says mildly. He hands the sword back to Estarossa before turning and ambling back into the castle, leaving Estarossa gaping after him.
Once he is alone again, he turns his attention to the scar on his palm, rubbing it with his thumb. It does not warm or glow or anything of the sort, but, just for a moment, he seems to feel a brief sense of calm.
Chapter 7: Preparations
In which two people ponder how their feelings have changed and wonder if the risk is worth the reward.
“She seems so cool, so focused, so quiet,
yet her eyes remain fixed upon the horizon.
You think you know all there is to know about her
immediately upon meeting her,
but everything you think you know is wrong.
Passion flows through her like a river of blood.
She only looked away for a moment,
and the mask slipped, and you fell.
All your tomorrows start here.”
— Neil Gaiman
Clutching Moth’s reply in his hand, Mael realizes how deeply and utterly out of his depth he is. Before receiving her letter, he’d almost been able to convince himself that he was inviting her as a courtesy, but now she has accepted and his heart thrums anxiously in his chest. When had he first noticed that something about the way he views her is different? There are plenty of females around him — he trains with them, fights beside them, joins them for feasts and celebrations — but none fill him with such equal amounts of joy and melancholy like she does. He brings her letter to his face, inhaling to catch the faint hints of warm sugar and spice and something uniquely Moth clinging to the paper, thinking about the last time he had spoken to her in person.
It had been before Macha’s death, though well into her sickness. He had gone with the representatives of his Clan to the Summer Solstice, his gift for her clutched tightly in his hand, eager to spend the day exploring Cailleach and enjoying the festival. Moth had met him at the gate, waiting until Ludoshel was gone to throw her arms around his neck, laughing when she realized that she had to reach to do so, and his face had flushed when she’d pressed her lips to his cheek, her hair tickling the tip of his nose. She’d exclaimed over his gift, a finely-crafted silver ear cuff, and her own, a sash colored like the setting sun, had made him smile. From Gloxinia’s shady perch to the Belialuin scholars to the myriad of different shops, they’d wandered, Moth holding his hand like she always did (after him getting lost at one festival and her spending the day hunting for him, she’d vowed to never let it happen again), and he had felt truly, truly happy.
That night, they had gone to their usual perch atop an inn to watch the fireworks, and she had leaned against him as lions of gold leapt through hoops spun from living flame; he’d found himself watching her more than the show, watching the lights play over her face and hair. She had seemed so happy and yet so sad, a barely-there smile on her lips, and he had been struck by the sudden realization that she was lovely. He lived among beauty, his Clan was known for it, yet he’d thought then that none of them could compare to the witch, with her wind-mussed hair and storm-gray eyes turned black by the night. Mael left that night feeling confused. Moth was his friend, wasn’t she? But that idea of her loveliness under the stars refused to leave, and he’d hardly slept, kept up by the circling of his own thoughts.
Now, he sets the letter aside, turning to study himself in the mirror that hangs over his washbasin. His hair is still the same — long and silver, though sleeker than it was when he was a child — but he has begun to fill out, his body in the stage between adolescence and adulthood. His constant training has paid off, showing itself in the broad slope of his shoulders and the muscle that covers his arms and legs, and his face is losing its roundness, sharp angles and a strong jaw showing through. He tilts his head, wondering if Moth had noticed the differences at the Summer Solstice, trying to convince himself that he doesn’t care if she did. Then he cuts his gaze to the clothing he will wear at the gala, a fitted tunic and trousers and the sash Moth had given him, and he crosses the room, reaching out to run the vibrant orange silk between his fingers. One day, if he ever joined his brother among the Archangels, he would wear it to battle.
A knock at his door draws him from his musings. Opening it reveals Ludoshel, who sweeps past him into the room, glancing disinterestedly at the letter atop his desk. His brother wears his usual white robes, wings folded loosely against his back, though he has discarded his gauntlets, leaving his hands, pale and broad, uncovered. Mael waits for him to speak, feeling trepidation when he does little more than study the potential outfits Mael had previously tried on and abandoned, face pleasantly blank. Sometimes, despite the fact that they are brothers, Mael finds that he cannot read Ludoshel, cannot guess at what he might be thinking, and those are the times when he is either scolded or given new orders. His own wings flare and rustle nervously, and Ludoshel finally turns from his inspection of Mael’s outfit to face him.
“I heard that you were inviting Queen Nemain’s daughter to Lady Elizabeth’s gala,” Ludoshel says. He sounds neither pleased nor disappointed.
“Y-yes.” Mael clears his throat. “I did.”
“Mo. . . Lady Alessa agreed to come.” Ludoshel’s mouth thins at the near slip, and Mael holds in a wince. He soldiers on with, “I was about to send her a letter . . .”
Ludoshel cuts him off. “There’s no need. A small retinue from the Witch Clan is coming to pay their respects. I expect she will arrive with them.” A pause. “Why did you invite her?”
Mael freezes, feeling his heart plummet. There is something cold about the way Ludoshel speaks of Moth, not the same disdain he shows for the Demon Clan but something close to it, and Mael is afraid that he has overstepped some boundary, broken some law of which he was not aware. Ludoshel is still watching him, so he manages to force out, “She’s my friend.”
“Your friend.” Ludoshel favors him with a warmly exasperated look, and Mael relaxes. He thinks he is in the clear until Ludoshel says, “Honestly, do you take me for a fool? You disappear with her at every festival, constantly toy with that coin around your neck — you thought I didn’t notice? — and now you have invited her to a gala. I would say that you are more than friends.”
Cheeks burning, Mael stares at the floor. “We aren’t . . . She doesn’t . . . I haven’t . . .”
There is a tense moment of silence, and then Ludoshel sighs, reaching out to place his hand on Mael’s arm. “She is important to you?”
“. . . Yes.” Mael thinks about the peace her letters bring, the night under the fireworks, the way he waits each day for his coin to heat against his neck to let him know that she’s there. “She is.”
“Then I will help you.” At Mael’s stunned look, Ludoshel smiles kindly. “I may not approve, but the Witch Clan are not our enemies. I only hope that she is worth the time you devote to her.”
Relief floods through Mael; he closes his eyes, missing the brief look of cunning that slides across Ludoshel’s face as he tries to steady his heartbeat. “Thank you.”
Ludoshel pats his arm lightly before withdrawing, moving to reach for the door. “Of course. You are, after all, my precious younger brother. I will see to it that she is brought to you upon arrival. Goodnight.”
Mael nods, waiting until he is certain Ludoshel is gone before he strides quickly to his desk, scrawling out a hasty letter to Moth telling her how excited he is for her company. He almost adds that he has something important to tell her, but decides against it as he doesn’t wish to cause her to worry, though he does end his letter with stronger words of affection than usual. His coin warms as he is sealing the envelope, and he smiles as he reaches up to return the gesture, trying not to feel too happy when it stays heated for longer than it normally does. She is thinking of him, and that is always a good thing in his mind, has been since the coins were first enchanted that night so very long ago. Then he turns his attention to the bottle of hair tonic tucked away in a drawer, purchased secretly on one of his outings to the market. He’s had little luck with it so far — his hair adamantly refuses to rest as nicely as Ludoshel’s — but perhaps he’s simply not using it correctly . . .
Moth groans for the fifth time in as many minutes, resisting the urge to stalk out of the room. Nemain, upon learning that her daughter plans to attend a gala, brought in the seamstress responsible for making the elegant gowns she wears for political meetings and festivities, and they all have spent the last week stuck in one of the castle’s fitting rooms, where Nemain watches as the seamstress circles and clucks about her daughter and Moth tries her hardest not to get snippy when another piece of constructive criticism comes her way. They had tried different fabrics in different colors, different dresses in different styles, but all were tossed away for clashing with her complexion or not fitting the season. She would be much more comfortable going in something simple, which is why, as another pin pokes her leg, she fixes her mother with a pleading expression.
Nemain merely laughs, shaking her head, and it is all Moth can do not to sulk. She had taken her coin off, per the seamstress’s request, and clutches it tightly, hoping that some inkling of the frustration she feels reaches Mael. “Shoulders back, dear,” the seamstress hums, and Moth nearly screams. Shoulders back, chin up, don’t swing your arms when you walk, on and on and on. It’s with elation that she shrugs out of the gown when told to do so, immediately yanking on her usual tunic and leggings and ignoring the way her mother hides a smile behind her hand. When the seamstress is gone, Moth rounds on her mother, brows furrowed, only to stop short at the sight of Nemain taking a hearty drink from a glass of wine.
“Hopefully,” Nemain drawls, “that will be the last of the alterations. After all, the gala is next week, and even Lina couldn’t craft an entirely new gown in that time.” She takes another sip of wine. “At least, I hope not.”
Caim peers around the door, lips twitching. “You could always hire a new seamstress.”
“They wouldn’t be nearly as talented,” Nemain replies absently.
“But maybe not as overbearing,” Moth mutters, and Caim laughs, coming into the room to pull her to his chest and ruffle her hair.
Nemain frowns, but her eyes are alight with mirth. “I promise that you will get used to her with time. She is a craftsman and takes great pride in her work. The two of you will be spending quite a lot of evenings together in the future, you know.”
“Not if I don’t wear dresses,” she huffs. All the venom has left her voice, however, so it doesn’t carry as much of a bite as she would like.
“When you are queen,” Caim says, “you may outlaw dresses if you so choose. In fact, you may even attend meetings sans clothing, though that might cause quite a few problems.”
“Do not encourage our daughter to be a nudist.” Nemain rubs at her temples, eyes closed as if in pain.
Caim continues blithely, “I, for one, know that I would quite enjoy if your mother didn’t —”
He falls silent when Nemain scowls at him, offering an apologetic smile. Moth glances between the two of them, still huddled against her father’s side. Even to her, inexperienced as she is, the love between them is so apparent and strong, especially in these private hours where the strict regulations of court and etiquette fall away and they are simply a family. She wonders how many people assume that her father is a silent and taciturn man, how many would be shocked to see him so carefree despite the first lines of silver streaking through his dark hair. Nemain stands and comes to join them, kissing Caim’s cheek before leaning over to do the same to Moth’s forehead. It is a mother’s gesture, pure and warm and soothing, and Moth basks in it and the way Nemain brushes an unruly lock of hair out of her face.
“I know you dislike this,” Nemain murmurs, “but not only will you be attending a gala thrown for another royal, it will be your first introduction to the Supreme Deity’s court, and they will not be kind if they think you are lacking in some way.”
Moth frowns but says nothing as her mother tucks her hair behind her ear. She knows all of this, and Nemain must see her exhaustion and worry on her face because she sends her off to bed. Her room has always been a sanctuary, and it’s with gratitude that she closes the door behind her and slips out of her clothes, intending to take a nice, long soak in the tub to relax. The mirror next to her wardrobe catches her attention as she passes; pausing, she studies her reflection critically, noting the leaner limbs and the budding breasts and slim waist, before moving on. Ignoring the sight of Estarossa’s letter — something about it makes guilt churn in her stomach, and part of her believes that it is because she feels that she is betraying him somehow by attending the gala with Mael — she enters the bath. The scent of vanilla and spice fills the bathroom as she adds oils to the water, and then she sinks in, groaning as the heat soothes the ache in her muscles. As she often does when she’s alone, she finds her thoughts drifting to Mael, with his starlight hair and seafoam eyes, and a flush that can’t be blamed entirely on steam stains her cheeks.
Had he noticed the way she’d looked at him at the festival? She had tried so hard not to let her adoration of him show, to be his friend. But the feeling of his hand in hers set her heart racing in her chest. As she contemplates Mael, her mind wanders back to the fireworks and the moment she’d thought he might kiss her and the realization that she would welcome it if he did. Moth ducks her head beneath the water, feeling unusually warm when she thinks of how much taller he had been, of the strength contained within his lean frame. Releasing a frustrated huff, she emerges and reaches for the soapsand, scrubbing irritably at her hair. He is her friend. But, a small part of her whispers, why invite you to the gala if he doesn’t feel the same way? Especially when an invitation had already been sent by the Supreme Deity? She stills, heart thudding, wondering if she had missed some sign of his affection for her.
It isn’t possible. Is it?
Chewing on her lower lip, she stares at the water, wondering what she should do. There would be no qualms, of course, if she were to enter into a relationship with Mael. Caim would retain his role as Consort until either he or Nemain passed away; if he outlived her, then he would take on an advisor’s role, guiding Mael on what would be expected of him as Queen Consort, and would remain in his position as head of the militia until he retired. Taking a goddess as a consort is unprecedented, yes (there are rumors of Macha taking a demon as hers, but no records to prove it), but would be accepted as long as Mael didn’t attempt to twist it to his Clan’s advantage. Groaning, she leans back to knock her head against the rim of the bath. Thinking of how her Clan would react is little more than speculation, a distraction from the question she doesn’t want to think about.
Does Mael see her as more than a friend? Moth could ask him at the gala, she supposes, but, if she’s wrong, she could damage a relationship that is very important to her. Staring at the ceiling, she comes to a decision. She will attend the gala in whatever dress Lina crafts, let Anais fuss over her appearance until both of them are satisfied, and she will treat Mael as she always has. If he does want something more from her, then it will be up to him to make the first move. And, if he doesn’t, then their friendship can carry on unscathed while she overcomes her interest in him. Moth leaves the bath, feeling much calmer now that she has an idea of what to do. As she curls up on her bed, snuggling beneath the warm quilts, she thinks again of seafoam eyes and silver hair, and the rush of warmth in her chest is not quite unwelcome.
Chapter 8: Of Galas and Confessions
Not all that glitters is gold, and only fools mistake crystals for a diamond.
“I have drunken deep of joy,
and I will taste no other wine tonight.”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley
Anxiety runs high the night of the gala. Moth’s gown is resplendent — it drapes around her like smoke, with a fitted bodice and slit skirt and low back — her hair is intricately braided away from her face, and she has learned all she can about etiquette and poise, but she cannot silence the worry that nags at her. What if she is not enough? What if her gift, carefully chosen and wrapped in silver paper, offends rather than pleases? What if, what if, what if. It chases through her thoughts until her hands tremble against her sides. Nemain smiles at her as she places the circlet of silver on her brow, settling it neatly against her dark hair, and Moth finds herself wanting to beg for her mother to come with her, longs for the days when she could hide behind her skirts and feel the comfort of her hand upon her head. Then the horns sound and Nemain steps away, magic flaring around the procession and teleporting them to the portal that will take them to the Celestial Realm.
A goddess dressed in silver armor stands to attention by the gate, sword flickering in the evening light. From her place at the front of the retinue, Moth can see that the blade is wreathed in flame, holy fire that would deter all but the strongest of invaders; worry creeps along her spine, easing only when the goddess moves aside to allow them entry. They step through onto a cobbled street that winds up to the palace, lined on either side by trees with slender branches and silver bark. Glancing back reveals the city below, white rooftops shimmering in the dusk. One of the courtiers, a woman with golden hair and catlike eyes whose name is Laina, smiles and nudges her gently to get her moving, so she takes a deep breath and begins the mild climb to the golden gates in the distance. They are farther than they look, and it is only the chill air that keeps her from becoming disheveled as she reaches them. There is a footman waiting for them who beckons impatiently for them to follow. Moth fights back a scowl, studying his wings (only two, she notes with some surprise) and the red hue of his hair.
They enter the palace and her ire fades, taken over by awe. A slow waltz echoes through the room, somehow lively despite its easy tempo, the violins trilling sweetly above the steady thrum of the cellos. Unlike the clean scent of outside, traces of perfume fill through the air, trailing after the women wearing it; there is jasmine and rose and vanilla, all mingled with the faint ghost of incense. Everything seems to glitter, from the polished marble floors to the white pillars to the vaulted ceiling, which is inlaid with gold and stained glass. Goddesses stroll about, dressed in finely woven gowns and tunics, some clutching glasses of champagne while others sample delicacies from trays carried by masked servants. A table holds a fountain filled with a pale pink liquid which spouts from the beaks of four large birds, filling the crystal goblets below, and small, glowing orbs float lazily above it. There is a large space in the middle of the floor occupied by couples engaged in what looks like an intricate dance, all moving to the rhythm of the nearby orchestra.
The footman weaves through the crowd, which parts to make way for the Witch Clan, though not every gaze is friendly, and stops at the foot of a dais upon which stand Ludoshel and a goddess who can only be the princess. Moth recognizes her from Mael’s description, noting the flowing silver hair and warm blue eyes, both complemented by the pale gray color of her gown. Elizabeth’s smile is genuine when Moth is introduced, her voice musical and kind when she greets her and accepts the gift. And she does seem to be truly pleased when she pulls out an intricately crafted necklace, made from silver with a sapphire dangling from the chain.
Elizabeth looks apologetic as Moth is led away so that others can ply the princess with gifts; she is halfway to the doors to the veranda, craving fresh air, when a voice calls out, “Lady Alessa! A moment of your time?” Turning reveals Ludoshel, who strides towards her purposefully.
“Lord Ludoshel,” she murmurs, inclining her head. “Of course. What can I do for you?”
He halts in front of her, offering his arm, which she takes with some reluctance. “Mael has been looking forward to your arrival. I promised to bring you to him when I could.”
“I see. That’s very kind of you.” Be kind, but polite. Her mother’s words ring in her head, so she smiles in what she hopes is an acceptable way.
Which is why it takes her off guard when he says, as casually as if he were discussing the weather, “I only hope that this isn’t some scheme of your mother’s to spy upon our Clan.”
Anger flashes through her, heating her face, and it is everything she can do not to strike him. There is a smug smile playing across his lips when he turns his head to look at her, clearly waiting for her response, and Moth bites back her ire, tempers the magic curling under her skin, drawling coldly, “There doesn’t seem to be anyone worth spying on, so I’m not sure why you would think she would waste her time."
His fingers tighten on her forearm, but his face remains placid. “I only wish to ensure the safety of my brethren. Particularly Mael. He can be . . . Easily swayed by affection, and I would hate for you to take advantage of that.”
“I can assure you that I have no intention of swaying him.” She glances around, searching for Mael.
“See to it that you do not,” Ludoshel replies stiffly. Then, in a more cordial tone, he adds, “I apologize for upsetting you. It was not my intention. Our Clans have not always been on the best of terms, and I do not wish to see Mael harmed.”
Relief floods her when she spots the familiar messy gray hair by one of the pillars. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Mael is trying to be patient. He knows that there are rules and customs, that Moth will have to pay respects to Elizabeth before she is free to enjoy the gala, but he cannot stop the faint tinges of disappointment whenever he sees a dark head of hair and it doesn’t belong to her. He’d found a comfortable place by one of the pillars where he could scan the crowd easily; the Witch Clan has given their gifts, so where is she? He is considering moving to a different spot — she could be on the opposite side of the room, after all — when the people in front of him move aside and she steps through the gap and he forgets how to breathe. She is lovely, so lovely, eyes vibrant and lashes darkened with kohl, and he cannot stop his eyes from sweeping over her form, taking in the slender curves, the long legs that flash tauntingly through the slit in her skirt with every step.
Moth stops in front of him. There is an expression of discomfort on her face, but it fades when she tilts her head back to meet his gaze, and the softness of her smile sets his heart hammering in his chest. “Hello, Mael.”
When had his name started sounding so sweet in her voice? He swallows around the lump in his throat, praying that he doesn’t make a fool of himself. “Hey.” Moth’s lips twitch, and he rushes to add. “You look lovely. I mean, you always look lovely, but the dress is nice.”
“Thank you. You look quite handsome, yourself.” There is laughter in her voice, but it isn’t cruel, which makes it easy to bear. “Is that the sash I gave you?”
Mael nods, breath hitching in his throat when she reaches out to run her fingers over the cloth just above his hip. It’s an innocent gesture, merely her being as curious as ever, but he is at that age where he can be easily distracted by a simple touch or caress, and he’s dreamed about having her in his arms, about being back at the festival and closing the distance between them to see if her lips are as soft as they look. Moth looks up and he realizes that she is just as close now as she was then. Would she let him kiss her? Would she like it? The thought is tempting, and he almost pulls her to him, and then she is stepping back, looking at the nearby dancers and he loses his nerve. It doesn’t help when he glances up to see Sariel staring at him with one brow arched, lips curled in amusement, and he blushes and looks away.
A hand on his arm startles him, but it is only Moth, head tilted and eyes concerned. “Are you alright? You look feverish.”
“Yeah, I’m —” He breaks off, seeing Sariel moving closer. “Actually, would you like to go outside? The gardens have been decorated and I think you’d like them.”
Moth blinks. “Sure.”
He offers his arm to her and she takes it, body pressing against his side as he leads them through the ballroom; he is keenly aware of all the places their bodies touch, and it is all he can do to keep up a relaxed facade. Once they’re on the veranda, she lets out a little gasp and pauses, staring in wonder at the lights that hover along the paths and through the trees, like stars brought down to the earth. Music echoes in the air from the quartet stationed by the fountain, the same song being played inside for those who wish to dance, and it seems so fragile in the night, entwined with crickets chirping to create a new melody. Moth turns to him, takes his hands in hers and pulls him down towards the fountain and the other couples there. It’s apparent that she wants to dance, bouncing on the balls of her feet when they reach the outskirts of the crowd, so he takes a deep breath to steady his nerves before bowing and extending his arm.
“May I have this dance?”
Moth smiles and takes his hand, guiding it to rest on her waist. “I’d like that, yes.”
They join the circle, one of Moth’s hands pressing against his shoulder while the other finds his and holds it. Mael vaguely remembers his dancing lessons, recognizes the tune being played as a waltz and knows that it’s one of the easier routines to follow. He makes the first move, Moth following along gracefully; it isn’t long before they are twirling in time to the other couples, Moth laughing whenever he lifts or spins her. The tension fades from his shoulders, focus narrowing until they are the only ones who exist, who matter. He cannot take his eyes off her, noting with vivid clarity the way her skin glows under the light and how her hair flows like ink around her shoulders. She looks divine, a spirit of joy and beauty — eyes glittering, dress swirling around her ankles — a night deity come to walk the earth. Mael could dance with her forever. He would have, he thinks, if not for the way the music ends, causing her to step back, though she doesn’t go far with his arm still around her waist.
He is leaning down to ask her if she wants to head inside when someone bumps into him, knocking him forward, and it takes a second for his mind to catch up and realize that his mouth is on hers, lips pressed together in a way that isn’t exactly uncomfortable, but is certainly awkward and not at all what he planned. They remain frozen until Mael begins to panic; when he tries to pull away, apologies forming on his tongue, she curls her fingers into his tunic and holds him steady, tilting her head so their lips fit easily together and, oh, it’s better than he thought it would be. There aren’t sparks or butterflies or any of the other things he’s read about, just a steady warmth that fills him and makes him happy. She is smiling when she draws back, a pretty blush staining her cheeks.
“I —” He stops, uncertain of what to say.
Moth laughs and takes his hand, intertwining their fingers. “You . . .?”
Mael takes a deep breath, gathering his courage. “I’ve wanted to do that since the festival, but I wasn’t sure if you . . . If you wanted me to. And I invited you so I could . . . So I could ask you, but then . . .” He is stumbling, pre-rehearsed speeches deserting him.
“Can you do it again?” There is something sly to her grin. “I don’t think your intentions were clear the first time.”
He gapes at her, mind blanking. Then he reaches out and cups her head, fingers sliding through her hair and it’s softer than he imagined it would be, like silk against his palm. When he kisses her, it’s slow and hesitant, a barely there touch that he leans into when she presses back against him, hands resting against his chest. His pulse thrums under his skin as they stay that way, lips sliding softly against each other, and he knows there is more to it than this but he doesn’t care. She fits so nicely against him, like she was made for him, made to be in his arms, that he doesn’t want to let her go. Without conscious thought, his wings shift and fold around them, shielding them both from view as he breaks the kiss, heart stuttering when he sees the look of utter contentment on her face. Then the world comes back into focus and he hears the cheering and whistles of the goddess nearby and his eyes widen, anxiety replacing joy as he looks up and catches sight of Ludoshel standing a few feet away, expression unreadable.
Moth frowns when she feels Mael stiffen. Has she done something wrong? That was her first kiss — well, first two kisses, she supposes — and she knows that she is inexperienced, but it didn’t feel awful to her. Then she notices that he’s not looking at her and turns to follow his gaze, eyes landing on Ludoshel. Their earlier conversation flickers in her mind, making her mouth go dry with sudden alarm. Does he think that she lied to him? That she is swaying Mael for her mother’s gain? She cannot read his face, is too afraid to send her magic out to test his thoughts, so she curls her arms around Mael’s waist and nuzzles her face against his chest, fingers tightening in his tunic. Footsteps crunch along the gravel, an unmistakable quiet flooding around the Archangel as the other goddess step back to give him room. Do not hide from the things that frighten you. Face them. Her instructor’s words echo through her mind, so she straightens her back and moves until she is staring at Ludoshel, hands on Mael’s arms to keep them around her stomach.
To her surprise, Ludoshel merely says, “I suppose your night has gone well so far?”
“Yes,” Mael replies quietly, and Ludoshel nods.
Then his attention shifts to her. “And you, Lady Alessa? How are you finding the gala?”
“It’s lovely,” she replies, smiling faintly.
“I’m pleased that you’re enjoying your visit.” Ludoshel studies her for a moment, and she is suddenly terribly aware of how her hair is falling down and her skin is flushed. To her surprise, he says nothing about her rumpled appearance. “The Lady Elizabeth wishes to extend an invitation for you to remain here until the week is done, as she would like to learn more about you.”
Moth blinks. “I . . .” Mael shifts behind her, arms loosening around her waist, and she leans into him. “Tell her that I accept her offer and look forward to meeting her properly.”
Ludoshel inclines his head. “She will be pleased to hear that.” He pauses, then adds quietly, “Truth be told, she is not the only one who will be happy that you have decided to stay.” He nods faintly and turns to head back inside. “Enjoy the rest of your evening. I will have the servants prepare a room for you.”
“What did he mean by ‘not the only one’?” Moth looks up at Mael, surprised to find him blushing furiously as he stares at the spot previously occupied by his brother. “Mael?”
He clears his throat. “I’m happy that you’re staying. We haven’t seen each other for a very long time, after all.”
“Yes,” she agrees, leaning against him. He is warm and comfortable, and she would have no problem staying like that for the rest of the night, but . . . “What was in that fountain inside?”
“Hm? Oh! Apple cider. Do you want some?” Mael finally shifts his attention to her, smiling softly, and she reaches up to stroke her fingers through his hair.
He steps away and takes her hand, guiding her back inside. She catches a glimpse of Sariel and Tarmiel by the doors, both looking away quickly when they notice her gaze; confused and amused, she follows Mael to the fountain, waiting patiently while he grabs two of the glasses and hands one to her. The cider is crisp and sweet, with a faint aftertaste of berries. Closing her eyes, she lets out a content hum, missing the way Mael flushes again. It’s only when she hears a laugh that she opens her eyes to see Tarmiel frantically shushing a doubled-over Sariel, and she wonders what he’s seen that’s filled him with so much mirth. When Mael carefully places his arm around her shoulders, she leans into him, smiling as she takes another sip of cider. Books had told her that love is supposed to be fierce and blinding, but all she feels is a sense of peace. It’s enough for her to ignore the faint sense of unease at the back of her mind, as though something is out of place.
Chapter 9: The Divine
They are always watching over you.
“I shut my eyes and all the world drops dead;
I lift my eyes and all is born again.”
— Sylvia Plath
Moth spends the rest of the evening nestled against Mael’s side, sometimes talking with him quietly, and sometimes merely watching the other guests in comfortable silence. He escorts her to her designated room at the end of the night and leaves her with a chaste kiss on the cheek and a promise to see her after he is done with training. She bathes and falls into the bed, which is softer and somehow less pleasant than her own, joy keeping her awake far longer than she wants to be with a meeting with the princess in the morning. Finally, she sleeps, but her dreams are odd and vivid, full of a fragmented world and the melodic, mournful song of a creature she does not know. When morning comes, she dresses in a simple gown she finds in the armoire and combs out her hair, finishing her preparations just as a goddess knocks on her door.
She’s led through the halls to a pair of intricate wooden doors; birds alight on vines of gold, vibrant against the dark cherry background. A soft voice bids her welcome as they open to a room that is spacious and extravagant, with marbled floors and an open balcony with glass and silver doors that can be closed if it gets too cold. Seated on the balcony at a petite white table is Elizabeth, dressed in a plain top and dark skirt, hair down and swaying in the morning breeze. She stands as Moth crosses the room, smile lighting her face when she meets Moth in the middle and lifts her arms before halting uncertainly. Then she places her hands on Moth’s shoulders and leans in to kiss her cheek, smelling faintly of sugar and something airy and light.
“I’m so pleased you decided to stay!” Elizabeth’s eyes are glowing with delight when she pulls away.
Moth offers a small smile in return, her reply feeling stiff and formal on her tongue. “Your invitation was an unexpected, but pleasant, surprise.”
Elizabeth waves her hand. “Of course I’d want to meet you. Mael talks about you all the time! Would you like some tea?”
“Um . . .” Stunned by the idea of Mael mentioning her to Elizabeth — hopefully only good things, she worries — it takes her a moment to process the question. “Oh! Yes!”
Laughing softly, but not at all cruelly, Elizabeth takes her arm and leads her to the balcony. As she sits, Moth takes the opportunity to study the view offered by their position, which is more breathtaking than she imagined. Cailleach is beautiful, with its bountiful forest and snow-capped mountains, but the Celestial Realm, perched above the clouds, seems to stretch as far as the horizon, the islands fading into speckles of green in the distance. Looking directly down reveals a garden full of vibrant flowers and trees heavy with fruit, the scent of honeysuckle wafting up to Elizabeth’s rooms. The distant sounds of birdsong fill the air, complemented by the droning of bumblebees and the whisper of the breeze through the curtains.
“This is your first visit, isn’t it?” Elizabeth is watching her, expression kind. “Do you like it?”
“Yes,” Moth breathes, “it’s beautiful.”
Elizabeth pours them each a cup of tea. It is fragrant and warm, and tastes of jasmine and peppermint when Moth takes a sip. Elizabeth turns her attention to the sky, finger tracing the rim of her cup, then she says, “Mael’s really fond of you, you know. He was so pleased when you decided to come to the gala. I don’t think I’ve seen him that happy since his first scouting with Ludoshel.”
Moth nearly inhales her mouthful of tea. “I —”
“He came and asked me for advice two days ago.” Elizabeth glances at Moth, hiding her smile behind her cup. “About courting.”
This time Moth does choke, earning a look of alarm from Elizabeth, who leans over to pat her back until she’s breathing easily again. “That’s . . . unexpected.”
“Not at all! He’s been infatuated with you for quite some time. It’s only normal that he’d want to court you, and your visit makes it easier for him to do so.”
Moth nods, resisting the urge to fiddle with her skirt. Had she truly been that blind to his affections for them to be so apparent to everyone else? Keenly aware of the princess’s stare on her, kind and worried, she reaches for one of the pastries and takes a bite, chewing to buy time to think. If she was so ignorant of Mael’s feelings, is there anyone else who she might be hurting unintentionally? The idea makes the sweet clump unpleasantly in her mouth, so she washes it down with a sip of tea, the once pleasing taste now watery on her tongue.
They pass the next hour with Moth steadfastly changing the topic whenever she feels that it is getting too close to dangerous territory, something she is sure leaves a horrible impression on her host. Finally, the noon bell rings, and Elizabeth stands from the table, swallowing the last bite of cake. Confused, Moth mimics her, pushing her own empty plate away.
“Would you like to see the Archangels’ training? It’s quite interesting to watch,” Elizabeth offers, and Moth nods.
Part of her is curious, eager for the chance to see how the strongest of the Goddess Clan prepare for battle. The other wants to see Mael in action; every time she has been around him so far, he has remained on the ground, and his wings would flutter from time to time as though he longed to take to the skies. As she follows Elizabeth, she wonders if he will be there — she knows that he is training to join their ranks, but he would have told her if he’d finally been given a Grace — and hopes that he will be.
Is that really why you want to see him? The thought is quiet, barely there. Or is there another reason? Perhaps it’s because he asked Elizabeth about courting . . . She silences it with a small shake of her head, listening to Elizabeth point out various rooms as they walk through the palace. There is only one small hiccup to their plans, being the fact that the training grounds are on a different island and Moth cannot fly, but it’s solved when Moth tells Elizabeth that she can walk, in a way, across the sky by concentrating magic around her feet.
They arrive to the sounds of swords clashing and wings thrumming through the air. Ludoshel and Sariel are off to the side, while Tarmiel leads the drills, and Elizabeth and Moth join them in the shade of the tree they’re under. Ludoshel greets them cordially, as does Sariel, but there is something vaguely concerning about the knowing way he grins at Moth, as if he knows a secret she does not. As Elizabeth chats with the two of them, Moth turns her attention to the drills, scanning the goddesses for Mael’s silver hair; she spots him sparring with another goddess with tawny hair, and her thoughts screech to a sudden halt. Mael is shirtless, clad only in dark trousers and golden greaves, his hair down and flowing around his shoulders as he circles his opponent, and she cannot stop her eyes from trailing along his torso, noting with vivid clarity the sheen of sweat coating his chest and arms. A hand on her shoulder jars her, and she whips around to see Elizabeth looking at her with concern.
“Are you alright?” With what Moth would call amusement if not for Elizabeth’s kind nature, she adds, “Your face is awfully flushed.”
Moth nods, mentally berating herself for acting so foolish. “Yes. It’s just warmer than I’m used to.”
“Of course it is,” Sariel drawls, earning himself a sharp look from Ludoshel.
“Are all of them training to become Archangels?” Moth asks, if only to change the topic to one that is safer for her sanity.
“No,” Ludoshel replies. “Only the strongest among us are capable of holding the power of an Archangel, and their candidacy is decided by their prowess on the battlefield.” With a hint of pride, he continues, “The only one here currently under consideration is Mael.”
Elizabeth nods. “Archangels aren’t just great warriors. They also have to have certain qualities — ones that would make them a good leader, like compassion.”
“Or,” Sariel yawns, “they have to be able to at least command respect.”
Moth thinks over the new information. Then she says, “I see,” and turns her attentions back to the training.
Now that she understands, she carefully reaches out with her magic, grazing along the soldiers. While all of them are powerful to varying degrees, Mael does stand out, his power bright against that of his peers. He looks up, eyes finding her across the arena and, to her surprise, his own magic presses back against hers as if to say, Hello. I see you. Eyes wide, she withdraws her power quickly, and Mael grins faintly in her direction as he ducks under a swipe from his opponent’s sword. He breaks away, heading for Tarmiel, and says something to the Archangel that has his brows furrowing before he nods and steps back. Moth wonders what Mael asked — his expression had been one that she’d seen him wear before when making a polite request — then Tarmiel draws a blade and she feels her heart drop. Is Mael planning on fighting him? Her question is answered when Mael lunges, his blow blocked by Tarmiel.
The other soldiers stop what they’re doing to back away, forming a wide ring around Mael and Tarmiel. With a low noise, Ludoshel strides through the crowd, Moth, Elizabeth, and Sariel trailing in his wake until all of them stand at the front of the circle with a clear view of the fight. Mael is strong; despite his lesser experience, he easily keeps up with and presses Tarmiel, eyes narrowed with concentration as he blocks a blow and counters it with one of his own. Moth’s hands clench against her stomach as she watches, and she gasps quietly when the flat of Tarmiel’s sword slams into Mael’s shoulder. When Mael swings at his chest, Tarmiel steps away, leaving Mael off balance, and he takes the opportunity to lash out at Mael’s exposed side. Mael ducks, flicking his blade so that the tip catches Tarmiel’s just above the hilt, then he twists his wrist and Tarmiel nearly loses his grip.
They break apart, circling each other cautiously. At her side, Ludoshel stiffens, mouth tight with either displeasure or worry, as they clash once more. The two weave around each other, striking and blocking and parrying while the crowd cheers around them. To Moth’s surprise, Mael seems to be wearing Tarmiel down, his attacks methodical and cautious in contrast to his earlier brash actions; then Tarmiel makes the mistake of trying to counter what turns about to be a feint and Mael catches his wrist with the flat of his sword, disarming him. There is a stunned silence as he rests the tip of his sword against Tarmiel’s throat. Even Mael seems startled by the outcome, breathing heavily as he turns to look at Ludoshel as if seeking confirmation of his narrow victory. The quiet lasts for another heartbeat before the other soldiers erupt into cheers and praise, swarming around Mael as Tarmiel laughs and pats his shoulder.
Moth breaks through the crowd, stopping in front of Mael and grinning at the stunned pleasure on his face. “That was amazing!”
“Yes.” He blinks, then looks at her fully. “I thought he would see through my feint.”
“Hm . . .” She steps closer, tilting her head back to keep his gaze. His eyes drag along her face and she is suddenly, painfully aware of the fact that there is barely any room between them and he is probably still riled up from the fight and then his arms are around her back and she thinks he will kiss her, but he settles for ghosting his lips across her cheek. Moth pulls away, the flush on her face mirrored on his when the sound of someone whistling reaches their ears. “That was, uh . . .”
Mael tightens his grip, resting his chin on her head. “You’re a good luck charm.”
Moth hides her face against his chest, biting back a laugh as she says, “I am not. You’ve worked hard to get here. Don’t undermine that.”
“. . . You really think so?” His voice is soft, something akin to worry hidden beneath his casual tone, and she pulls back enough to look at him.
“Of course I do!” Moth smiles and he relaxes, slowly letting her go and stepping away.
Then the Archangels are gathered around him, Ludoshel’s face warm and proud as he rests his hand on Mael’s shoulder, and Moth lets her smile fade into one of genuine affection. She is pleased for him — she knows how much it means to him to be recognized like this, about the hours he’s spent training to be a warrior his brother can be proud of, so to see him standing tall while Ludoshel praises him so openly makes her happy in a way that she hasn’t experienced before. She’s so caught up in watching him, in seeing how his face lights up when even Sariel says something nice, that she fails to notice the way a petite blonde goddess glares at her from across the practice yard; Mael beckons to her, and the blonde’s glare, still unnoticed, deepens as Moth makes her way over to him, letting him pull her into a loose, one-armed embrace.
He leans down to murmur, “Will you meet me at the palace gates in one hour? I need to freshen up.”
Moth nods and he presses a quick kiss to the top of her head before following the other soldiers out of the yard. Elizabeth moves to stand next to her, smiling as she leans down to look at Moth’s face, and Moth gives her a curious glance. “What?”
“Nothing,” Elizabeth laughs, “I just haven’t seen him so carefree in a long time.”
“If I could . . .” I’d make sure he was always this happy. Moth lets the words die on her tongue, shaking her head slowly. Then she glances down at her dress, which is dusty and a bit damp from Mael’s sweaty hug, wrinkling her nose. “Do you have anything less . . . formal that I could borrow?”
Elizabeth tilts her head, eyes thoughtful. “I think I might have something that will fit you. Let’s go see.”
The two head back towards the main island, chatting easily about the different sword techniques they’d witnessed and how they could apply them to their own fighting styles; Moth is pleasantly surprised to find out that Elizabeth has battle training, though she prefers to heal whenever she can, and Elizabeth seems startled when she learns that witches have no innate talent for healing outside of poultices and potions. They promise to exchange tips when they can, Elizabeth adding through a secretive smile that Moth might be quite busy over the next few days. No matter how Moth asks, the princess refuses to say more than that, and she’s left to worry over her meaning as a servant runs a bath for her while Elizabeth goes to look through her wardrobe. As she sinks into the water, her coin flares to life against her neck, and she stares at her reflection in the water as she curls her fingers around it. With a pang, she realizes that she hasn’t written to Estarossa before the gala; worried about how her friend might feel, she resolves to draft a letter after meeting with Mael. Surely he’s okay. Isn’t he?
Chapter 10: The Other Side
Beware the children of Macha's line, for with them comes grief untold.
“And, yes, I’ll admit I am jealous.
I’m jealous of every minute you spend with him,
of every concerned expression you send his way,
of every tear shed, of every glance, every touch,
every thought. I want to rip him to pieces
and purge him from your mind and from your heart.
But I can’t.”
— Colleen Houck
It had started as a dare.
When word had reached the Demon Clan of an extravagant gala being held in honor of the goddess princess’s birthday, Meliodas had immediately come up with the idea of crashing it for sport, and Estarossa had agreed to go along. Months were spent planning how to break in and, later on, leave without being detected; their goal, Meliodas explained coldly, wasn’t to wreak havoc, but to prove that the goddesses were too foolish to notice two demon princes wandering in their midst, which would work as long as they were careful and avoided drawing attention to themselves. The night of the gala, they waited outside of the gate until a sizable group headed through, and then they followed quickly behind before the guard closed it. And it was laughably easy not only for them to enter the Celestial Realm, but to make their way up to the palace itself, drawing no looks from the partygoers loitering about outside.
“It’s almost like they’re asking to be invaded,” Estarossa had murmured, and Meliodas had smirked cruelly in response as they swept through the palace doors.
Inside it had been unpleasant, the magic of the Goddess Clan pressing against them, but no one glanced their way or asked any questions. After ordering him to be back at the gate in one hour, Meliodas had disappeared into the crowd, his power drawn in close to avoid suspicion. Doing the same with his own magic, Estarossa had found a shadowed corner from which to watch the gala, leaning out only to swipe a glass of what turned out to be champagne from a passing servant. It was far too fruity and sweet for his tastes, but he drank it anyway to keep from looking out of place. Again and again he’d found himself staring at a drink fountain, trying to figure out why the idea of drinking anything that came from a bird’s mouth would be appealing, and one glance was all it took for him to nearly blow his cover.
Moth was there, and he was considering trying to sneak up on and surprise her when he noticed that she wasn’t alone. Standing next to her was a goddess with long silver hair, and the two seemed to be chatting amicably about something. That alone wasn’t worrying; Moth’s status had always ensured that she was recognized by the other Clans, and a diplomatic visit wasn’t anything unusual. Then the goddess had put his arm around her shoulders and she had leaned into his touch — like she enjoyed it! — and Estarossa considered whether disobeying Meliodas would be worth it to remove the goddess’s arm. He had actually begun to step out from his hiding place when two of the Archangels settled nearby, too close for him to be comfortable exposing himself with so much space between him and his target, and their conversation sent rage curling up his spine.
“They look so happy together, don’t they?” The three-faced one (Tarmiel, he reminded himself coldly, his name is Tarmiel and the short one is Sariel) peered across the room at Moth and the goddess. “I’m so pleased he invited Lady Moth!”
Sariel snorted. “I’m just surprised he got up the courage to ask her anything. You know how Mael can be.”
Mael. Estarossa studied the goddess, who was leaning in to whisper something in Moth’s ear, gut churning as Moth laughed at whatever he said. At least he had a name to put with the face, even if it was an awful name. He watched as they talked, as Mael held her, letting his wrath simmer quietly beneath the surface. Every smile Moth displayed felt like a blow, and he left at the end of the hour wondering if he had meant anything to her at all. The scar on his hand seemed to burn with his thoughts as he followed Meliodas back to the Demon Realm, and it did not fade until he had made it back to his room and had several drinks of whiskey. He’d gone to sleep still thinking about it, unable to get Moth’s expression as the goddess touched her out of his mind.
That had been two days ago. Waking up, he lays in bed and stares at the ceiling, mouth twitching as the events of last night play over in his mind. Estarossa realizes that he isn’t angry with Moth; she’s always been kind to a fault, and part of him thinks that perhaps the goddess — Mael — had simply taken advantage of that. The other part knows that she isn’t a fool, so whatever it is that she feels for Mael must be genuine. His chest aches at the thought, and he shifts his gaze to the box on his desk, which contains a traditional courting gift and a letter of his intentions. Snarling, he stands up and crosses the room, ripping the lid from the box and grabbing the letter, letting Hellblaze incinerate it. He is about to do the same for the gift when he pauses, studying it thoughtfully. Inside are two daggers, carefully crafted by his hands out of a dark metal found only in the Demon Realm. They are elegant, yet lethal, made for Moth and Moth alone.
He picks one up and tests the balance of it as his mind wanders to their first meeting. When? When had he realized that he wanted to court her? Prince of the Forest, she’d said, placing a carefully woven crown of flowers on his head, smiling brightly when she sat back to observe her handiwork. No. Before that. When? When had she become more than his friend, when had he looked at her and thought she was beautiful, when had he given her this power over him? Cursing, he drops the dagger back into the box and stalks over to the liquor cabinet, intending to drink until he is numb. A knock at his door stops him; opening it reveals a servant carrying a letter with his name in Moth’s elegant scrawl on the front. He takes it and slams the door, intending to burn the damned thing and be done with it, but again he hesitates. Then he rips open the envelope.
I’m sorry for not writing to you for so long! I was invited to attend a gala celebrating Princess Elizabeth’s birthday, and the preparations were so hectic that I forgot. That’s no excuse, of course, but I truly am sorry for any grief I’ve caused you by my silence. I hope you’ll forgive me.
The gala was magnificent. We rarely have events like it, unless you count the festivals, but this was so different from those that I feel it doesn’t even compare. I wish you could have seen the lights in the garden; they reminded me of the fairy lights we saw last year. Do you remember those? It was like stars come to earth. And the quartet! I think all music should be played outdoors after hearing how wonderfully the music of the instruments complemented the sounds of the crickets in the bushes. And there was a gold fountain made to look like birds. I’m sure you would have found it ridiculous, but it was enchanting in its own way. I still can’t believe the trees here are silver, either.
I suppose you’ll find out soon, so I’d like to tell you first. You’re my dearest friend, after all. Mael, who is the younger brother of the Archangel Ludoshel, has asked to court me, and I’ve accepted. I know that there are tensions between your Clans, but I hope that this won’t affect my friendship with you. You are very important to me and I would hate for you to be unhappy in any way, so please don’t feel as though I’m ever going to put him over you. I love you both for different reasons and in different ways. And, if his courting should lead to something more, he would be required to move to Cailleach, meaning he would no longer be your enemy.
How is your training going? You told me you’ve been practicing a move that allows you to repel physical attacks, which sounds really interesting! I’ve been working with the daggers you gave me months ago; my tutor is pleased with my progress and says that we’ll start working on augmenting them with magic soon. I cannot wait to see you again, or to learn more about the technique you mentioned involving multiple swords! Will I see you at the end of the week? I know there’s supposed to be a diplomatic visit then.
If you need to reach me before then, send your letters to the Celestial Realm. I’m here getting to know Princess Elizabeth for the next three days.
As always, your friend,
Have you noticed anything unusual about the scar on your hand? Mine has felt oddly warm since the gala.
A second sheet of paper rests in the envelope behind the letter. Unfolding it reveals an intricately detailed sketch of the gardens, with orbs of light swaying around a quartet seated in front of a fountain. He rubs his thumb over the parchment, grip tight enough that it begins to crinkle beneath his touch, then he sets it on top of the liquor cabinet. Confusion and hurt and anger swirl within him — dearest friend, she’d called him — making it hard to figure out whether or not to keep her gift. He wants to, as it’s from her and he’s always cherished everything she’s given him, but looking at it reminds him of how softly she’d smiled at the goddess, how she’d cozied up to him as though he was all she wanted. Scowling, he pours a glass of whiskey and drains it quickly, taking it and the bottle with him to settee.
Estarossa is well into his fourth glass when the scar on his hand begins to itch, nearly burning with the intensity of it. He stares at it blankly, setting his glass down so he can run his finger over the scar, smooth and white against his palm. For a second, so strong he almost swears that she is in the room with him, he feels warmth against his side and catches the faint scent of her soap. It fades when he removes his hand, but the odd sensation of Moth being there does not; it lingers around him, and he loves and hates it at the same time because he wants her near even though the thought of her hurts. He takes another mouthful of whiskey, rolling it over his tongue before swallowing slowly. Then he lets his head fall back, closing his eyes and resting it against the back of the couch, trying to focus on the pleasant burn of the alcohol in his stomach instead of the pain that ebbs and flows with every beat of his hearts.
“I love you,” he says dully, “and if you are happy with him, if this is what you want, then I won’t interfere.”
Liar. Will you really let her go so easily? He breathes out, opening his eyes to stare at the ceiling. No, he won’t, he knows that he can’t. Moth had carved a place for herself in his chest, and he knows that, no matter how hard he might try, he will not be able to forget how he feels. But he can swallow it, can be her friend as he always has and keep her as happy as he can. After all, she owes him nothing. He is the one who had formed this attachment, who had waited too long to express his intentions. Estarossa stands up, head spinning but legs steady, and leaves his room, heading towards Meliodas’s study. Today is a day of rest, but he needs a distraction before he drinks himself into a stupor. He finds his brother pouring over a map, black eyes narrow as he studies the current layout of outposts and squadrons; there is a mark on Meliodas’s neck that wasn’t there before the party, but Estarossa can’t find it in himself to care.
“Spar with me,” he says in lieu of a greeting, and Meliodas flicks his eyes up before returning his attention to the map. It’s a clear dismissal, one that he ignores, insteading striding into the room. “Spar with me,” he repeats, more insistently.
Meliodas looks up at him, eyes cold. “You’ve been drinking.”
“What does that matter? You’ve drunk before battle.” Estarossa crosses his arms, brows furrowing.
“I don’t care how you spend your free time,” Meliodas snaps, “but do not bother me during mine. I spar with you every day of the week. Find another partner or go back to drinking.”
Estarossa scowls. In a better state of mind, he might not have considered speaking his reply, but it is out before he can stop it. “Moth is being courted by a goddess and I need a distraction. Spar. With. Me.”
This time, there is something in Meliodas’s expression he cannot read. He’d almost call it concern, if it weren’t for the fact that Meliodas rarely, if ever, shows any sort of emotion akin to affection. Then again, he was the one who helped Estarossa learn how to forge the daggers, so perhaps he understands. “A goddess? Then she wasn’t worth your time.” He straightens up, rolling up the map and setting it to the side. “Be in the practice yard in ten minutes.”
He leaves, and Estarossa’s lips curl into a snarl. What was he thinking, revealing something like that to Meliodas of all people? Turning on his heel, he strides after his brother, ignoring the servants who scuttle out of his way, stopping in his room to retrieve the kris Moth had given him years ago on his way to the yard. Meliodas is there, broadsword held casually by his side, and he says nothing about Estarossa’s choice of weapon even though his lips thin in disdain. There are no words exchanged; Estarossa merely lunges forward, swiping viciously with his sword. Meliodas counters every swing, blocks every blow, eyes narrowing as Estarossa becomes more and more reckless with his attacks. A wide swing leaves his side open, and Meliodas kicks him hard enough to send him crashing into the practice dummies nearby. When Estarossa stands, spitting out a mouthful of blood, Meliodas is already there, fist slamming into his chest and knocking him back, driving the air from his lungs.
“Enough,” Meliodas snarls. Estarossa ignores him, forcing himself back onto his feet. “Estarossa, enough.” He pauses, and Meliodas takes the opportunity to give him a scathing once over. Then his expression softens into one of neutrality rather than ire as he closes the distance, meeting Estarossa’s defiant stare steadily. “Go bathe. Sober up. You’re no good for anything, much less sparring, like this.”
“Fight me.” Estarossa’s voice is flat, and he raises his blade so it is pointed at Meliodas. “You said you would, now keep your word and fight me.”
“Jealousy doesn’t suit you,” Meliodas replies coldly, “particularly when you are training to receive a Commandment. Were you to act like this while in possession of Love, it would render you powerless. Do you understand?”
Estarossa doesn’t lower his blade. “I don’t care about the Commandment. She is my friend , and she chose someone else and I —”
“You love her.”
The declaration sounds wrong coming from Meliodas, who, as far as Estarossa knows, has never shown more than a passing interest in anyone else. It’s what makes him lower his arm until his sword hangs at his side, and it hurts to hear it said aloud by someone else, as though it makes the reality of the situation truly inescapable. He finds that his voice has deserted him, so he merely nods, breathing shallowly through his nose. Meliodas crosses his arms, cocking a brow at him, and Estarossa swallows thickly before muttering, “Yes.”
“Idiot.” There is no bite to Meliodas’s voice, just what might be brotherly exasperation. “Of course you would wait until she was being courted by someone else to express this. There’s nothing to be done about it now. If you act against this . . . goddess, you will only risk allying the Witch Clan with them.” Then he reaches out, placing a hand on Estarossa’s shoulder. For a moment, his face is kinder when he says, “If she is really so important to you, talk to her.”
“What good would that do? She’s made her choice.” Estarossa steps away, finally breaking his gaze away from Meliodas. These softer moments make it harder for him when Meliodas berates him for his failures, and he wants to bask in it just as much as he wants it to stop.
Meliodas shrugs. “She might have thought you weren’t interested, or might not have known. Even if nothing changes, it will make it easier for you to move on.”
He turns and picks up his broadsword, heading back into the castle, leaving Estarossa alone with his thoughts. He wants to tell Moth, whether through a letter or in person, but he knows that doing so could strain or end his relationship with his only true friend. Sighing heavily, he turns his attention to the practice dummies, flicking his sword to set them alight with Hellblaze; it doesn’t ease the ache, but it is satisfying to pretend that the goddess — Mael, he reminds himself — is the one burning. Then he feels an uncomfortable sensation of guilt at wishing harm on anyone Moth cares for, leaving his emotions more tumultuous than before. Watching the flames consume the dummies greedily, he decides to remain as he is: her friend, and nothing more. The scar on his hand sears to life, agony radiating from his palm, and he yells and yanks his gauntlet it off to stare at it with wide eyes. Lines of black weave out from the mark, like vines of ink on his skin, before fading into the same silver color as the scar.
Have you noticed anything unusual about the scar on your hand? Faintly, the mournful call of some unknown creature echoes within his mind, accompanied by a vague feeling of dread.
Chapter 11: First Steps
Fate is a fickle thing; the wheel spins even as we are unaware of it.
“She walks in beauty, like the night
of cloudless climes and starry skies;
and all that’s best of dark and bright
meet in her aspect and her eyes.”
— George Gordon Byron
Elizabeth does manage to find clothing that fits Moth, despite the differences between their bodies; a black turtleneck made from light cotton and a dark gray skirt are resting on the bed when she exits the washroom, and she decides to add a pair of dark stockings and ankle-high boots to complete the outfit. Looking in the mirror after she dresses, Moth has to bite back a laugh. If it weren’t for the length of the skirt, which stops two inches above her knees, she would look like a librarian or teacher. She spends some time combing her hair, leaving it down around her shoulders, before opening the door to her quarters and stepping out. Elizabeth had told her how to get to the place Mael wants to meet at, so she starts making her way down the halls, carefully keeping track of where she is so as to not get horribly lost.
Mael is waiting for her when she arrives, dressed in his usual robes and trousers, and he turns his head to smile at her when he hears her approach, only for his eyes to widen. Feeling suddenly self-conscious, she smoothes her hands over her skirt, wondering if she looks ungainly or if there is something wrong with her outfit. Then he clears his throat, rubbing the back of his neck and . . . Is he blushing? Deciding that her eyes are probably playing tricks on her — or that she’s reading too much into it; he did say he was cleaning up, so perhaps he used very warm water — she closes the distance and takes the hand still at his side, weaving their fingers together.
“You look lovely,” he says quietly, and she smiles up at him.
“So do you,” she teases. Mael relaxes, hand squeezing her own gently, and Moth takes the opportunity to study the courtyard in more detail. “Where are we going?”
He begins walking, fingers still entwined with hers, and she follows along curiously. “There’s an island nearby with a lake. If we’re lucky, one of the boats will be available.”
“Ah . . .” Moth bites her lip, trying to dispel the worry that gnaws at her due to the combination of the words lake and boat. She has nothing against water, but pairing it with the idea of climbing into a small vessel that is precarious at best makes her shudder. An interesting incident involving her father and a supposedly real witch-eating monster has left her with an unshakeable anxiety that rears its head whenever the prospect of being in a boat on the water comes up. “Is it a popular spot?”
“Yes. A lot of . . .” Mael pauses, making a funny sound in the back of his throat. When he continues, his voice is oddly shaky. “A lot of couples go out there because it’s lovely and offers privacy without being improper.”
“Are we a couple?” she asks, unable to resist the urge to tease him just a little. Mael’s fingers tighten around hers, making her smile, and she rests her head on his arm as they walk. “I’d like to think so.”
“As would I,” he replies, as she catches him glancing at her out of the corner of his eye. Then they are at the edge of the main island, with nothing but sky and clouds in front of them, and he shifts so his arms are around her waist, holding her tightly to his chest.
Blinking, Moth tilts her head back to look at him. “What are you doing?”
“Getting us there. Lady Elizabeth said that you could . . . walk on air? But it’s a bit far and flying will be faster.” He keeps one hand pressed against the small of her back while the other drifts to her thigh; understanding what he wants to her do, Moth wraps her arms around his neck and jumps, letting him slide his arm beneath her knees so he is cradling her to his chest.
Breathing shakily, she peers over the edge, stomach dropping when she realizes there is nothing to be seen but empty sky below. “If you drop me, I will come back to haunt you.”
Mael laughs, pressing his face against her hair. “I promise I won’t drop you.”
“Good, because I —” The rest of her words are lost in a quiet scream when he steps off the edge, letting them freefall before his wings snap open.
Moth hides her face against his chest, closing her eyes tightly. It’s one thing for her to take the steps herself, to see the ground fall away, but this is something entirely new and it is equal parts exhilarating and terrifying; Mael glides easily through the air, spiralling lazily on warm updrafts, the soft sound of his wings shifting whenever he wants to change direction or altitude barely audible above the wind. There is no hesitancy or shyness to him now, just a quiet confidence that makes her feel somewhat safe in his arms, though she won’t be completely comfortable until there’s solid ground beneath her feet. The chill of the air moving by has her curling closer to him, and his grip on her tightens as he banks slowly down towards what she hopes is another island.
Sounding more amused than he should, Mael says, “You can open your eyes now.”
She does, letting out a soft gasp when she sees the land spread out before them. Not quite as large as the main island, it nonetheless has space for a decently-sized lake, with gazebos dotted along its shore. A boathouse sits on the edge closest to them, and small copses of trees offer intermittent shade for anyone who might want to relax or enjoy a picnic near the water without risking getting fatigued by the sun. Mael floats slowly down, setting her on her feet once he is standing on the grass. Moth takes a moment to simply enjoy the sturdiness of the ground before turning to look at Mael, finding him watching her with a warm expression that has a flush rising to her cheeks. Has he always looked at her like that when she wasn’t paying attention? The thought makes her heart thrum in her chest, so she reaches out to poke him on the shoulder to distract herself.
“That was mean,” she scolds. “You could have warned me before taking off like that.”
“My apologies.” He grins at her, all youthful charm, and she feels her ire slip away.
Sighing, she shakes her head, repressing a smile. “No more surprise takeoffs, okay? Now, what’s this about a boat?”
Mael takes her hand, leading her over to the boathouse. A few other goddesses mill about in pairs, some more openly affectionate than others, and the two of them don’t draw any attention as they step onto the dock. Several boats are tied to it, bobbing gently on the waves, no doubt charming to others but making Moth shudder. Mael pauses in the middle, inspecting a few of them; Moth peers out over the lake, remembering the day her father had taken her out on the lake for the first time. Don’t rock the boat, he’d said, unless you want to get eaten. Unfortunately, their boat had capsized, leaving her paralyzed from the fear that any second would bring the pain of something latching onto her foot. A hand on her arm draws her back into the present, and she looks away from the water to find Mael staring at her with concern.
“Are you alright?” He reaches up to brush some of her hair away from her face, tucking it behind her ear. “You’re awfully quiet.”
“Yes, I . . . I’m fine.” She smiles, leaning into his touch. “Just nervous, I suppose.” There’s no witch-eating monster in the Celestial Realm. You know this. “It’s been a while since I’ve been in a boat.”
Mael nods slowly, guiding her to the end of the dock. The boat there is lovely, painted with silvers and blues to mimic the water beneath it, the benches cushioned for comfortable sitting. “Do you like this one?”
Anxiety wells up, and she bites it back. You are not a child. There is no monster here. “Yes! It’s lovely. Though I don’t see any oars . . .”
“There aren’t any,” he says simply. Then he steps into the boat, turning to offer her his hand when he’s balanced. Moth blinks at him, then looks out at the lake before taking a deep breath. “Moth?”
“I’m afraid of boats,” she says quickly, hastening to explain. “When I was a child, my father took me out on one and it flipped over, and because he’d been telling me about a creature in the lake that ate witches, I was terrified. I haven’t been in a boat since.”
Moth waits for the laughter or ridicule, but none comes. Instead, she hears him move back onto the dock, and a second later his hands are on her shoulders and he pulls her back into a loose embrace. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s foolish. There’s no monster in the water, and certainly not one that eats only witches,” she huffs.
Mael is quiet for a moment, then he murmurs, “I don’t know. There were some odd sightings here a few years ago.”
“. . . That’s not funny.”
“I’m serious!” He points out into the distance, where a craggy outcropping of rock can just be seen above the water. “People would go out and they’d come back swearing there was something in the lake. My brother came out to investigate; he said he didn’t find anything, but it took awhile for the rumors to stop.”
Moth scans the water, sending out a tendril of magic to see if anything lurks out of sight. There’s something there, just on the edges of her awareness, and if she pushes a bit farther . . . Something slams into her, large and quiet and ancient, magic she’s never felt before responding to her touch. She can almost see one eye open lazily, rolling to peer at the surface, and then the song comes, mournful and melodic and curious, are you the one who was promised are you the curse-breaker are you the calamity and she draws back, stumbling and earning a noise of alarm from Mael. He steadies her as she breathes shallowly, staring at the lake. What was that? Her ears are ringing, but it fades as her magic draws back to her and whatever it is she disturbed goes back to its slumber.
“Moth! What happened?!” Mael is in front of her, wings flared and rustling, and faintly she hears the murmurs from the goddesses on the shore.
She looks at him blankly. “You didn’t hear that?”
“Hear what?” Confused, he turns to study the lake. “I felt you reach out and then you went so pale and I couldn’t get you to respond.”
Moth curls her hand into a fist, feeling the heat and what she thinks is worry radiating from the scar on her palm. Then she shakes her head. “I thought . . . Maybe there is something in there.”
He stares at her, searching her face. “Are you serious?” When she nods, he frowns. “We should tell Ludoshel. If there’s really a monster, he’ll take care of it.” Then he sighs, shoulders relaxing. “You scared me.”
“I’m sorry.” She reaches out to touch his arm, her own worry fading when he smiles faintly. “I won’t do it again.”
Mael takes her hand between his, bringing it up to press it against his cheek. “Please don’t.” He glances ruefully at the boat, and Moth feels a wave of guilt for ruining his plans for a nice afternoon; then they begin walking back to shore, heading towards a small strand of trees. “Do you want to go back, or . . . ?”
“No, not at all! It’s too nice outside to stay indoors!” Beaming up at him, she tugs him under the shade of the trees, looking for a place to sit.
Just as she finds one, he reaches out to grab her shoulder and turns her so she is facing him. Moth blinks, and she’s about to ask him what’s wrong when his hand cups her face and he kisses her sweetly. It’s slow and soft, little more than his lips pressing gently against hers before he pulls back, cheeks flushed. “I’ve wanted to do that since training.”
“That long, huh?” She wraps her arms around his neck, leaning up to kiss his cheek. His skin is surprisingly smooth under her lips, and she feels her heart skip a beat as the fragrance of sandalwood and warm spice floats through her senses. Despite the newness of the experience, the feel of him under her fingers and the way he leans against her is so exciting yet comforting that she is nearly overwhelmed.
He tilts his head and their lips meet once more, only this time the kiss is deeper, more sensual as he runs his tongue along the seam of her mouth. Moth forgets everything, the fall through the air, the beauty of the water and the troubling flash of power in the lake as their lips move together, melding as one in an easy dance. As before, there are no fireworks, no flashes of color before her eyes, just the steady feel of Mael against her and the utter certainty that this is right .
She feels his hands press against the small of her back, drawing her closer towards him even as they break apart. It is only then she realises that she has neglected to breathe, and she draws air sharply into her lungs as she gazes into his face. It lifts her heart to see him looking so happy, so contented, the hint of anxiety she now releases she had detected over the past few days nowhere to be seen.
“Thank you,” Mael murmurs and Moth feels the world spin slightly on its axis. “I know you could have anyone and . . .”
Moth gently places a finger over his lips. “Let’s have this moment,” she murmurs as she stretches up towards him, cutting off any protest as their lips meet. This time he is bolder, and as she opens her mouth slightly, leaving her feeling nearly drunk, he presses his tongue into her mouth. The taste of mint, cool and refreshing, recalls the simple days of summer when she would explore the green of her own home town, sampling the herbs that grew at will. As they move together, the warm fuzz of intimacy subtly changes, and slight sparks of electricity run up and down her spine.
It is many heartbeats later when Moth notices the shadows falling across her face, and she moves to examine her surroundings. The heat of the midday sun has cooled, the burnished gold of evening shining through the leaves and she laughs, the noise sounding breathless in her ears.
“How long have we been here?” she asks incredulously. “Should we start heading back?”
Mael looks at her sheepishly, moving a hand to rub the back of his neck. “Not just yet. We still have time before sundown, after all . . . Will you walk with me awhile?” Moth looks up at him, the lump rising in the back of her throat leaving her nothing to do but nod her assent.
She takes his arm and lets him lead her from the trees, tracing a meandering path along the lakeshore. They pass couples, some merely talking or eating while others share tender kisses, and only a few of the goddesses pay them any mind. Moth is grateful for that; she’s certain that her face is still flushed and her hair and clothes are more rumpled than they were when they went into the trees, and the last thing she wants is any sort of rumor finding its way back to Ludoshel. The Archangel already seems less than fond of her, even if he tolerates her for Mael’s sake. Still, it’s hard to focus on him when Mael is so pleased, his eyes warm and smiles easy as they talk about whatever comes to mind, so she decides to focus on him, on the way the wind ruffles his hair and how his skin seems to glow in the evening light. Only once does she become distracted, eyes shifting from him to the lake, but whatever is there seems content to hide.
Chapter 12: Intemperance of Youth
To be young is a wonderful, terrible thing.
“Intemperance is a dangerous companion.
it throws many people off their guard,
betrays them to a great many indecencies,
to ruinous passions, to disadvantages in fortune . . .”
— Jeremy Collier
For the remainder of the week, Moth spends her mornings getting better acquainted with Elizabeth and her evenings touring the Celestial Realm with Mael. He takes her to islands where grass stretches as far as the eye can see, islands with waterfalls and silver fish. Sometimes he seems content to simply walk with her, talking freely about whatever comes to their minds, while others he shows her what she comes to know as traditional courting spots, places for new couples to spend time together under the watchful eyes of their peers. And, though she enjoys every moment she is with him, the number of unspoken rules about relationships quickly begins to feel constricting; in Cailleach, they would have been free to roam as they pleased, doing whatever felt right to them so long as they didn’t cause trouble. Finally it becomes too much, and she all but begs him to go somewhere private.
So, as her feet touch supple grass, she takes a deep breath, letting the tension fade from her shoulders on her exhale. Tonight is her last night in the Celestial Realm, and she wants to enjoy it without feeling restricted. She hears Mael shift behind her, the rustling of the grass as he sits down. “It’s so peaceful here.”
“Yes,” Mael agrees. “When I was younger, I’d come here whenever I wanted to be alone.” His hand catches hers, and she smiles as he pulls her down onto his lap, draping his arms around her waist and resting his chin on her head. His voice is uncertain when he adds, “You seemed unhappy, so I thought you would like it here.”
Moth tilts her head to look up at him. “I’m not unhappy.”
“You aren’t happy, either,” he replies. The worry in his words catches her off guard, and she studies his face curiously; he meets her gaze steadily for a moment before looking away, guilt making her stomach drop at the hurt she sees.
She shifts so she’s kneeling over his lap, hands braced on his shoulders to keep her balance. Like this, he has to look up at her, a thought that would make her smile if he wasn’t already upset. “I am, I promise. It’s just different here; there are more rules about where we can go and what we can do, and sometimes it’s a little overwhelming.”
“Are you sure?” When she nods, he sighs and rests his head against her shoulder, arms wrapping around her back.
His breath is warm against her neck, skin prickling with every exhale. The desire to kiss him is sudden and fierce, making her heartbeat skip and her fingers tremble with wanting and nerves; there has always been someone nearby, forcing them to be content with an occasional, chaste kiss on the cheek, leaving no chance for them to rekindle that spark from the lakeside. Now they are alone — her doing, so she cannot complain — and she wonders what would happen if she kissed him. Would he let her lead or take control? How far would he want to take things? How far would she let him? Mael leans back to look at her, eyes vibrant in the late afternoon sun, one of his hands trailing up her spine until his fingers curl through her hair.
“Moth . . .” he says softly, and she shakes her head.
“Will you kiss me?” Why is she so afraid? He has never been anything but kind, has given her no reason for the anxiety churning within her. Is it simply because this is still so new and fragile?
He nods, using his hand in her hair to pull her down so he can press their lips together, mouth grazing over hers with feather-light touches. Then he pulls away, stroking his thumb over her cheek. “What’s wrong?”
“I’m leaving tomorrow.” When he does nothing other than blink at her, she breathes out slowly. “What if you find someone else? We rarely see each other outside of official events, and —”
He chokes out an incredulous laugh. The world spins and then she is underneath him in the grass, his hair tickling her cheek as he braces himself on his forearms. “There is no one else for me, Moth. Just you. Only you.”
Before she can reply — part of her wants to figure out why he is so certain while another reminds her of the coins and how long everything has seemed to build to this, to them — he kisses her fully, sucking lightly on her bottom lip before tasting the seam of her mouth, his body firm but not crushing, presence soothing instead of overbearing. Moth parts her lips, sucking on his tongue when it delves into her mouth and he groans, the sound making something within her spark hungrily to life. Mint and rosewater in his kiss, fresh and light, and she tangles her fingers in his hair and arches her body against him, craving more.
Mael pants against her lips, one hand drifting to squeeze her hip, and she shifts to cradle his body between her thighs. “Moth,” he breathes, “we need to stop.”
She ghosts her lips along his jaw, nipping below his ear, earning a low noise. Then she pulls away, reclining fully on the grass; her mouth is opening with a query, maybe why or what’s wrong , but the expression he wears is enough to silence her question half-formed. His eyes are dark, cheeks flushed and lips kiss-swollen, and he’s staring at her with such an open craving and vulnerability that it makes her ache. Moth watches as he sits up, leaning back on his knees and breathing deeply, and she follows him, mimicking his posture and reaching out to cup his cheek in her palm. Mael leans into her touch, turning his head to kiss her hand softly.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
Mael is quiet for a moment, eyes closed as he reaches up to curl his fingers around her wrist, thumb smoothing over her pulse. “No,” he murmurs, “don’t be. I should have told you why courting is always done so publicly, but I didn’t want to upset or offend you.”
“Will you tell me now?”
He nods, shifting until his legs are crossed in front of him. When he opens his arms, Moth leans against him, snuggling against his chest. There is another moment of silence before he says slowly, “While there’s not a rule about courting needing to be chaperoned, it’s always been done that way. Older couples keep an eye on the younger ones. I never knew why until I asked Ludoshel how I should . . .” Mael takes a deep breath, clearing his throat, and Moth smiles. “When I asked him about courting. It’s to keep temptations to a minimum, to stop transgressions before they start.”
“You chaperone each other to prevent sex?” Moth bites back a laugh when Mael huffs. “Even for the older pairs?”
A soft sigh as he readjusts. Then, “No. Like with all the Clans, goddesses are more . . . prone to indiscretion in their youth. For us, intimacy of that nature is not something that’s taken lightly.”
“I see.” She refrains from adding how odd that sounds. The Witch Clan might not exactly encourage their youth to go out and experiment, but the elders often are willing to turn a blind eye as long as those involved are careful and discreet. “I, uh . . . I didn’t ask for privacy so I could ravish you. I just wanted to spend a bit of time with you without so many people around.”
“I know. I should have better self-control.” There is a hint of self-loathing creeping into his voice.
Frowning, Moth shoves against his chest, and the way his eyes widen as he falls onto his back would be comical if not for the despondency in them. “In case you’ve forgotten, I asked you to kiss me. You’re the one who stopped things from getting too . . . indiscreet. And, in fact, I think I might ask you for another one.”
Mael smiles faintly, hands holding her waist. “I’d be more than happy to oblige you.”
Grinning, she ducks down to kiss him, and they spend the rest of the afternoon that way, alternating between quiet conversation and stolen kisses. The sun has well and truly set by the time they return to the castle, dusting grass from their hair and clothing. Luckily there’s no one there to see, and Mael escorts her back to her quarters, standing a little closer than usual when she opens the door. She turns to bid him good-night, gasping quietly when he kisses her long and slow in the hallway, though she has to hold in a laugh at how pleased he looks with himself when he draws away. It’s only when she’s alone in her room that she allows a different worry to pervade her thoughts, her eyes focusing on the desk in the corner.
Estarossa hasn’t responded to her since she informed him of Mael’s intentions. She supposes that it’s only fair — after all, she’d forgotten to write to him for nearly a month while preparing for the gala — but his silence worries her all the same. Is he angry with her for agreeing to be courted by a goddess? Does he feel like she’s betrayed him? Absentmindedly she brings her scarred hand to her chest, pressing it over her heart. He could just be busy with training or his other duties, or maybe his letters were sent to Cailleach by mistake, or . . . Moth groans, shaking her head and heading towards the washroom. There could be any number of reasons for why she hasn’t heard from him, and worrying about a problem that might not exist is pointless.
The next morning, Mael walks with her to the palace gates, his fingers laced with hers. He’s unusually quiet, and she knows that it’s because he doesn’t want her to leave. They’d found a nice rhythm over the past week, balancing their time together and other obligations, but she cannot remain here any longer. Already she is a week behind in her studies, a week behind in the current situation of her Clan. Laina is waiting for her at the gates, dressed in the official outfit for courtiers, and she bows to Moth before turning her back to give them so privacy. Mael squeezes her hand before pulling her into a tight embrace, promising that he’ll write as often as he can, and Moth leans up to kiss him quickly, not caring about the guard nearby.
Then it is back to Cailleach, the teleportation spell leaving her dizzy when they land outside of the city walls. Laina escorts her through the city, walking so quickly that the only thing she can do is glance apologetically at the citizens who call out to her, though she does manage to break away long enough to snag a sweetroll from the baker. The city is bustling around her, preparations being made for the next diplomatic visit, merchants airing out their stores while blacksmiths polish their wares. Her coin warms as she’s entering the palace, and she smiles and strokes it with her fingers as she’s led to her mother’s office. Inside, Nemain is standing behind her desk, pointing out sections of the city wall on a map to Caim. Both of them look up as she enters, and Moth bows to her mother before moving to stand in front of the fire. Cailleach is cold after the eternal spring of the Celestial Realm.
Her mother rolls up the map, talking quietly to Caim. Then he leaves, pausing on the way out to ruffle Moth’s hair, and she moves to stand in front of Nemain. She watches as she rubs her temples tiredly, a decanter of wine floating over and nudging her hand. “No, Moth. But thank you.”
Moth nods and lets the decanter settle on the desk. “Is something wrong with our defenses?”
“I don’t know. We’ve been getting reports of them seeming to fade out of sight, but so far I can sense nothing amiss. Your father is heading out to look into it.” Nemain settles slowly into her chair. “He didn’t want to, not with the Dark Court coming tomorrow, but we need to know if the barriers are holding.”
“Could it be intentional? Someone tampering with them?”
Nemain looks up sharply, scrutinizing her. “Have you heard something?”
Moth shakes her head. “No, I just . . . They’ve never failed before, so I thought maybe someone was causing it.”
“It’s worth looking into.” Her mother stares at her — or rather through her — eyes narrowing thoughtfully. Then she sighs and leans back in her chair. “I believe I’ll have some wine after all. Now, you mentioned something about courting in your letter?”
They spend nearly the entire day talking, starting with Moth’s visit to the Celestial Realm (Nemain seems pleased enough by Mael’s intentions, if a little wary) and covering what she has missed in her absence before moving on to matters of current importance. Her head is so full of trade routes and property disputes when she’s allowed to retire for the night that she’s fairly certain she’s going to dream of them. It’s with no small amount of relief that she climbs into her own bed, the scent of the herbs she’d prepped for drying and warm ink filling her nose as she burrows beneath the blankets; someone, most likely Anais, had put a warmer under the sheets, and it doesn’t take long for her to get comfortable. Despite that, sleep eludes her, hovering just out of her reach.
She knows why, of course. Anxiety about seeing Estarossa again has made her restless, mind returning again and again to his sustained silence. It makes her feel foolish, the way she comes back to the idea that she’s offended him somehow, and, tired of feeling uncertain and afraid, she throws off the covers and heads to the window, opening it and sticking her head out. The ravens are usually asleep by now, but there might be one still awake that she can entrust with a message. Moth branches out with her magic, searching carefully. After a moment she withdraws, and a few minutes later a raven appears, perching curiously on the windowsill. She recognizes him as Nyos by the white patch on his chest; he usually carries messages for her mother and leads the constable of ravens that roost in Cailleach.
“Will you go to the Dark Court?” she asks him, pleased when he dips his head. “I need to speak with Prince Estarossa. Can you find him?” Another nod, and she sighs in relief, reaching out to stroke his head. “Please be as swift as you can.”
Nyos croaks and takes flight, disappearing quickly from view. With nothing to do other than wait, she paces around her room, tidying up bits of mess, reorganizing her notes and sketches, before settling on the edge of the bed, drumming her fingers against her leg. There is a sudden sensation of something snapping into place, and then she is seeing through the raven’s eyes as it alights outside of Estarossa’s quarters. As always, the shift is disorienting, so much so that it takes her a second to realize what she’s looking at. Shock rears through her when she sees him in bed, a woman writhing in his lap; both of them are nude, and there’s little doubt as to what they’re doing, the woman’s breasts bouncing as Estarossa thrusts.
Message? The raven opens its mouth to call loudly. Panicking, Moth orders it to be silent and to return home, severing her bond to it once the order is acknowledged. So that’s why she hasn’t heard from him. She tries to remember if she’s seen the woman before, but all she saw due to the woman’s head being tilted back was the front of her body and a long shock of red hair, and no one she knows has hair that vibrant. Then her mind flashes back on Estarossa and a flush stains her cheeks as she buries her face in her hands. She shouldn’t be thinking about him, certainly not how he looked in the dim room with sweat glistening on his chest, or the way his stomach flexed with every thrust of his hips. Moth claps her hands against her cheeks, trying to forget.
But she can’t. The image is seared there, obstinately refusing to fade so she can focus on other things. Mael, think of Mael, but that too leads to a problem because now she is thinking of Mael beneath her, rocking against her and no, she shouldn’t consider that because they’ve only just started courting. Huffing, she flops onto her back, staring blankly at the ceiling. Would Mael like that? Or would he want her beneath him? Moth chews on her lower lip, the warmth pulsing through her foreign and intoxicating in equal measure. Mixed with it is something else, something she doesn’t want to acknowledge, a persistent, nagging feeling of jealousy and shame. She has Mael. She’s happy with Mael. So why does the idea of Estarossa with that woman bother her so much?
Chapter 13: Separate Paths
Choose wisely when you reach a crossroads, lest you suffer the consequences.
Warning: There is sexual content in this chapter.
(A very big thank you to a friend for her help with this; it wouldn't have been finished so wonderfully otherwise.)
“And both that morning equally lay
in leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh! I kept the first for another day.
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.”
— Robert Frost
Moth is hurt. There is no other word for it, really, no matter how childish it might make her seem to others. Estarossa had arrived early that morning with the rest of the envoy, and she had selected a dress she knew he liked and taken particular care with styling her hair into a tidy braid. She had been so excited, practically bouncing on the balls of her feet as she waited beside her mother for the Demon Clan to be admitted to the throne room; then Estarossa had walked in and, instead of his usual sly grin, he’d looked at her as though she were a stranger. To make matters worse, when she’d tried to catch him after the meeting, he had all but brushed her off. Even Meliodas, who she thought was at least growing to tolerate her, had watched her coldly while Estarossa left her standing in the foyer.
The rest of the day had followed the same pattern, until, heart aching, she finally gave up trying to get him to spend time with her. Now, as the servant clears the empty wine glasses from the table and replaces them with clean ones, Moth occupies herself by running through different runes and their uses in her mind. It’s not as though she doesn’t know why he’s treating her with indifference — she had, after all, told him about Mael — but they have been friends for so long that she hoped it wouldn’t matter. So much for that, she thinks bitterly. When the servant fills her glass with a dark red wine, she nearly asks him to leave the decanter, the sharp way her mother eyes her the only thing that prevents her from doing so.
Finally, she is free to leave, and she says hasty goodnights as she stands from the table. She is halfway back to her room when a hand grabs her arm, and she whirls around, angry and dismayed to see Estarossa standing behind her. He stares at her wordlessly for a moment before shaking his head and turning on his heel to head back down to the dining hall. He doesn’t get far; hurt and irritated and a little drunk, Moth catches the back of his coat in her fist, yanking harshly until he stops. Still he won’t look at her, merely waiting in her grasp, and she wishes, suddenly, that she had never met him, had never befriended him if this heartache is the only reward of it. Then she regrets the thought, and she lets go of his coat, smoothing the wrinkles she made.
“Sorry,” she mutters, though she doesn’t know what for. “Did you need something?”
Estarossa shrugs. “No. I mistook you for someone else.”
Struggling to keep her voice steady, she says, “I see. I’ll let you get back to the feast, then.”
Unwilling to force her company on him when he’s clearly so adverse to it, Moth walks quickly way. It isn’t until she’s back in her room that she realizes that her vision is blurred with tears, not wine, and she closes her eyes tightly to keep them at bay. Estarossa is — was — her closest friend, the one she shared everything with. As if to remind her of this, the scar on her hand throbs sharply, and she slams her hand against the wall to drown it out. Then she rips her dress off, hurling it into the fireplace, before reaching up to yank her hair free of the braid. She does not want to think of him anymore. Breathing deeply, Moth takes the necklace from around her neck, placing the coin gently on her dresser. She doesn’t particularly want to think of Mael at the moment, either.
Moth is staring at her bed when she decides that, no, she will not endure this silently. If Estarossa wishes to sever their friendship, then he will have to tell her instead of this ridiculous treatment. Throwing a robe over her nightshirt, she stalks from her room to the guest wing, reaching out with her magic until she locates Estarossa. Luckily he’s alone, and she shoves her hesitation away as she knocks on his door. A second later it opens, revealing Estarossa wearing nothing but a pair of low-slung trousers, and her mind flashes back to the sight of him beneath the redhead. Then she narrows her eyes, crossing her arms over her chest. After a moment he sighs and steps back, granting her entry. Once she’s inside, he closes the door and heads over to the dresser, where he pours whiskey into a glass.
“What do you want?” he asks coolly, turning to lean against the dresser so he’s facing her.
“To know why you’re being an ass, for a start,” Moth snaps. Estarossa arches a brow, but does nothing other than take a sip of his drink. “I don’t hear from you, and then you show up and act as though we’re nothing but acquaintances, if that. And I don’t understand why. Is it because of Mael?”
The demon stares at her, gaze lidded and unreadable. “Are you done?”
“Am I . . .?” There is surprise, then fury.
Before she can come up with a reply, he sets the glass down, crossing the room until he looms over her. “You made your choice. You cannot be friends with me while he courts you. Or did you forget that his clan is at war with mine?” One of his hands presses against her lower back while the other cups her cheek, a gesture that would be intimate if not for the callous indifference on his face. “It must be nice to go wherever you wish, ignorant of the reality of the world.”
“There is no war.” He is very warm, touch steady, and she considers the playful embraces they’d always shared and how different this is. Even as she thinks this, she finds she has to push the image of him and that woman away, refusing to remember the tempting way he’d looked in the midst of passion.
“Are you so sure?” Estarossa smoothes his thumb along her jaw, tracing the curve of her lower lip. “What do you think will happen if he marries you? Do you truly believe that he will abandon his clan? Are you that naive?”
Moth pulls away, keenly aware that her robe is open to reveal the length of her legs and the drape of her nightshirt over her curves. Closing it, she studies him, looking for a sign of the man she thought she knew. “He will have to. The Nameless God demands our neutrality, and the consequences of disobeying him can be severe.”
He stares at her, and for a moment she thinks he will reach out for her. Then he shakes his head, lips curling into a cruel grin. “I never thought you would be a fool, but I also never thought you would trust one of them. Run along, princess, back to your goddess lover. Maybe you’re right about him and what he’d do for you. Though I doubt it.” Moth remains where she is, chin lifted in a silent challenge, and his eyes darken as he prowls towards her. “You are a woman, alone in a man’s bedchambers at night.” Leaning down so that his lips graze her ear, he murmurs, “ Leave. Before I show you exactly what happens to a woman who comes into my room dressed like that.”
The implication hits her like a blow, and she steps back, heart hammering with the beginnings of fear. Estarossa watches her, still smiling coldly, as she walks around him, letting the door slam behind her when she leaves. It seems to take forever to get to her room; once inside, she collapses into the chair closest to the mantle, drawing her legs up and tucking them beneath her. Her fingers are trembling, though from fear or curious anticipation she can’t say. There is no denying that Estarossa is attractive, and she isn’t sure whether he would have followed through on his words, but she is attached to Mael and Estarossa has made it clear that they are no longer on friendly terms. Staring at the fire, she lets out a sigh, tilting her head back to rest against the chair.
Then she shifts, brows furrowing. There is a persistent throbbing between her legs, and Moth groans and rubs her eyes. Of course her body would choose now to remind her that not only was she unable to taste Mael as she would have liked, but that she had also just walked away from an illicit offer from a man who is equally attractive, though with an added dangerous appeal. But to think of him now, in a moment like this, feels wrong, as though she is betraying Mael. Shoving thoughts of Estarossa to the side, she runs her hand up her leg, fingers ghosting along her skin as she thinks of the way Mael had looked during training. She strokes her folds, teasing her clit with the pad of her thumb, remembering their kisses in the field; if he hadn’t stopped, would he have touched her like this?
She imagines his lips on her neck and his hair tickling her cheek while he presses her skirt up, sliding his hand beneath it. His fingers are the one that tease her entrance before dipping inside, his mouth dragging down to suck her nipple through her shirt. Squeezing her breast, she circles her nipple with her thumb, panting quietly. What would he have done? Would he have continued down until her legs were hooked over his shoulders and he could replace his fingers with his tongue? Her hips buck against her hand, seeking more, thumb rubbing her clit firmly as she nears her release. Then her fantasy shifts, and the eyes peering up from between her legs are black and the hair is shorter, messier, and she muffles her cry of the prince’s name with her arm as she comes.
Moth closes her eyes, trying to pretend that she hadn’t thought of Estarossa, that the idea of him on his knees between her thighs had affected her so strongly. Then there is a startled noise from the door, and her eyes snap open to see Estarossa staring at her — had he come after her? — gaze fixed on the hand that is still under the hem of her nightshirt. Humiliation floods her as his eyes drag along her body, that and anger at his sudden appearance in her room, his disregard for her privacy after his earlier threat. Flushing, she moves, clearing her throat as she rests one foot one the floor, pulling her other knee to her chest. How long as he been there? Did he hear her? Does he know . . .? She takes in the sight of him, dressed exactly as he was in his room, and her breath catches when she sees the very obvious signs of his arousal. When he steps forward, her eyes jerk back to his; Estarossa pauses, and something flickers in his expression before he turns on his heel and leaves.
He strides through the hallways in a fury, anyone in his path scurrying into the shadows out of the way of the demon prince. When he reaches his room he slams the door behind him, pounding his fist into the wood for good measure. With a low growl he throws the lamp to the ground, smashing the glass as the flame is snuffed out, plunging the room into darkness. Immediately he feels foolish, and he stumbles over to the chair by the window. He steadies himself with one hand as he shoves the curtains open. What is wrong with him? It is pointless to feel like this, after all this time; he has to get over this. There is no other choice. There is too much to do, too much on the horizon, for himself and his clan and his role as son of the Demon King. Too much else to focus on without letting Moth get in the way.
Estarossa grunts as he plops into the overstuffed chair, sliding down on the cushion. Immediately she comes to mind, the look on her face when she was in his room, her eyes angry and hurt as he insulted her. He remembers what it felt like to grab her waist and stroke her cheek; gods be damned, he would have given anything to do it again. He closes his eyes and bangs his head back into the cushion behind him. His skin is suddenly too hot, his throat dry, and he turns his head and looks out the window. He shifts a bit as he tries to get comfortable. His cock is stiff at attention, but Estarossa tries his damndest to ignore it. He focuses instead on his anger, keeping it steady, letting it warm him like a rich glass of alcohol. Let it burn his insides so that the pain means something else. Let it numb his mind that is shouting at him to go back.
Estarossa barely notices when he moves his hand to squeeze himself between his legs. It isn’t until the fabric begins to snag around him that his body calls his attention. He is stroking over his pants, rubbing his palm up and down over the tented erection, taking the worst of the edge off his desire. The demon groans and tilts his chin up, thinking about Moth in that robe and that little — what was that? Barely a shirt, he thinks. He pictures her legs underneath, bare and smooth, how he would run his hands along her calves and ankles, how he would graze her knees as he parted her thighs. Gods, was she wearing anything underneath? He gives himself another squeeze as he debates the merits of either: Moth would look good in anything truly, his lips curling up in a smile as he thinks of her in leather, or lace, standing before him as an innocent, or a tease, or absolutely sinful.
Deciding to leave her bare — better not to complicate the fantasy too much — he can picture tugging the robe from her shoulders and down her arms, then pushing the shirt up and off of her head. At the same time, he pushes his trousers down, freeing the throbbing part of him as he gives a hiss of pleasure. Eagerly he teases the opening with his thumb, already leaking as he rubs the wetness into his skin, trying to make this last just a bit. Is she still a virgin? He wonders if Mael has touched her, and if so where, and kissed her, if she liked it, if she came. The sound of her voice as he had watched her in her room floats through his consciousness and makes his cock jerk in his grip. Fuck, he had never heard anything so sexy as her little moan, and he swears it was his name — his name, not Mael’s — that she had said. It could be just his imagination, but he clings to the memory as his hand begins to move.
Estarossa had seen plenty as her fingers stroked the perfect folds at the apex of her thighs. His mouth waters a bit as he pictures her flushed body, her hips pumping to meet her hand, the other squeezing her lovely breast with a breathy moan. If Moth was his, he’d have her do that for him all the time, and he would never get tired of hearing that sound or watching her shaking with pleasure. If Moth was his, it would be all she would ever know. His hand moves steadily now, and the fantasy unfolds, more familiar territory arriving. This is not the first time he has thought of Moth — it’s exclusively her these days —but with the chance to see her body like that in the flesh his fantasies grow more vivid: Moth on her knees, Moth pressing her breasts around his cock, Moth on his lap, Moth spread wide on his bed, smiling up at him.
His legs begin to shake as the familiar tightening begins, but Estarossa doesn’t care. “Moth,” he moans, picturing her mouth open just as it was, saying his name again and again as she begs for more. The tightening, then the push as his pleasure rushes forward, filling him with a dizzying need. He cries out as he comes, his seed spilling out and down his hands, pump after pump leaving him coated as if he was just a boy discovering this enjoyment for the first time. He is reluctant for it to be over, so he slows his hand to a gentle rocking, when suddenly he feels ashamed.
He shouldn’t have spoken to her like that, shouldn’t have burst into her room, shouldn’t have left without a word. His face flushes as he squeezes his eyes shut. Why can’t Moth just understand? Her life is different, yes — neutrality is woven into the very existence of her clan — but he knows that she is intelligent enough that the consequences of her relationship with a goddess wouldn’t have escaped her. Huffing, he stands and looks for a cloth with which to clean himself. It’s all well and good for him to mock her for being naive when he had come here with every intention of congratulating her, even if he had to force it out. Instead he had found the sight of her painful, the longing it filled him with making him retreat into cruelty to avoid the truth.
Moth is not his.
Chapter 14: Into the Abyss
Sometimes the ones you cannot trust are the ones you love.
“All that is gold does not glitter,
not all those who wander are lost.
The old that is strong does not wither,
deep roots are not reached by the frost.”
— J.R.R. Tolkien
When the Demon Clan left, Moth had not seen them off. After the events of the previous night, the argument with Estarossa and the humiliation of him catching her during a private moment, she had decided that it would be best to remain secluded. She tried to look over the maps her mother had sent to her regarding potential trade routes, but her mind wandered ceaselessly until she was fighting a headache. Then, if only to find some way to distract herself, she’d turned her attention to the herbs she’d dried before leaving for the gala. The Witch Clan rarely, if ever, practiced healing magic, relying on remedies crafted from natural ingredients, but the process could be slow at best and she wanted to know if trying different compounds could speed it up. That, too, had proved useless; after dropping yet another pouch of herbs to the floor, she’d abandoned that in favor of curling up on her bed.
She knows she should write a letter. Keeping Mael in the dark about what happened — the way she had let Estarossa corner her, his name on her lips — would be cruel. But she cannot find the motivation to get a clean piece of parchment, nor does she know how to go about explaining herself satisfactorily. So she remains where she is, on her side staring at the wall, unmoving even when Anais comes in with a tray of food. Mael is who she wants. He has grown, physically and mentally, into a kind-hearted, loyal man. She remembers the boy he was, shy and uncertain and always looking for his brother’s praise, thinks of how he still retains some of that sweetness, how he always looks after those around him. It is part of their relationship; he had been the one to pull away, not from a lack of adoration but to protect her from what others might say.
Estarossa is . . . Moth frowns, rolling onto her back. Once her friend, he is now someone she cannot figure out. They had played together, exploring every corner of Cailleach, and then, when they were too old for childish games, had sparred and hunted and shared stories from their Clans. They shared bedrolls when they camped on cold nights, sat next to each other at feasts, and he had let her curl against him in the drafty library when she read. Yet he had treated her coldly, one minute pretending she did not exist and the next mocking her, and then he had seen her with her hand between her legs and she’d thought that he wanted her, his arousal straining against his trousers and darkening his eyes. Then he’d left. Again the image of the redhead on his lap flashes in her mind, and the swirling discomfort it causes leaves her more confused than before.
She closes her eyes with a groan. A nap, she decides, and then she will write to Mael so there are no secrets between them. Sleep doesn’t come easily; no matter how she turns, how many runes she counts, it eludes her, until finally she flings the covers off and stands up. Standing, she takes one step forward, only to freeze. The world is shattered, pieces of the past and present contained in looping fragments and stretching as far as she can see. There is no horizon or ground, merely an all-encompassing sky, colored as though she is standing in a murkier version of the northern lights, with fog that obscures the distance. Walking to the edge of the piece she is on, she glances down, stomach dropping at the sight of more fragments spiralling endlessly beneath her, the shadow of some large creature seeming to swim between them. Then she blinks as a path of small stones appear in front of her, leading to the next area.
Should she go? Instinct warns her to stay where she is, but she is curious about this odd world and who — or what — pulled her here, so she steps onto the first stone, waiting to see if it will hold her. It does little more than bob under her weight before settling back into place. Feeling confident that she isn’t going to fall, she makes her way across to what turns out to be a fragment of the library. The flames in the fireplace crackle merrily, fighting off the ever-present chill. Moth stands in front of them, warming her hands, and she is so caught up in trying to figure out where exactly she is that she fails to notice she is not alone until a second pair of arms, longer than hers and covered by an old-fashioned jacket, appear. The hands are elegant, yet show the signs of hard work,the fingers calloused and the knuckles covered in old scars she’s seen on fishermen.
“I find this place to be my favorite,” a voice says, slow and melancholic, and Moth turns her head to take in the rest of the speaker. To her surprise, it is a man; his face is young and is what some would call pretty if not for the eyes, which are pools of pitch, with no discernable whites or pupils. Dark hair is cut in a short, somewhat messy style, making his skin seem paler than it is. Tall and lean, he radiates a quiet sense of power, and standing next to him makes her feel very young, as though he carries the weight of eternity. Then those eyes shift to her and she feels the expanse of his existence.
“Are you . . .” Swallowing thickly, she drops her eyes to the ruffled collar of his shirt. “Are you the Nameless God?”
A soft sound emanates from him, something akin to a laugh but much more melodic. “I am. And you are Alessa, though you prefer the name Moth. It suits you,” he adds thoughtfully, “for you are like a moth drawn to a flame, always seeking knowledge.”
“I am honored to meet you,” she murmurs, bowing. Acknowledging, at least out loud, that she is also afraid seems to be both rude and pointless. Surely a god would know her feelings without her stating them.
He pulls away from the fire, moving to the bookshelf next to it, though how she couldn’t say. It looked as though he were both walking and floating, and she cannot remember which it was. “You are at a crossroads,” he says plainly, “which will decide the course of your life. Nothing is set in stone, yet some things have consequences that cannot be undone. Your mother —”
Startled, Moth asks, “You know my mother?” The god’s gaze lands on her, making her feel like a fool.
“Yes. We are well acquainted, Nemain and I.” His voice sounds wistful as he says her mother’s name, but it is gone so quickly that she wonders if she imagined it. “She cursed me the night she learned what was to be inked upon your body. I do not fault her for it. A mother’s first instinct should always be the protection of her child.” Reaching up, he caresses the spines of the books. “I have called you here to receive the first of my marks. Only one other has borne them, and even she could not handle them all.”
Moth breathes quietly, fear and curiosity warring within her. Finally, she asks, “Why?”
“Because you will need them to survive.” The Nameless God steps back into the firelight, and for a moment she could swear that he looks like Caim with the way it plays across his features. “I have seen one of the roads you might take, and without my blessing, it will destroy you.”
Destroy me? She wraps her arms around her stomach, suddenly cold despite the warmth of the fire. “Can I avoid it?” When he watches her impassively, she amends, “Can I avoid that path?”
“Perhaps.” His head tilts to the side, and she is keenly aware of how he studies her. “But it would be best to proceed in case you do not.” One hand reaches towards her, palm up as though he is asking her to dance. “I would not do this unless I feared there was no other way. Harming you is something I rather not do, but if it ensures that you will live . . .” Trailing off, he blinks. “No matter. Your hand, please.”
Hesitant, she holds out her left hand, inhaling sharply when he curls his fingers around her wrist. They are cool, like marble, and his grip is firm enough that she could not get away from him no matter how hard she tried. Unable to stop herself, she whispers, “Will it hurt?”
The Nameless God pauses, his thumb stroking her skin. “No. You will feel different, and you will have to learn to control it, but the mark will not hurt you.” His eyes drop to her palm, and his brow furrows as he runs his finger over the scar. “Interesting. You have . . . No matter. Alessa, daughter of Nemain, who is known to those around her as Moth, I bestow upon you the first of my runes, raido , the one that marks the start of a journey.”
Under his touch, the rune blooms, the lines crawling along her arm until they rest above the highest of the black bands there. It feels cold, his magic tingling under her skin, but it isn’t unpleasant. Moth stares at it, startled when it seems to shift with her pulse, the lines constantly darkening as though someone is tracing over them with a quill. “Will it always do that?”
“Yes, though it will grow less noticeable over time.” He steps back, lips twitching into a faint smile. “You handled that well.”
“May I speak freely?” When he nods, she takes a deep breath, speaking more for her benefit than his. “I’m afraid. I don’t know why you’ve chosen me, but you have and I’m not foolish enough to think I can change that. And I don’t know what this rune will do to me, but . . . I feel like I can trust you. Which may not be wise, since you’re a god, but I do.”
The Nameless God inclines his head, placing his hand over his chest. “You will never have to fear me, that I vow. All I ask of you is that you do not pry into my motivations. Some truths are best left unspoken.” A soft, sad song comes from below, where the creature is, and he turns his head to stare over the shattered landscape. “You may come here when you wish. The books in your library will teach you how. But I will not always come to you, for there are things you must learn for yourself. As for the rune . . .” A sudden burst of warmth flowers beneath it, and Moth gasps. “It will make you more durable, less prone to pain and discomfort, though you will not be invincible.”
She bows, both reassured and frightened by his words, the rune, this place. “Thank you.” Fatigue weighs heavily on her, and she frowns at the way it simply seems to appear; until now, she has felt fine, yet she cannot deny the way she struggles to keep her eyes open. Before she can ask him why, she blinks, and when her eyes open she is in her bed once more, the walls solid around her and only the faint itch of a new tattoo confirming that her meeting with the Nameless God was not a dream. Moth lays in bed for several moments, running over their conversation, comparing reality with the myths that surround him. He did not seem cruel, merely distant and weary. Nor was he a giant beast.
Sitting up, she finds, to her surprise, a lapdesk next to her, a pot of ink with a newly sharpened quill and a piece of parchment on its surface. When did she . . .? The haunting melody returns, and she understands that he had moved it for her, yet had not made her write, leaving the choice of whether or not to inform Mael of her troubles entirely in her hands. Without my blessing, it will destroy you. What had he meant? What path? Moth rubs the rune on her arm, staring blankly down at the parchment before pulling the desk to her and uncapping the ink to dip the quill inside. She pauses over the paper, mulling over what she should say, and then leans over to write, unaware of the way the scar on her palm, hidden at her side, darkens until it looks newly made.
I’m writing to you two days after I left. I wish that I could fill this with good tidings, but there are things that have happened that you should be aware of. Before you read any further, please know this: I have chosen you. You are the one I wish to be with, and I miss you terribly. What happened was the fault of my own inner turmoil, which was not caused by you, but another person.
You are aware, I think, of my friendship with Prince Estarossa. I told him of our relationship, and the effect was not good; he has severed his ties to me and treats me with cold indifference. He came with an envoy yesterday, and I, not understanding why he was doing this, confronted him about it last night. I picked an awful time to do so and made the inappropriate choice of doing so in his private quarters instead of somewhere less intimate. We argued, and he . . . It did not end well.
I hesitate to write this, but you must know. He propositioned me, and I turned him down. Suffice it to say that I do not think I will see much of him anymore. I ask that you not be angry with him, as it would accomplish little.
Perhaps the oddest event was a visit from the Nameless God. He is different from what I have heard, and he came to grant me the first of his marks. His reason for doing so was a cryptic warning about a path that would lead to my death otherwise, but he did not specify what path or how to avoid it. I have the mark now, which takes the shape of a rune that specifies, in his words, the beginning of a journey. He also invited me to visit his realm whenever I wished, thought I don’t think I’ll do so unless necessary. He lives in a cold, fragmented place where snippets of reality are saved in isolated pieces.
I hope this letter finds you well. I cannot wait to see you again, though there are some things we must discuss, and I look forward to your reply with eager anticipation.
She scatters sand over the parchment to dry the ink, standing from the bed while she waits. Curious to see if the mark has changed anything about her, she moves to the mirror, studying her reflection closely. Her face is the same, as is the rest of her, save for the new tattoo on her forearm; disappointed, she starts to turn away, stopping when she notices something so infinitesimal that she doubts anyone would else would pay it any mind. Her eyes have lost some of their color — the hints of green have faded, leaving a pure, steely gray behind — and they seem to glow faintly in the shadows of her room. You’ll have to learn to control it . Moth snorts, reaching up to rub her eyes. Control it, indeed. Taking a deep breath, and then another, she focuses on drawing her magic inward, relieved when she moves her hands to find her eyes normal, if still lacking that faint green hue.
In the void, the Nameless God feels the shift in power as the girl recognizes the piece of himself contained within his rune. She is clever, a trait he admires, one that is shared with her mother, and that mind of hers will serve her well in the days to come. He moves from place to place, until he arrives at one he has not been to in little over a century. It is a nursery, carefully decorated with the things the Witch Clan believes to bring good luck to their newborns: a wheel woven from dried herbs to ward off ill fortune, runes for life and happiness painted onto the glossy wood of the cradle. Though the memory is empty, a lullaby can be heard, as though the woman singing will at any second walk through the door, her child cradled in her arms. He steps across the room, running his fingers along the wall as he goes, wondering why he had chosen this particular time to save in his world. Sentiment, he supposes, and he thinks of the girl, staring at him with awe and fear and asking him if the mark would hurt her.
Behind him, a woman appears, younger than she was when she died. Her hair is a golden blonde instead of white, the tattoos on her arms and neck as vivid as they were when she first received them. This is a woman in the prime of her life, and he wonders if, should he choose to get close enough, he would smell the blood and smoke that had clung to her like a perfume then. She paces around the room, never getting near to him, and her lovely face twists into an expression of disgust when she reaches the cradle, green eyes cold. The Nameless God waits for her to speak, knowing why she is there but wanting to hear her say it. If she is trying to unnerve him by drawing this out, she will be sorely disappointed; he left his capacity for discomfort behind when he became a god, and no mortal, particularly from his clan, can force it back upon him.
“I have kept my end of the bargain,” the woman says at last, voice sharp. “You have not.”
The Nameless God lifts a doll from where it rests on the dresser, turning it over in his hands. It will be discarded later on, the child not inclined to play with it once they learn of other things, but it is preserved here in immaculate detail. When he feels the woman’s ire grow, he replies, “Haven’t I? I did what was asked of me.”
The woman laughs cruelly. “Oh, yes. I asked for a weapon to use to lead my people into greatness, and you gave me a granddaughter who is too soft-hearted to do what needs to be done.” The laughter stops abruptly, the next words a snarl. “I gave you my daughter in return for a god-killer. You have not delivered.”
“You speak of things you do not know nor understand.” His power expands, and he hears the woman drop to her knees as he carefully crushes the air from her lungs. If she were intelligent, she would know that she does not need to breathe, yet she has always been a fool. “I overlooked your indiscretion with the Demon King, despite the fact that I should have killed you for it, and you asked me for a weapon instead of forgiveness.” He crosses the room, kneeling down to take a handful of her hair and pull her head back. Her eyes are blazing with hatred as she stares at him, and he says his next words quietly. “You are lucky that I have allowed you to exist here instead of feeding you to the daemonis . Do not tempt me further. Have I made myself clear . . .” He pauses, letting her name leave him in a sibilant murmur, “Macha?”
Chapter 15: Reaction
Warning: There is sexual content in this chapter.
I'd also like to preface this by saying that Mael's action are influenced by my personal headcanon that receiving a Grace makes one more emotionally volatile and likely to act on their impulses, which is why he may seem out of character. And I'd like to apologize for the lack of an update last week; I had some personal issues which got in the way, but I should be back on a regular schedule now.
“He pulls me to him
as his lips find mine
and I am helpless,
unable to even resist,
and I know I don’t want to.”
— Raquel Mckissock
Standing in front of the mirror, Mael stares at his reflection, the lips pressed into a frown and eyes narrowed, and he struggles to contain his rage. Two weeks ago, Moth had left to return to Cailleach, the sweet kiss she’d given him during their good-bye lingering with the memory of her beneath him in the grass. Three days ago, he’d been taken before the Supreme Deity, where he had kneeled before her as she deemed him worthy of receiving the title of Archangel and the grace known as Sunshine. Then Ludoshel had pulled him aside to explain that, until he was used to it and the effect gaining it caused — a lowering of inhibitions and a more volatile emotional state — he would have to be very careful not to lose control. This morning, he had woken up to a letter from Moth, in which she ever so casually informed him of some . . . proposition by a demon. A demon prince, to be exact, and Mael snarls softly as he crumples the letter in his fist.
His body is humming due to the grace, heat flickering around him as he breathes deeply to try and repress his anger. Sunshine is the most powerful of the graces, Ludoshel had said, and will require the steepest learning curve. If you allow yourself to lose control, you will destroy everything within a certain radius. The mirror shows him surrounded by light, his eyes glowing until their usual blue is eclipsed by a golden shine that replaces his pupils. Mael places his hands atop the dresser, listening to the wood sizzle under his touch, and he practices pulling the grace inward as he had been shown until the only signs of the near disaster are the charred imprints left behind when he lifts his palms. Finally, he straightens up, running his hands through his hair before stalking from his room. There is an envoy leaving today for Cailleach, and he intends to join it.
He propositioned me. The words resonate, almost as if they are mocking him, and Mael clenches his fists. Moth is his. He has loved her since they were children, building up the courage to tell her for years, and some demon — Estarossa, he thinks coldly, remember that name — is not going to take her away from him. Tarmiel is surprised when Mael tells him shortly that he’s accompanying him to Cailleach, and the other envoys watch him nervously as his grace sparks between his fingers, but his fellow Archangel nods and then they are off. As always, they land outside of the market, and it takes every ounce of self-control he has not to race off to the palace to find Moth. By the time the footman admits them to the throne room, Mael is dangerously close to the end of his patience; he listens as the queen greets them graciously, his eyes scanning the room. For the first time that he can remember, Moth is not present, and his eyes narrow as he wonders where she could be.
The meeting ends, and Mael is turning to leave and look for her when the queen calls out, “A moment of your time, Lord Mael?” Jaw clenching, he stops, turning to look at her. Her eyes are cool and assessing as she studies him, the gray like steel. “I have learned of your intentions regarding my daughter, and I will permit your courtship. However, should you try and use it to force her to break our clan’s oath of neutrality, or should you break her heart, I will carve you into pieces and feed you to the Nameless God.”
His eyes widen at the open threat. Despite her cold demeanor, the queen looks relaxed, and he has to force himself not to glare at her. “Is that a threat, Your Highness?”
“No.” Nemain stands from her chair. “It is a promise to you, not from the Witch Queen, but from a mother.” Her lips curve into a smile that doesn’t quite reach her eyes. “Do you understand?”
Mael watches her for several long moments. Her words alone could be enough to convince the Supreme Deity that the Witch Clan are not the Goddess Clan’s allies, but he remembers how often Ludoshel protected him in the past, occasionally going against the behavior expected of him as the leader of the Archangels. “Yes.”
“Very well.” All at once, the tension drains from her shoulders, and she sighs as she steps down from the dais. “If you’re planning on looking for Moth, I believe she’s in the library. She’s been rather . . . focused these last few weeks. Perhaps you can cheer her up.”
He bows before taking his leave. He remembers the way to the library well, having visited it many times when the weather in Cailleach was too cold or damp to be outdoors, and it isn’t long before he finds himself opening the doors and stepping inside. It is a large space, nearly the size of the throne room, with floor-to-ceiling windows set along the eastern wall. The floor is crafted of a highly-polished dark wood that matches the bookcases, and the ceiling is high and vaulted, a dome of glass taking up much of it; that, and the windows, ensure that the room feels bright and open. A large hearth is built into the wall to the right of the doors, with several plush chairs and a settee resting in front of it. It is a cheery, homey room, quite unlike the stuffy, silent archives of the Goddess Clan.
Closing his eyes, Mael branches out with his magic until he locates Moth in the back, then he begins weaving his way through the shelves until he finds her. He almost forgets his ire when he sees her seated cross-legged on the floor, books piled around her, but he thinks of her letter and his irritation grows. Still, he lowers himself across from her, taking in the messy bun she’s thrown her hair into and the way her brows furrow in confusion before dropping his eyes to her fitted tunic and leggings. She looks beautiful, and his desire, already potent before his grace, flares to life. How would she react if he pulled her to him, if he kissed her like he had in the field and continued on beyond the boundaries of propriety? Mael almost asks her — almost propositions her, and the thought of it smothers the worst of his craving.
“What do you think of replacing thistle with yarrow?” Moth asks without preamble, and he blinks as she continues, “Thistle is more abundant, but it lacks some of the qualities of yarrow in regards to internal bleeding.” Mael reaches into his pocket, curling his fingers around his coin and holding it until it nearly burns, feeling vindicated when Moth looks up sharply. “Cut it out, Mael.”
“What?” He regards her with faux innocence.
“You know what. The coins get too hot when we’re this close.” She sets her book to the side, reaching under her tunic to settle her necklace on top of the fabric. Mael lets go and rests his hand on his thigh, watching as she leans towards him with a soft smile. “It’s good to see you. I didn’t know you were coming today, so this is a nice surprise. I missed you.”
He forces himself to remain still as she moves to sit between his legs. “Did you, now?”
“Mhm.” Her arms curl around his neck, and she tilts her head. Mael wraps one of his arms around her waist, fingers stroking idly over her hip, but he doesn’t kiss her, and Moth studies him curiously.
“I assumed you were too busy with the prince to worry about me,” he drawls. She freezes, and Mael raises his free hand to cup her cheek. “Tell me: when he propositioned you, did you think of me at all?”
“Of course I did!” His grip on her keeps her from pulling away when she tries, and Moth huffs.
Mael draws her closer, lifting her to settle her on his lap. It is a dangerous position, but with his anger and hurt and lust magnified by the grace, he doesn’t care. “You were very . . . vague in your letter. It makes me wonder what happened between the two of you.”
“I told you what happened,” she mutters, yet there is an edge of something like guilt in her voice.
“Not all of it,” he replies.
Moth falls quiet, gaze dropping so she is looking at his neck rather than his face, and he wonders if he is right, if something else occurred that she is keeping from him. “I went to his room to confront him,” she says softly, “and he was cruel. He told me to leave, and I didn’t listen. He is . . . was my friend. I wanted to try to work through the problem. That’s when he said what he said, but it was almost like a threat, like it was the only thing he could think of to get me to let him alone.”
Mael strokes his thumb along her cheek. He knows her, and he knows that she is still hiding something. “And?”
“He saw me.” Her voice is nearly a whisper, as though she has to fight to get the words out.
“Saw you?” He clears his throat. “Saw you doing what?”
She bites her lower lip, and his eyes focus on that movement, the way she tugs the plump flesh between her teeth. “I needed . . . I needed relief. After seeing you, I mean. And I . . .” Her eyes close as she rests her head against his shoulder. Voice muffled, she says, “I touched myself. And he saw.”
He has her on her back before he knows he is moving, his hips between her thighs and one of his hands pinning her arms above her head. His grace ebbs and flows as he struggles to keep a grip on his temper, in time to the pounding of the pulse in his throat, and he watches its light play across her face as she stares at him. Mine, he thinks fiercely, but instead of that he grits out, “Did you know he was there?”
“No!” Her eyes widen. “No, I promise! I didn’t see him until afterwards, and he left as soon as I did.”
“Good.” His hand smooths along her side, and he cups her rear and slants his mouth over hers when she gasps.
She tastes sweet, the faintest hint of cinnamon when he rolls his tongue over hers; Mael groans and presses closer, delving past her lips again and again, his desire for her coupling with the need to erase the thought of that demon from her mind. When she tilts her head and catches his lip between her teeth, his control begins to falter. He shouldn’t have stopped in the field, should have stripped her bare and filled her body with his, should have left his mark so inarguably on her that there was no chance for another man to wonder if they could touch her. Moth pulls away, panting quietly, and he dips his head to tease the skin of her throat until she moans, and that sound breaks the last of his control. He lets go of her wrists to yank open the clasps on the front of her tunic, then lowers his mouth to her chest.
She is better than he imagined, flesh soft and supple against his lips, and he thinks of what he has read and the training room talk of the other goddesses as he cups her breasts in his palms. He runs his thumb over her nipple, the little gasp she lets out making his head swim, so he does it a second time, then catches the bud between his fingers and rolls it. Moth yelps, wriggling beneath him. When he looks up at her, he catches the end of her wince, which makes him pause; the books he’d perused, particularly the ones he hadn’t dared take out of the archives, had said that what he did was meant to feel good, but her expression makes him think otherwise. Curious, he leans down and runs his tongue across her nipple, pleased when she sighs and relaxes against him.
“Mael,” she breathes; he groans and nuzzles her breast, body straining against his trousers, before latching on and sampling her slowly. “Oh!”
He tastes her until she squirms beneath him, shoving lightly at his shoulders, then he braces himself on his forearms to peer down at her, the sight of her flushed face and mussed hair thrumming through him. “Too much,” Moth mutters, and he blinks.
The looks she gives him is half-amused, half-annoyed. “They are attached to me, you know,” she says dryly. Mael snorts, leaning down to nip at her throat, grinning when she inhales sharply.
“Let me make it up to you,” he murmurs.
He waits for her to nod before shifting his weight to one arm, freeing the other so he can run it along her side, pausing when his fingers graze the top of her leggings. Mael wants to savor this, her beneath him, the warmth of her body under his touch, but impatience nags at him, so he slides his hand under the fabric, cupping her and drawing in a startled breath at the wet heat he finds there. Experimentally he strokes her slit and she whines, hips arching against his palm. He repeats the gesture before parting her folds with his thumb, focusing on the top of her core, her soft cry shooting to his cock and making it throb. Mael continues his motions there as he drags his finger down, searching carefully until he finds her entrance. The training room talk comes back to him, and he presses inside, dropping his head to her shoulder with a groan.
Slick and tight, her body pulses against his finger; he pants as he imagines using his cock instead, thrusting into her and feeling her clench around him, unaware that his hand has stilled until she keens and tugs his hair. Mael shifts his head so he can tug her skin between his teeth, tasting the salt on her skin and running his tongue against her neck, and drags his finger out before pumping it back in. Her breathless moans and the rocking of her hips guide his touches; when he adds a second finger, she chokes on a whimper, back arching so her body is flush against his. He needs relief — his body demands it — yet the pleasure he gives her feeds back to him, a cycle of intricate, inexperienced give and take. Soon her cries take on a higher, needier pitch, and he presses his mouth to hers as he curls his fingers to stroke along the front of her walls, wanting to feel her moans against his lips.
“Mael,” she pleads into his kiss, “Mael, please.”
“What do you need?” His voice is low, rough, foreign to his ears, but it doesn’t surprise him, not with the blaze beneath his skin.
What does is the way she tilts her head, baring her throat to him and tangling her fingers in his hair to urge him down. There is a mark in the crook of her neck from his earlier ministrations, and he traces it with slow swipes of his tongue, feeling her pulse fluttering wildly under her skin. Then he bites down, applying pressure with his thumb as he strokes the rough patch under his fingers and she tenses, nails digging into his back as she cries his name and he feels her body press and constrict in waves. Gradually she relaxes, seemingly limp against the floor, eyes closed and mouth parted as she breathes heavily. Uncertain of what to do, he pulls his hand from under her leggings, readjusting the fabric and smoothing it over her hips.
“What about you?” Mael looks up to find Moth propped on her elbows, smile satisfied as she studies him.
He clears his throat. All at once he becomes aware that they are in a library which is frequented by her parents, on the floor, him fully clothed and her in disarray. “I’ll be fine.”
“Uh-huh.” She eyes him critically before laying back down, working methodically to refasten her tunic. “Listen, not that I’m complaining, but . . . What about your clan’s rules about stuff like that? Won’t you get in trouble?”
Mael flushes, shame flooding him, and that shame makes him angry at himself and at her. Moth had let a demon proposition her for sex, had found him watching her as she touched herself, yet she’s acting as if he is to blame for what they did. And she isn’t wrong; he could have spoken to her about it, but his own turmoil and need to make sure she doesn’t forget him had led to him taking her pleasure on the floor as though she is a common tavern wench. “Unless you send a letter, I don’t see how anyone would know,” he snaps.
Moth’s fingers pause on one of the snaps. “Are you serious? Would you have preferred it if I hadn’t told you?”
“I would have preferred it if you didn’t wander into someone’s bedroom,” he says coldly, “or touched yourself while they watched.”
“You ass.” Her voice is shaking, and feels the temperature drop around them. “We were arguing. I didn’t go there to seduce him, and I didn’t know he was there until I was done.” She sits abruptly, moving back until she is settled against the shelves opposite of him. “I think you should go,” she says icily.
Mael scowls at her. “Yes, because I’m to blame for your indiscretion.”
“I didn’t say that!” Her eyes are like flint, sharp and hard as she stares at him. “Gods above, you act like I slept with him. Well, I didn’t, and I sure as hell didn’t ask him to do what he did.”
“You told me not to be angry with him!”
“Because I was afraid!” The words startle him into silence. “Your clans are on the brink of war! What would happen if you went after a prince because you felt like you needed to prove a point?!” He watches as she takes a deep breath, her body tense, and he feels as though he should hold on to his rage, but guilt is quickly drowning it. “My clan can only exist because of our neutrality. Peace can only exist because of our neutrality. If you had broken that peace because of me . . .” Her voice trails off, uncertain.
“What?” Mael leans forward. “What, Moth?”
“I don’t know.” She sighs, head leaning back to rest against the shelves.
He remains as he is for a few moments longer, waiting to see if she will say anything else. When she doesn’t, he forces himself to relax, to let go of his ire so he can think clearly. “I thought you were defending him.”
Moth shrugs. “He was my friend. I don’t want him to be hurt, but . . .” Her lips quirk faintly. “He probably needs a good smack.”
“I won’t go after him.” She looks at him, and he meets her gaze steadily. “But, should I meet him somewhere, I can’t promise that I won’t hurt him. Not right now. His actions were crass and vile, and I cannot forgive them so easily. And I want you to promise me that you won’t allow yourself to be put in a position like that again.”
A long silence as she thinks, finger tapping a mindless tune against her thigh. Then, the tension fades from her shoulders and she nods, smiling at him faintly. “I promise.”
Chapter 16: Days Gone By
Denial is a powerful thing, and one should always beware its call.
“I love the silent hour of the night,
for blissful dreams may then arise,
revealing to my charmed sight
what may not bless my waking eyes.”
— Anne Brontë
Moth pauses in front of the tavern, eyeing the sign critically. A rather simple affair, it consists of the name, The Angry Goat, spelled out in faded red and gold paint, a silhouette of a goat rearing on its legs in the background. It’s not the first one that she’s come across since leaving the kingdom of Camelot, and she knows that it’s the last one she will see for hours and that it is no longer safe to be out after dark, but her meeting with the king has left her tired of mankind. She had gone to him as her mother’s emissary, to speak with him about the growing hostilities between the Clans, and had found him to be belligerent and arrogant beyond measure, unwilling to consider that his newly-formed city, so far to the south, would be threatened. He’d refused to listen to reason and now, pondering whether or not she wants to pay for a room or risk travelling at night, Moth finds herself wondering how anyone can deal with a human for any period of time without losing their temper.
Perhaps, she muses as she steps inside, he’d taken issue with the fact that she is a woman. No longer awkward or ungainly, the years since her courtship with Mael began have left her lean, with elegant features. Her training, which focuses on quick, stealthy movements, has kept her body feminine enough that mortals tend to either overlook or proposition her, depending on where she is. Sighing, Moth slides her hood back as she approaches the bar, running her fingers through her hair to smooth it down. So much has changed in the last three years; she has taken a more active role in court, learning the duties that will one day be expected of her, and Mael . . . Their relationship is stable and supportive, if strained by his Clan’s increasing skirmishes with the Demon Clan. He, too, is different, a warrior known throughout the Clans, confident in and proud of his abilities.
The bartender is pleasant, if gruff, giving her a room and two meals for a rate that she feels is oddly low. When he explains that his wife was attacked by bandits when trying to return home after sundown, she understands. Women are easier targets to some, and having something like that happen to someone he loves would naturally make him want to protect anyone else from suffering a similar fate. She pays him and waits until he hands her a bowl of stew and a chunk of bread before finding a secluded table to sit at. No one pays her much attention; her daggers are hidden, and her clothes are the plain ones favored by travelers, so she appears as one of the common folk. It suits her desire to be unbothered nicely.
She is nearly done with her dinner when the door opens and a hush falls over the tavern. Looking up, Moth pauses at the sight of Estarossa standing in the doorway, surveying the patrons with an expression of cool indifference. He is different from when she last saw him all those years ago, older and broader and wearing a brown coat and gold gauntlets, his face sharper and handsome enough that it’s almost too handsome. Swallowing thickly, she sinks down in her seat, praying that he’ll overlook her. Three years of silence save for a few brief interactions at meetings between their Clans have left her with little desire to speak with him. Unfortunately, his eyes land on her, and she curses quietly as he makes his way to her table, people shrinking away from the power that radiates from him.
Estarossa takes the seat across from her, studying her until a waitress arrives and he orders a tankard of ale. Then he leans back, stretching his legs beneath the table until his boots tap her shins, lips quirking when she tucks her feet beneath her chair to break the contact. Irritated by both his presence and his silence, Moth hisses, “Go away.”
“It’s good to see you, as well,” he drawls, and she scowls at him. “I have to admit, I almost didn’t recognize you at first. It’s been a while since we last spoke.”
“Not long enough, if you ask me,” she replies coldly.
He shrugs, taking his ale from the waitress and dropping a silver coin into her palm. “Is that any way to speak to a childhood friend?”
Moth crosses her arms over her chest, eyes narrowing as she says, “A friendship you ended, as I recall.”
“Did I?” Estarossa tilts his head, and the ire swirling beneath her skin reaches its peak.
“What do you want, Estarossa?” She lifts her chin in a silent challenge. “You removed yourself from my life three years ago, and have made no effort to bridge that gap since. Banquets, negotiations, you’ve ignored me as best as you could at each and every one. So, why now?”
“Maybe I wanted to speak to you and apologize for my actions.” He smiles faintly. “Or perhaps you simply look too beautiful to ignore.”
Uncomfortably aware of how her heart begins pounding at his words, she shakes her head. “No. You were never so trivial. There’s a reason you’re talking to me, I know there is.”
For a moment, he merely looks at her. Then he says, “There are rumors that the Witch Clan will be allying with the Goddess Clan soon.” When she opens her mouth to speak, he cuts her off. “Your courtship with Mael is making ripples, Moth. He’s known as the Angel of Death to the civilians of my Clan, a story used to keep children in line.”
Moth shifts in her seat. “I wasn’t aware of that.”
“Really?” Estarossa raises a brow. “He goes out and slaughters demons, and you’re ignorant of it? What do the two of you talk about? Or do you talk at all?”
“We don’t talk about the war,” she snaps. “We talk about our lives, the things we enjoy. And you’re one to talk about reputations, when you stand as one of the Ten Commandments. Do you know what they say about you? That you’re sadistic and cruel and take pleasure in tormenting your victims.”
Something akin to hurt flickers across his face before fading into casual boredom. “Is that what they say? I’ve heard the same about him, though I suppose you would ignore that as well, given your connection to him.” He takes a long drink of his ale before adding thoughtfully, “There was a time when you would have given me the same courtesy.”
“That was before you made an ass of yourself,” she says coldly.
Estarossa shrugs. “You came to my quarters to confront me on something you should have known. I told you that you couldn’t have us both, and you refused to understand why. Now that I’ve told you the reason, you still won’t listen. What else do you expect me to do?”
“You threatened me!” Her raised tone draws a few curious stares, so she lowers her voice. “You threatened me, and then had the gall to come to my room and watch me during a private moment, and you think I should listen to you now?”
“No, Estarossa. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t walk out of that door right now.” She lifts her chin defiantly, fighting the urge to cave, to forgive. Truth be told, she has missed him, has often wondered what her life would be like if they had remained friends, and there is a part of her that wants to pretend that their last conversation had not gone so horribly.
He leans forward, resting his forearms on the table. “Six days ago, a messenger from the Goddess Clan was caught on the border of our territory. They left alive,” he says when her lips press together, “though they were relieved of their belongings and weapons. Found in their bag was a letter to the lieutenant in charge of an outpost, in which preparations for some sort of . . . bonding ceremony, I believe it was called, were mentioned.”
A cold weight settles in her stomach. “Are you sure it was referred to that way? Not a marriage?”
“Yes.” He holds her gaze firmly. “I read it. Bonding is a Witch Clan ceremony, is it not?”
Unable to meet his eyes, she looks down at the table. “It is. To put it simply, it’s using magic to bind two souls together, used among romantic partners who wish to spend the rest of their lives together.” Her mind circles his statement relentlessly. The Goddess Clan has no need for a bonding ceremony; they have their own ritual, as does every Clan, so the knowledge that they are speaking of a different Clan’s custom leaves very few possible explanations.
“You are the only witch who would warrant such an official message, but, by your reaction, I think it’s safe to assume that you were unaware of it.” Estarossa sighs, turning his hands so they are palm-up, a ‘no tricks here’ gesture from his youth. “If Mael hasn’t spoken to you about it, then perhaps his intentions aren’t as pure as you want to believe.”
“Is that why you’re here? To make me doubt him?” She pushes back her chair, intending to stand, but he reaches out and catches her wrist, holding her in place.
“Listen to me.” His voice is sharp, and it stuns her into being still. “Whether this is his doing or not, I don’t know. There is a letter, it involves a ceremony from your Clan, and you are the one being courted by an Archangel. This cannot be ignored; the Demon King won’t let this pass for long. I’m not here to make you do anything. I’m here to warn you.”
“Why?” The question is quiet, hard to get out.
Estarossa’s eyes soften the tiniest fraction. “You were my friend once. The first one I had. Believe it or not, I would not see you harmed if I could do something to prevent it.”
“I want to believe that. Really, I do.” His grip on her wrist becomes gentle, and he strokes her skin with his thumb, the metal of his gauntlet cool.
“I wouldn’t lie to you,” he says simply. “I . . .” Moth tilts her head, and he barks out a laugh that sounds more bitter than amused. “No, nevermind. But know that I respect you more than that.”
There is something more to it — despite their time apart, she’s finding him as easy to read as when they were children — but she refrains from pressing the issue. Doing so would only lead to another argument, and, despite her misgivings, she doesn’t want this temporary peace to end so soon. “I’ll speak to him about it,” she promises, and he nods once before releasing her.
Feeling relieved now that the tension has faded, Moth returns to her stew, murmuring a quiet heating spell to ward off the chill. At first, she’s able to ignore the feeling of his eyes on her, as her travels have left her tired and hungry. Then it becomes uncomfortable, since she’s never liked to be stared at while eating, before finally she grows irritated and slams her spoon down onto the table. “Why are you staring at me?!”
“I just told you that Mael, who is courting you, is not only a killer, but planning a bonding ceremony without your consent or knowledge, and you’re eating stew.” Estarossa looks torn between anger and disbelief, and she’d laugh if she weren’t so damned exhausted.
“Did you expect me to go rushing off to the Celestial Realm?” Moth demands.
His brows draw down. “I expected you to have some sort of reaction. He’s lied to you and hidden what he does.”
“Estarossa . . .” Scowling, she picks up what’s left of her bread and begins tearing tiny pieces off of it. “Listen. I’ve had a long day. I had to meet with some pig-headed human king, which took longer than it should have on account of his son trying to undermine everything I said. I have been travelling for two days. If you wanted a reaction, I’m sorry, but I’m too worn out to give you one.”
“If you’re willing to overlook what he’s done, then you aren’t who I thought you were.”
Moth breathes in sharply, feeling the last of her patience snap away. “Look, you insufferable ass, I’m not overlooking anything. I’m tired, I’m hungry, I want to eat and then sleep, but apparently the Nameless God hates me, because I keep having to deal with these . . . these fucking morons who try to tell me what to do, you included. So either find something else to talk about or shut up and let me eat.”
Estarossa’s jaw clenches. “I’m sorry, Your Highness. Is food more important than dealing with your murderous lover?”
“Okay. You know what?” Moth stands, tossing a handful of coins onto the table. “Buy yourself a room, get shitfaced, I don’t care. I’m not dealing with this. You cut me out of your life three years ago, but now that it’s convenient you want to waltz back in like nothing happened? Like hell.”
As she strides towards the door, Estarossa calls out, “Where are you going?”
“To find another damned tavern to sleep in,” she snaps, keenly aware of the way the other patrons stare at her as she leaves.
Disappointment sits heavily on her as she steps outside. Three years. Three years of missing his company, of watching him from afar at meetings, of telling herself over and over again that he had made his choice, and that choice was ending their friendship, only for him to waltz in and treat her as condescendingly as the human kings she’s forced to deal with. What else should a demon do? she thinks bitterly, tugging her cloak tighter around her shoulders. Estarossa has never been seen at gatherings without a woman on his arm, yet he wants to lecture her about her own relationship, which has proved far more stable than any he’s attempted. Why? Jealousy? What is there for him to be jealous of? His inability to sustain a relationship long term is no fault of hers. Moth is so distracted by trying to figure out his motivations that she fails to notice that he’s behind her until he grabs her arm and drags her into the alley.
“What the hell are you doing?” Moth tugs her arm, but his grip merely tightens as he whirls to face her.
“Are you out of your mind?” he hisses. “You should know better than to wander off at night!”
She gapes at him, his words fueling her ire until it borders on outrage. “Are you serious? I’m not a damsel in distress, you bastard! I can take care of myself, and you have no right to pull me into an alley so you can . . . So you can scold me!”
“Yes, I should let you wander off so you can be attacked by bandits,” Estarossa says sharply.
“Let me —?!”
Her protest is cut off when Estarossa shoves her against the wall, covering her body with his own; he braces himself on one forearm, his other hand pressing on her shoulder to hold her in place. He seems to be tracking something, his head turned slightly to the side, but whatever it is, she doesn’t know, her line of sight blocked by his arm. Moth splays her hands on his chest, pushing to try to move him back, and his gaze returns to her, something flashing there that makes her pause. Then she glares at him, opening her mouth to tell him to get off — or to fuck off, she isn’t sure which — and he slides his hand from her shoulder to her hair and tilts her head back and slants his mouth over hers.
Her fingers dig into his coat, shock freezing her in place. There is nothing gentle or soft about the way he moves against her, his kiss ravenous and possessive, so unlike the sweet passion she is used to receiving from Mael. Estarossa catches her lip between his teeth, sucking before soothing the sting with a slow swipe of his tongue; the longer he is pressed to her, the more tender his actions become, the fingers in her hair sliding slowly through her locks until he strokes her cheek. When she gasps, he delves into her mouth, tasting her with long strokes of his tongue over hers. His palm on her cheek keeps her lips pressed to his, the way her body is trapped between his and the wall behind her leaving her incapable of breaking away, his hips flush against hers as he slides his thigh between her legs. Every time she tries to come up with something — indignation, a way to put distance between them — he rolls his tongue or nips her lip and her thoughts scatter.
Finally, he pulls away, and his eyes are dark and heavy on her face. “Moth,” he begins, and she shoves against him until he stumbles back.
“What is wrong with you?!” she cries. “Were you hoping that I’d be so despondent over what you said that I’d crawl into your bed?!”
“Moth, listen to —”
“No. No. You’ve said, and done, enough. Go away, Estarossa, go find someone else to toy with and leave me alone.” Moth crosses her arms over her chest, holding herself to fight off the chill that creeps along her skin now that he’s no longer close to her.
He is silent for a moment, and then he says curtly, “As you wish, Your Highness.”
She winces at both his tone and the title, but says nothing, and he leaves, the sound of his boots on the ground echoing through the alley. Promise me that you won’t allow yourself to be put in a position like that again. She’d given her word to Mael three years ago, the feel of his mouth and hands on her leaving her breathless and light-headed, yet here she is, swallowing the urge to call out to Estarossa. There is no denying the odd hold he has one her, but that does not mean she has to act on it, so she stands in the dark, breathing quietly through her nose and running over the different medicinal herbs native to Cailleach and their uses until her heart slows back to its usual pace. Tomorrow, she will wake to see the scar on her palm darkened until it looks fresh, will notice the faint loneliness that colors her thoughts. Now, though, she heads out of the alley to find another tavern, telling herself that her reaction to Estarossa’s kiss came from her surprise.
Chapter 17: The Shadow Looms
The wheels of fate are always in motion.
WARNING: There is graphic content in this chapter; if you are squeamish, I would recommend skipping the section where Moth first enters Nemain's study, as there is a description of a rotting skull.
“Beware, be skeptical
of their smiles of plated gold;
deceit so natural,
but a wolf in sheep’s clothing
is more than a warning.”
— Set It Off
For the tenth time in the last hour, Moth glances out of the window. She is meant to be paying attention to the rather inane demands of a jewels merchant, but her recent encounter with Estarossa has left her distracted. There is no reason she can find for him to lie to her, yet the idea that Mael has become someone who can so easily take the lives of others — and in such a quantity as to earn the title the Angel of Death — seems almost too far-fetched to believe. He is loyal and dutiful to his Clan, yes, but not once has she seen any signs that he could mercilessly slaughter innocents, or that he would plot a bonding ceremony without consulting her. Estarossa, however, had been certain of what he said, and she understands him well enough to know that he was being honest with her. Compounding her frustration is Mael’s sudden and prolonged silence, her letters unanswered and her coin cold around her neck.
“— and I told him, I said, ‘You can’t expect anyone to pay that much for copper .’ It’s outrageous! Ten silvers for a measly ingot? And you know what he said? ‘It’s hard to get any copper at all with those Nora ambushing anyone who tries to get to the mines.’ As if the Nora have ever been anything other than backwoods farmers.”
She snaps her focus back to the jeweler, her lips pressing together. “When was this?”
“My Lady?” The merchant blinks at her, and Moth works hard to suppress her irritation; it isn’t his fault that his head is so full of trade that he doesn’t realize the importance of the information he’s just given her.
“The Nora,” she clarifies. “When did he tell you that the Nora were raiding the mines?”
“Last week. But, my Lady, I’m afraid I don’t understand —”
He sat on this for a week? Plastering a smile on her face, she says, “I see. Thank you. As for your dispute over prices, I’m afraid that he has the right to raise the cost of his wares to account for the supply. And ten silvers is a far fairer price for an ingot of copper than you’d find elsewhere. Will that be all?”
He looks displeased, but does nothing other than bow before exiting the room, muttering under his breath. As soon as he’s gone, Moth heads for her mother’s study, knowing that she cannot keep what she’s learned to herself. Three years ago, they had found evidence of someone tampering with the wards around Cailleach; though the person or persons responsible had left no traces, Nemain had immediately turned her suspicions on the Nora, those she had banished at the start of her rule. No evidence had been found at any of the settlements, however, and the matter had been put aside until something happened or new information came to light. If the Nora are raiding the mines, particularly the ones used by merchants in Cailleach, it means they are within the wards once more. Then again . . .
Moth hesitates outside the door. It could be possible that someone, wanting to shift blame, had acquired the clothing worn by the Nora and used it to conceal their identity. Everyone in Cailleach — except, perhaps, for children — knows of the civil war that ensued after Nemain took the throne, and most of them had lost friends and lovers when the rebellion was crushed and the insurgents exiled. And many saw the ones they cared for cut down by both the royal guard and the Nora. Could someone be trying to cast doubt on the Nora, knowing that Nemain would hunt them down if they tried to breach Cailleach once more? Or is there someone out there, someone with a grudge against the queen, trying to provoke her? Another possibility, one where the Nora have someone inside Cailleach, aiding their efforts, finally has her opening the door and stepping into the study.
A wall of stifling heat greets her. Moth breathes shallowly, trying to ignore the scent of rot that clings to the air, her eyes watering at the sharp, wet-earth smell of decay. The cause of it is immediately clear: a ram’s skull, flesh slowly peeling away from the bone in wet, sagging strips, stares sightlessly at her from her mother’s desk. Nemain, who has closed the shutters and built the fire to an unreasonable degree, is peering intently into its open jaw. With a start, Moth realizes that the mouth is wedged open by a dagger, the hilt propped against the chin while the point is shoved between the upper teeth. It is a simple affair, carved from what appears to be bone, and she recognizes what it means from the books she has studied for her entire life.
Someone is declaring war on the Witch Clan.
“Daughter mine,” Nemains says sharply, and Moth lifts her gaze to her. “Close the door. We need to talk.”
Doing as she’s told, Moth tugs on the door until it latches firmly into place, then crosses the room to stand next to her mother. This close, the stench is overwhelming, and she has no idea how her mother is so unaffected by it. “What do you know about this?” Nemain asks, voice cold, and Moth blinks as she studies the skull.
“It’s a harbinger,” she replies slowly, trying to gather her thoughts, “specific to our Clan. Death for death. The ram’s head for the land and people to be destroyed, the blade for the ruler’s heart. Your heart.” Turning to stare at her mother, Moth says incredulously, “Where did this come from? Who sent it?”
Nemain reaches out and rips the dagger out of the skull’s mouth. “Someone clever,” she snaps. “It was here when I arrived, and no one has admitted to seeing anyone carrying it in despite your father’s best efforts. I thought you might know — gods above, you spend enough time with the other Clans that you should — but apparently I was wrong.”
Moth swallows thickly. She has no desire to add fuel to her mother’s irritation, but she cannot keep the merchant’s words from her. Not after this. “Mother, I came here because of something I heard today.” When Nemain gestures impatiently for her to continue, she does. “One of the merchants seeking our aid told me that the metalsmith has raised the prices on his wares due to Nora raids on the mines.” The air crackles with heat and magic, and Moth hastens to add, “It could be someone looking to cause trouble, not the Nora themselves, but —”
“Don’t be a fool.” Nemain paces the length of the room, the train of her gown whispering along the ground behind her. “It’s been three hundred years since I exiled them from Cailleach, and this is not the first time they have tested my resolve. I should have given them to the Nameless God, but I was compassionate, naive.”
“You don’t mean that,” Moth whispers. The beginnings of dread and fear are making her fingers tremble, and she presses her hands together behind her back to hide the way they shake.
“This time, I will make certain that the only ones left are those who understand their place. I will burn their villages if I must, I will —” Abruptly, Nemain stops, expression morphing into one of horror. “Dear gods, I sound like . . . No.” She shakes her head and returns to the table, setting the dagger next to the ram’s jaw. “I am so sorry, Alessa. It has been . . . a stressful time, and I’m afraid I let that get the better of me. I will send your father to scout their settlements to see if he can learn anything while I try to find whoever delivered this.”
Moth nods once, slowly, uncertain of whether that wrath is gone or merely hidden from her view. Too much is being kept from her, she thinks suddenly, and, feeling weary of it all, she inquires, “What can I do to help?”
“We will need to send envoys to the Supreme Deity and Demon King. Your connection with Lord Mael might make his queen more inclined to listen, so I want you to go there. I will send Laina to the Dark Court. While I secure the date of your visits, I want you to listen. You are well-known throughout the city, and people are more inclined to talk to and around you. See what you can learn.”
Just as she opens her mouth to reply, there is a swift knock at the door, followed by the entrance of Caim. His face is grim, resolute, the gold of his eyes like shards of topaz in the dim light. “Nothing,” he says before either of them can ask. “No one saw or heard anything unusual this morning, and no one slipped away from the foyer while waiting for an audience.”
Nemain’s lips thin. “Which means that it was placed here via magic, and our wards have been breached.”
“It seems that way,” Caim replies. He regards the skull coldly, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword. Suddenly, desperately, Moth wants to leave the room, to return to her quarters and curl up in her bed far away from these strangers who have taken her parents’ places. It’s a childish thought — Nemain and Caim were warriors long before she was born, and they will always be warriors — but this is the first that she has seen it so prominently.
“May I be excused?” Both of them look at her, and she flushes under their scrutiny. “I’d like to change into something less formal so I can go to the market, like mother suggested.”
Nemain waves dismissively. Moth walks past her father, resisting the urge to shy away when he reaches out to pat her shoulder briefly. She is not a child anymore, and these things should not scare her, not after the battles she has been through herself. Raiding parties are becoming far more common, defectors from each side seeking refuge in the Witch Clan’s domain in the belief that the queen’s neutrality will protect them, only to turn and begin attacking villages when they begin to run out of supplies. She has patrolled their border, hunted dangerous creatures that strayed too close to the city, seen a town burned to ashes by demons running from the war, yet nothing unnerves her as much as the tension in her mother’s study, violence waiting to boil over.
Her room is blessedly silent, the maids gone for the day; to her surprise, a letter is resting on the bed, and her puzzlement grows when she recognizes Estarossa’s handwriting on the envelope. Why is he writing to her? They had said everything there was to say, and he had treated her just as callously at the tavern as he had three years ago. Frowning, she picks it up, flipping it over to see the Demon King’s seal imprinted on the wax sealing the letter, wondering if opening it would do anything other than frustrate her further. With a derisive snort, she tears the envelope and pulls out the letter, frowning at the small note tucked in front of it.
Do you still doubt me?
She scoffs, tossing the note onto the bed. Estarossa is determined to earn as much of her ire as he can, it seems, and he’s succeeding wonderfully. Three years of silence, followed by his complete and utter disregard for her as a person has left her well and truly tired of his presence in her life, and the shortness of that note almost makes her glad that she has hopefully seen the last of him. Then she turns her attention to the letter, and reads.
To all soldiers:
In one month’s time, you will be required to return to the Celestial Realm to guard our borders. Our esteemed Lord Ludoshel has announced that a ceremony will take place to officially unite our Clan with the Witch Clan in our holy war against the demons. Lord Mael is to be bonded to the Princess Alessa, and Lord Ludoshel wishes to ensure that there are absolutely no interruptions.
Please see below to find out your assignments on the day of the ceremony.
For the glory of the Supreme Deity,
Lance Corporal Nerobasta
Moth’s face pales, and she sits on the mattress, her legs too weak to hold her up. So it’s true. Everything Estarossa told her at the tavern about Mael and his plans, all an honest warning, one that she had done her best to convince herself was exaggerated or an outright lie because believing him would have meant questioning everything she thought she knew about her relationship with Mael. Her fingers clench around the letter, wrinkling and tearing the parchment as she stares at it blankly. She has to speak with Mael. She must, she needs to know why he’s doing this, what in the hell he’s thinking, even if it means severing her ties with him. Deciding to bring it up as soon as she sees him, Moth scoops up the letter and the envelope, intending to burn them both, when the envelope’s odd weight catches her attention. Without the letter, it should be fairly light, but it feels as if there is something still inside; curious, she flips it upside down, and then she gasps.
Nestled in her palm is a small, silver charm, delicately crafted into the form of a feather. The letter all but forgotten, she stands and makes her way over to her dresser, digging through the small box of jewelry on top until she finds the bracelet Estarossa had given her when they were children. The feather matches it, even the clasp designed to hold it in place the same as the one on the bell. It was obviously selected with care, but why? Why go through the trouble of buying it, let alone sending it? There was no explanation on his note, nothing to suggest that he intended to give it to her, but it is quite obviously intended as a gift. Moth curls her fingers around it, pressing it against the scar on her palm, and then, quite unexpectedly, she bursts into tears.
Chapter 18: The Beginning —
Time marches steadily on, dragging all to their inevitable fates.
“Forgiveness is warm, like a tear on the cheek.
Think of that, and of me, when you stand in the rain.
I loved you completely. And you loved me the same.
The rest is confetti.”
— Nell Crane, The Haunting of Hill House
Moth stands in front of the Supreme Deity, her hands folded in the sleeves of her gown to hide how badly they tremble. Though not her first encounter with the queen of the Goddess Clan, it is the first time she has been the focus of her attention, and her stare, hidden as it is by a veil of light, is awful. Moth had delivered her mother’s message — ignoring Mael on her way in, not wanting to be distracted before such an important meeting — and she has been standing with the collar of her dress chafing her neck and sweat dotting her spine for what feels like hours. Finally, the Supreme Deity shifts, wings folding serenely behind her back, and speaks, her voice low and melodious and terrible in its strength.
“I have no knowledge of this. Perhaps it came from within? The uprising ended a mere three centuries ago, after all, and the Queen was rather . . . lenient on those involved.”
Moth releases her breath in a long sigh, trying to hide her disappointment. “Thank you, Your Grace. I apologize for the bother.”
“It is no bother.” The Supreme Deity leans forward, her voice poisonously saccharine. “You are dear to one of my Archangels. Therefore, your woes are mine.”
Moth shifts uncomfortably at that. It is one thing to speak of goodwill between the Clans, but the queen’s tone is almost overly familiar. “I’m grateful for that, Your Grace,” she murmurs.
The Supreme Deity nods and settles back against her throne. “If that is all, then you are dismissed. Your rooms have been prepared for you. I will have a servant escort you to them.”
Moth bows before exiting the throne room. True to the queen’s word, there is a servant waiting outside, but the doors open behind her before she can greet him. To her frustration, Mael walks out, and the warm smile on his face only feeds into her ire, so she glances away from him. The sight of him aches with Estarossa’s warning sitting in her thoughts, and she doesn’t know what to say to him or how to express what she’s feeling. If she tells him Estarossa is the source of her information about the plans for a ceremony, Mael will fixate on the fact that she saw him at all, and she will waste precious time trying to reassure him despite being the one who needs comfort. Startled by the bitterness of her thoughts, Moth indicates to the servant that she’s ready, and they set off to her rooms with Mael walking by her side.
The moment they are inside, his arms find her waist as he kisses along her forehead, her cheeks, the tip of her nose. “I missed you,” he whispers, his lips grazing hers.
It would be so easy to melt against him, but Moth makes herself hold on to her hurt and carefully steps away. “You and I . . . We need to talk.”
“What’s wrong?” Mael’s brows furrow when she backs out of his reach. “Moth?”
“Why are soldiers from your Clan being told we’re having a bonding ceremony?” The words flow from her in a rush. “They’re receiving field orders and assignments! No on has consulted with my mother! Or me. And you know that the Nameless God has to give his blessing for things like this!”
His expression grows more perplexed the longer she speaks. “Moth, what are you talking about?”
With a frustrated cry, she conjures the letter with Nerobasta’s signature and thrusts it at him. “See for yourself!”
Mael takes it from her, blinking owlishly. Then his face pales as he reads. “I didn’t know about this. I swear!” He looks at her pleadingly. “Ludoshel must have misunderstood when I told him I planned to ask you about how these things work for your Clan.”
“Right.” Moth rubs her forehead. “Your brother misunderstood you so horribly that he wrote that my Clan would be joining your war.”
“Wouldn’t you? If we were —”
“No. And you know this. If we were to be bonded, you would have to live in Cailleach both as my consort and ambassador to your Clan.” Shaking her head, she exhales heavily. “The Nameless God demands our neutrality, and that extends, within reason, to anyone who wishes to bind themselves to us. There’s no way around it without risking his wrath.”
Mael frowns, and Moth waits for him to tell her that he cannot abandon his Clan, that whatever it is they have must end here. Instead, he says, “This isn’t exactly how I wanted to talk about this.” His lips quirk into a faint, hesitant smile. “I’ll speak with Ludoshel and tell him that we have to do this properly.”
Slowly, she relaxes. Part of her doubts that anything will come of his approaching Ludoshel about his overstep, but he is willing to try and that is all that matters to her. Then she pauses. “Wait. Do it properly?”
He laughs and reaches for her again, and this time she lets him tuck her head under his chin and envelop her in his wings. “Yes,” he says softly. “If it’s for you, I will go anywhere. And I can help train someone else to hold Sunshine if the Supreme Deity requires its return as a condition of my leaving.”
“You’re being serious,” she breathes.
“Mm. I love you, after all. There is no life for me without you in it.”
Swallowing thickly, she nods and rests her head on his chest. It is the first time he’s said that to her, and heat floods her cheeks when he plants a kiss on the top of her head, the action more intimate than it has ever been before in the wake of his confession. Underneath the warmth, however, lurks a nagging sense of guilt. Seeing Estarossa again had reminded her of the oath they had taken as children and filled her with an ache that she cannot put a name to. And he had risked himself to bring the letter about a bonding ceremony to her. Had he been punished for it? What would he say if he saw how quickly she forgave Mael?
Then the memory of his kiss comes and she squeezes her eyes closed. Mael has never kissed her like that. Even when passionate, he is gentle, yet Estarossa had been ravenous, the touch of his lips to hers filled with a yearning she cannot describe, and it had sparked something hungry in her as well. Mael’s fingertips trail along her spine, and Moth wonders if Estarossa would be like this, careful and caring, if he would be willing to leave his Clan and the position he fought so hard for if it meant a future for them. She digs her fingers into Mael’s tunic, breathing in his scent to ground herself away from pointless and dangerous thoughts. She loves him, and he loves her, and he wants to spend the rest of his life by her side.
“I’ll speak with Ludoshel,” Mael promises, “today. Thank you for giving me the chance to do so.”
As he makes his way to his brother’s office, Mael tries to swallow his misgivings. This is surely a misunderstanding, Ludoshel so pleased for him that he had gotten overly eager, yet he knows that Ludoshel never acts so rashly as to make a mistake on this scale, and certainly not one that could lead to the war becoming worse. Had he found a way to have a potential ceremony approved? If he had, why had he said nothing to Mael or to Queen Nemain? Perhaps he had simply forgotten, but . . . Mael cuts that thought of as he enters the study. It is as immaculately tidy as ever, the polished surface of the desk glowing in the afternoon sunlight let in by the large glass doors behind it. Beyond those is a balcony; nearly every room in the palace has one, as goddesses are creatures of the sky, yet Mael has never seen the doors in this office opened.
In front of the glass stands Ludoshel, resplendent in golden armor and white robes, and Mael clenches his fists by his side to reign in the urge to smooth his own hair down at the sight of his brother’s sleek locks. I like it like this, Moth had said once, so he brushes his feeling of inadequacy to the side as the door closes behind him. “I wasn’t expecting to see you again today,” Ludoshel muses, “with Lady Alessa’s arrival.”
“Brother,” he begins. Then he stops, uncertain. How can he ask anything without it sounding as though he is accusing him of something? Ludoshel turns his head curiously, and Mael sighs. “There are orders being delivered to our troops regarding a ceremony between myself and Lady Alessa, but I . . . I haven’t gotten the blessings of Queen Nemain or the Nameless God, so I don’t understand why these letters are being sent out.”
“Their blessings?” Ludoshel echoes. He regards Mael thoughtfully. “Surely you are aware that we have been visited by an emissary of the Nameless God? No,” he adds at Mael’s blank stare, “perhaps not. She arrived shortly before the princess and sought an audience with myself and our Queen.”
His pulse thunders in his ears. If there is a priestess, then — Moth smiling at him outside of the baker’s stall, their fingers sticky with sugar and honey; Moth reading in the library, tucking her hair behind her ear, Mael biting down on the desire to reach out and do it for her; Moth breathless and laughing as they danced, the taste of cider on her lips when they kissed; Moth beneath him, her voice sweet in his ear as he touched her in ways he never dreamed of, the sharp burst of pleasure when she mapped his body with her fingers and tongue; Moth in his arms, her fingers digging into his hair as she pulled his head back and kissed him, hard and wanting, as they fell through the sky; Moth, Moth, Moth. Mael clears his throat. “I apologize for my ignorance of her visit.”
Ludoshel waves it off. “I cannot hold your eagerness at seeing Lady Alessa against you. I am, however, glad that you have come. I have news that I think will interest you greatly. This emissary came to tell us of a visit she received from the Nameless God, in which he directed her to come to us and give his blessing for the union between yourself and Lady Alessa. Because you have been courting her, he has kept an eye on you, and your desire for such a thing was not unnoticed.”
“I don’t understand.” His mouth is dry, and his voice is a rasp that earns him a fond smile from his brother.
“The bonding itself can be performed here. A formal ceremony will be held in Cailleach at Queen Nemain’s discretion, but the priestess is willing to join you and Lady Alessa before her visit ends. And,” he holds up a hand to silence Mael’s protest, “the Nameless God has given his blessing.”
Mael nods, but his ears are ringing and feels strangely off balance. “I need to . . .” Then he hesitates. “The letters. They were sent out weeks ago. They would have needed to be to make it to the soldiers by now.”
Something unreadable flashes across Ludoshel’s face. “I ordered Nerobasta to draft them, but gave no orders for them to be sent. I am sorry they were sent without your consent, and I will speak to her and see that she is reprimanded for her oversight. Honestly,” he gives an exasperated sigh, and Mael cannot stop the way his lips twitch at the familiarity of Ludoshel’s thin patience with his Lance Corporal, “it’s by the grace of the Supreme Deity that she hasn’t gotten anyone killed yet.”
“I don’t think she meant any harm, but she does get overly excited for things like this . . .”
“Most women do.” Ludoshel shakes his head. “Go speak to your beloved. There is no telling how long we have to perform this before the Supreme Deity decides that granting her approval was unwise. Perhaps the only reason she did so in the first place was a marriage between witch and goddess could prove that peace is an option. And Mael?” He pauses, looking over his shoulder to find Ludoshel watching him, his expression warm and full of love. “I am so proud of you, and I know that she will make you happy.”
The walk back to Moth’s quarters are a blur; by the time he reaches them, he is nearly running, and he throws open the door to find her half-dressed, her hair down and damp, and he grabs her and pulls her to him and kisses her hard, her gasp of surprise melting into a soft moan when he sucks her lip. Mael grins at her dazed expression when he pulls away.
“There was a miscommunication,” he says breathlessly, “but it was my fault, not his. A priestess arrived today with a blessing to perform the bonding here. I didn’t know she had arrived, or I would have told you that.” Moth merely blinks at him, and uncertainty creeps under his joy. “Unless you have misgivings . . .?”
“Are you sure? It seems odd that my mother wouldn’t have heard about this . . .”
“Perhaps she did, but was too upset by the harbinger to think to tell you.” Moth still looks doubtful, so he adds quietly, “Or she didn’t want to get your hopes up. The Supreme Deity had to give her blessing as well, and your mother could have been waiting on that.”
“I suppose . . .” Moth chews on her lower lip, and Mael waits as patiently as he can. “My mother, though. She’ll need to be told.”
Ludoshel’s earlier words come back to him. “The Supreme Deity might revoke her blessing if we hesitate too long. And . . .” He chooses his next words carefully, knowing that to misspeak would upset her. “I think that if the demons saw that we were willing to accept neutrality, it would help with negotiations. If an Archangel is willing to stop fighting because of the woman he loves, then what would stop them from seeking peace as well?”
“You may be right.” There is a long moment of silence, then she smiles, and the worry leaves him. “If a priestess is here, then it should be fine. When should we . . .?”
“Before you leave. If that’s not too soon?” She shakes her head, and he grins, his hands sliding under the towel covering her body. “We should celebrate,” he purrs, and she laughs and tugs him towards the bed.
Outside, a raven sits, his head cocked to the side. He does not mind the goddess, but the woman claiming to represent the Nameless God does not bear the markings, and her magic is raw and wild, uncontained. He preens his feathers as he thinks, the white patch on his chest the only thing that sets him apart from the others roosting nearby. Then he spreads his wings. His illidan is in danger, though why he feels that way he cannot say, and there is only one person he that he knows will be able to protect her from the storm brewing on the horizon. As Nyos takes flight, he sets his sights on the lands of the Demon Clan, ignoring the shrieks of the ravens he soars above. Illidan Vait, he thinks, bound by her blood. Can he not feel that she is going to die?
Chapter 19: — Of the End
Can you feel it breathing down your neck?
(Note: If you are a fan of the Silent Hill series, you will recognize some of the dialogue in this chapter.)
”Watch me lose her,
it’s almost like losing myself.
Give her my soul
and let them take somebody else.”
— Jack Off Jill
The last pin is put into place, and Moth watches the girl in the mirror as the servant steps back. She is pale, nearly dainty if not for the leanness in her arms, her curves slight and soft. Her face is powdered, dark kohl lined around her gray eyes, her dark hair bound in waves and braided with gold and silver clasps. Dressed in a sheer, flowing gown that shows the shape of her body beneath and feels like air against her skin, she looks beautiful, royal, the slight twist to her lips making her appear mischievous.
It is hard to believe that it is her, yet it is, and Moth murmurs praises of the maid’s skills as she steps away from the mirror, nearly bumping into Elizabeth as she does. The princess had come to help her prepare, her eyes glowing and face flushed with excitement, and Moth nearly feels guilty for telling her that she cannot attend the ceremony. But Elizabeth had understood that it was meant to be as private as possible, that having Ludoshel there was already pushing the boundaries of what was acceptable, and had set about making sure that Moth is as prepared as she can be.
Her mind is a blend of anticipation and fear as Elizabeth leads her through the halls. The goddess is chatting amiably, her words a steady, easy sound that soothes Moth’s nerves, but she cannot find it in her to respond beyond basic courtesy. She is going to be bound to Mael, their souls intertwined for the rest of their lives, and she is happy, but . . . The image of black eyes and a sharp smile flashes in her thoughts, and she shoves it away. Nyos is missing. That is probably why she feels strangely nauseous, the prolonged distance between herself and her familiar leaving her with the sensation that she has lost a limb. Only once does Elizabeth take to the sky, and Moth once again condenses the air at her feet, reminded of the first time she had done this, the day she and Mael had gone to the lake and something within its depths stirred at her approach.
The island they go to is a fair distance away; upon landing, Moth studies her surroundings, surprised to see that it looks vacant, the stones crumbling and flowers growing between the cracks in the path, and she turns curiously to Elizabeth. “Where are we?”
“The old Sky Palace,” Elizabeth replies wistfully. “This is where my mother lived once, long ago, and there’s an amphitheater that was used for her to both hold court and watch the training of her soldiers. It was abandoned when the new palace was built, but some people still come here to meet with their lovers.”
There’s a flush on the princess’s face as she speaks, and Moth understands what it means and decides not to comment on it. Instead, she murmurs, “It’s beautiful.”
“Yes.” Elizabeth stops and turns to face her, smiling prettily. “If you follow that path, you’ll reach the amphitheater. Mael is there.” Then, to Moth’s surprise, she wraps her arms around her neck, pressing their cheeks together. “I’m so happy for you. I hope . . . I hope one day everyone will be able to do this with the one they love.”
“Elizabeth . . .?”
But the princess merely shakes her head, swiping her fingers beneath her eyes. “Don’t mind me. You should go before you’re late! You know how Mael worries. He’ll think you’ve changed your mind.”
Moth laughs quietly. “Yeah. Thank you. For everything.”
“Of course!” Elizabeth puts her hands on her hips. “Now go!”
Still smiling, Moth walks by her, the stone path refreshingly cool against her bare feet. There is no birdsong, just the faint whisper of wind through the grass, and the sharp, clean scent of cool air in her nose. All that is missing to make this day perfect is the sun. Clouds loom overhead, not quite thick enough for her to worry about rain, but lending the day a melancholic feel all the same; she glances up, searching for a familiar pair of black wings in the sky, and her smile fades when Nyos still makes no appearance. Where is he? Then the amphitheater opens up before her and her doubts fade away at the sight of Mael, dressed in a form-fitting black undershirt and pants, gold greaves on his legs and the sunset scarf she’d gotten him years ago around his waist, and the way his face lights up when he sees her. Moth smiles when he reaches for her, letting him guide her to him, her hands weaving through his hair.
“Hi,” she says softly, wiping her thumb across his cheek. “Why are you crying?”
Mael strokes her side. “Because I’m happy. And you look . . .” He breaks off, flushing. “I was going to say divine, but that’s a bit strange, isn’t it?”
“I don’t think so.” Moth stands on her toes, intending to kiss him, but the sound of someone clearing their throat has her pulling away.
At the base of the steps is Ludoshel, and behind him is a woman in dark robes with gold and silver thread, her face obscured by a pale mask carved in the shape of an antelope’s skull. Moth relaxes at the sight of it, recognizing it as one that the priestesses in Cailleach wear for ceremonies, and the woman inclines her head respectfully as Mael and Moth approach. “Princess,” she says, her voice musical and lovely.
“Priestess,” Moth replies. “I am pleased that you are here.”
“As am I.” The skull turns until it is focused on Mael. “And you, Lord Mael, I bid you welcome and good health.”
“As do I.” Mael squeezes Moth’s hand, his face incredibly serious, and she bites her lip to stifle a giggle. It feels so surreal to be here, to be doing this with him after loving him for so long, and her heart flutters when he asks, “When do we begin?”
“Are you prepared?” Both of them nod, and the priestess raises her hands. “Then we shall proceed with the ceremony.” Ludoshel steps forward, holding a length of red ribbon in his palms for Mael to take. Then he backs away, and Mael studies the ribbon curiously. “Bind your hand with it, paying homage to the cycles of death and rebirth,” the priestess says.
“Seasons and moon,” Moth whispers, and he nods and begins winding the ribbon around his left hand, one loop for every season and turn of the moon. The priestess watches, her voice nearly a chant when she speaks. “From the world we learn of many things, the change of the seasons not unlike the cycle of life and death, the sun and moon ever watching. Once, there was nothing but sorrow. Seeking to bring meaning into their lives, a man offered a reed to the sun and prayed for salvation. A woman offered a serpent to the sun, and asked for joy.”
Moth offers him her left hand. “On me now,” she murmurs, and, after a brief moment of confusion, he takes it, his touch achingly tender as he begins to wrap the ribbon around her fingers.
“From their desires,” the priestess continues, “the Nameless God was born. Knowing that loneliness breeds sorrow, he wove the souls of the two together, so that they would always have one another. In doing this, we emulate his blessing and bestow it upon ourselves. The sun,” she places her left hand on Mael’s shoulder, “and the moon,” her right palm comes to rest on Moth’s arm, “life and death, in perfect harmony.”
Taking a deep breath, Moth reaches out with her magic, feeling Mael’s respond in turn. “I can only offer you myself,” she says softly. “That is all that is mine to give.”
Mael smiles faintly. “I will cherish anything that you give me. Now and always.”
Moth opens her mouth to respond, but nothing comes. It is as if someone is sitting on her chest, forcing the air out, and she wheezes as she struggles to draw in a breath. Mael’s eyes widen with alarm, but the priestess says soothingly, “Some pain is to be expected. Give her a moment.”
Pain? No, that isn’t . . . It shouldn’t hurt like this . . . Then there is agony, white-hot and ripping through her chest, and she cannot breath, cannot scream, as her knees buckle beneath her. Mael’s arms are around her, holding her to his chest, his voice distant and drowned out by the sound of some creature shrieking in distress, the melodious song gone and replaced by sounds of torment so acute that it brings tears to her eyes, even as she feels it for herself, the ache of living and dying alone, the cold, yawning dark reaching out to swallow her whole. Something warm on her cheek — blood? tears? — as her fingers scrabble against Mael’s chest, the ribbon a scalding brand around her arm, sharp pain like the point of a knife digging into her ribs as her vision blurs and spots dance in front of her eyes. What is this, what is this, what is this, over and over with no answer, until even thinking hurts and she knows that she is dying. Why . . .? Ah . . . Black eyes and silver hair and a sharp grin, and her last thought is, I really . . . wanted to see him again . . .
Estarossa stares at his hand, keenly aware of the eyes of the other Commandments on him. When was the last time he had fumbled like this, dropping his sword into the dirt as though it were too heavy for him? Not since the forest in Cailleach, when he had awakened his magic for the first time, and certainly not after receiving his decree, and yet . . . He rubs his chest absentmindedly, frowning as he picks his sword up from the ground. He has felt ill at ease all day, and now there is a pressure, as though someone is leaning against him, making it difficult to breathe properly. He is turning to face Aranak, intending to make a crack about how he must have found a burst of strength in his old age, when it hits, a sorrow and loss so potent that he staggers, clutching at his head. Someone steps towards him and he lifts his sword, needing space, needing to go . . . Go where? What the fuck is going on?
Then there is a loud scream from the sky and his world is a blur of black feathers and talons that dig into his sleeve. “Hey, isn’t that Nyos?” Galand calls over. “Why’s he after you?” and Estarossa’s hearts stop. Moth.
There is a flash of white as the raven jabs at his face, his beak scoring a line down Estarossa’s cheek. “Dying, dying, dying!” it shrieks.
Estarossa catches it, ignoring its furious squawking as he lets darkness writhe and unfurl from his back. “Where are you going, Estarossa?” Melascula drawls, her magic creeping towards him, and he sends a burst of Hellblaze her way as he takes to the sky, her indignant shout lost in the rush of wind in his ears.
The raven is silent, the only sounds it makes ones that spur him to fly faster, north, north, east, north, ringing in his ears whenever he strays off course. Ruins in the sky loom suddenly in front of him; Estarossa hits the ground at a run, weaving through trees and columns until he reaches an open space, and what he sees threatens to send him tipping from fear into hatred. A woman in dark robes is standing serenely against a column, ignoring the blade at her throat held by Ludoshel of the Archangels, and on the ground is another goddess, his pale gray hair hiding his face so that Estarossa cannot see what expression he wears. In his arms is Moth, dressed in something that Estarossa has pictured her wearing in his dreams, but she is pale and unmoving, and there is something dark and pulsing on her chest, spreading outwards so that tendrils creep along her neck. He stumbles forward, and the goddess holding her looks up and Estarossa flicks his blade by his side, a threat and a warning and a promise all in one.
“Mael,” he snarls, “what the fuck did you do?”
The Archangel merely shakes his head, his eyes wide and panicked and pleading. Nyos lets out a cry that chills Estarossa’s bones, so he lets it free and watches as it lands on Moth’s shoulder, running its beak through her hair and nipping at her ear. “Dying, dying,” it repeats, and it turns its head to stare at Estarossa. “ Viat. Help her.”
There is no hesitation. There is only — a small dagger and a brief pain in his palm, one that he ignores as he watches her smile and press their bleeding hands together; sweetrolls and camping trips, her body curled up against his as she sleeps and the notion that she should always be there persistent and undeniable; breathless laughter as he chased her through the maze, knowing he would follow her anywhere; an ache in his chest that left him hollow, her in the arms of another and his gift for her left hidden in his wardrobe; wine and honey on her lips as he kissed her, her body soft and warm against his, his his his, — Moth, her breathing shallow and slowing. Estarossa reaches out and yanks her to him, the Archangel’s wings flaring as he stands, and he cradles her to his chest, swallowing thickly when he realizes that the black is in her veins, spreading with every beat of her heart.
“You won’t hurt her again,” he says coldly. Then he spreads his wings, obsidian feathers blocking Moth from Mael’s view, and heads for the one place he knows she’ll be safe.
Chapter 20: Upheaval
A huge shout-out to Galfridus and Lickitysplit for kicking my ass into gear; thanks to them and their enthusiasm, this chapter was written.
“Do not go gentle into that good night,
old age should burn and rave at close of day;
rage, rage against the dying of the light.””
— Dylan Thomas
If his hasty departure had not raised any alarms, then his returning with a mortally wounded princess from another Clan certainly had. Estarossa shoulders through the servants who pause in the hallways to gape at him — or at Moth, more likely, given that she is pale and barely breathing, only the weak flutter of her pulse beneath his fingers letting him know that she is still alive — his pace urgent and hurried, until he arrives at his quarters. Inside is Meliodas, mouth twisted in a scowl that only deepens when he sees who Estarossa is carrying, but he says nothing as he stalks out, hopefully to grab one of the few healers their Clan has.
Estarossa places Moth on the bed, his hearts pounding in his chest, and a snarl of rage — anguish? — leaves him at the sight of the ribbon curled around her fingers, her skin red and irritated beneath it. Still, he forces himself to be careful as he removes it, worried that any rough movements on his part will only make her worse. The moment the silk is off of her arm, he clenches it in his fist and watches as Hellblaze devours it, gritting his teeth at the thought of that bastard leaving any sort of mark on Moth. Then he turns his attention back to her. What happened? His knowledge of Witch Clan customs is limited, yes, but he feels as though something so sacred to them should never cause suffering like this. Then the sound of the door opening alerts him to his brother's return, and he shifts his gaze to watch as Meliodas moves to lean against the wall, his arms crossed and his posture deceptively relaxed, and a healer enters nervously.
"I was told the princess is here?" Her voice is soft, uncertain. Estarossa does his best to reign in the urge to lash out at her; she is not responsible for Moth's condition, and may be the only chance she has to survive whatever malady this is.
"Yes," he answers shortly, "and before you ask, no, I don't know why she's like this. I found her in the Celestial Realm and brought her here."
Meliodas eyes him coldly. "Cailleach was both closer and the proper place for her to be." Underneath his words is a silent reprimand. "What do you think is going to happen when word gets out that you brought her here?"
The sound of a throat clearing has both of them turning to face the noise; the healer flushes under their scrutiny, her hands toying with the hems of her sleeves. "May I begin my examination?"
At Meliodas's curt nod, she moves to the bed, her first action being to check Moth's pulse. She frowns as her fingers drift down to press delicately against the ink-black veins weaving from her chest, and Estarossa bites his tongue to swallow a command for her to work faster. He forces himself to remain where he is while she studies Moth's eyes and scrutinizes the blisters on her arm, but when she goes to leave the room he catches her by the throat. "Where are you going?"
"To get supplies, milord," she wheezes. "As well as help. I cannot do this alone."
"Estarossa," Meliodas snaps. His power crawls through the room, his voice tight with irritation, and Estarossa curses as he releases his hold. He cannot afford to waste time arguing with Meliodas, nor by obstructing whatever it is the healer needs to do.
The room is mercifully silent after her departure, other than the quiet rasp of Moth’s breathing. Estarossa wants to reach out and pull her to him, smooth the hair from her brow and tell her that she will be alright, but all he does is watch the laborious rise and fall of her chest. It aches in a way he has not felt before, the pain sharper than when he had let her slip through his fingers. At least then, no matter how far away she had been, she was alive, yet without knowing why she is sick — not dying, she is not dying, she can’t be — what can be done to save her? His hands clench and relax at his side in time to her wheezing; which will be the last? How long does she have? Wake up, he thinks, and the urge to grab her and shake her until her eyes open and she snaps at him is nearly overwhelming. Wake up, damn you!
A hand lands on his shoulder, and he whirls around to find Meliodas looking at him steadily. “Tell me what you know,” he orders, and Estarossa grits his teeth.
Still, he complies. “I was with the other Commandments for our routine combat exercises when Nyos arrived. He was frantic and squawking that she was in danger, so I left to find her. When I did, she was at a ruined palace in the Celestial Realm with two of the Archangels and someone who appeared to be a priestess from her Clan, but it was apparent Moth was severely wounded. Because no one was doing anything, I took her and brought her here.”
“Do you know why she was there?” The question gnaws at him, and he does know, and the guilt that comes with the fact that he had been unable to stop her from going in the first place makes him hate himself.
“The ceremony,” he snarls. “That damned ceremony that Ludoshel was plotting. They must have snared her into it somehow, otherwise she wouldn’t have done it. Not with her god’s precious neutrality on the line.”
Meliodas frowns, his eyes calculating. “I’ll send word to Queen Nemain that her daughter is here under our protection. That should buy us time until the princess is recovered enough to communicate with them herself.” There is a sudden flare of power and Estarossa is on his knees, bracing his weight on his palms to try to keep his body off of the floor while Meliodas looms over him. “If we act quickly, we can avoid being labelled kidnappers and the Witch Clan allying with those goddesses. You will keep your distance from her until I decide otherwise. You’ve proven yourself reckless and unreliable where she is concerned, and we’ll be lucky if the Queen doesn’t demand your hearts on a platter in return for peace.”
“Like hell I will!” Sweat drips down his forehead and beads in the hollow of his throat. Estarossa pushes against the tile, the ceramic cracking under his gauntlets, yet still Meliodas forces him down, demanding his obedience. Then, inexplicably, it is like a rush of strength fills him, familiar and warm, cinnamon dusting his tongue and the sun on his skin, laughter like bells in his ears and he plants his hands and shoves . The power recedes as soon as he is on his feet, facing his brother, whose face shows the surprise Estarossa feels.
Meliodas opens his mouth, but before he can speak a mild voice says, “I hope I’m not interrupting.” Both of them turn to find the court mage standing in the doorway, his face passive and thoughtful. “I was told I was needed here.”
“By who?” Estarossa snaps, already fed up by his presence. Of all the people in the court, Gowther irks him the most commonly, his constant experiments and his dolls irritating and unwelcome in the prince’s eyes.
Gowther regards him curiously. “Glariza, of course. She knew right away that whatever is affecting the princess is magical in nature, and thus came to me, as there is nothing to be done for her in regards to traditional medicine. May I begin my examination?”
Meliodas nods his consent. The moment Gowther goes to put a hand on Moth’s chest, Estarossa catches his wrist, ignoring the threatening way Meliodas says his name. “If you prod around and make her worse, I will tear you apart. Understand? You heal her, mage.”
“Yes, but I can do nothing if you will not stop interfering.” There’s a bite of annoyance to Gowther’s voice, one that makes Estarossa’s hackles rise even as he loosens his grip enough for the mage to return to his work.
He expects Gowther to mumble some obscure incantation, perhaps put her into a deep sleep in the chance that doing so will help her recover. Instead, he starts at her hair, running the locks through his fingers before carefully studying the ends, then he carefully pries open her eyelids to study her pupils. He checks her pulse and respiration, rolls her fingers between his palms, presses down on her abdomen, bends her knees and wiggles her toes. It’s a standard, if more thorough, medical examination, and it does nothing to make Estarossa feel more amiable about his presence. Finally, Gowther turns his attention to the mark and creeping tendrils on her chest, his brows furrowing as he keeps up a steady stream of mutters and quiet exclamations.
Estarossa is more than ready to grab him by the hair and smash his face into the wall when he straightens and turns to regard the princes. “I’ll need you to leave the room before I proceed any further. The spell I intend to use is fragile and easily compromised, so having you here will make it entirely useless and waste time.”
Meliodas grabs Estarossa and all but drags him from the room. “We’ll be outside,” he drawls, and the threat beneath those words is enough that Estarossa allows himself to be removed.
The two of them stand in the hall on opposite sides, Meliodas leaning back with his arms crossed and one foot propped on the stone while Estarossa summons and releases his sword. Neither of them say anything — though Estarossa can feel his brother’s disapproval as keenly as a knife — but both instinctively tense when a burst of magic radiates from the room, powerful and sharp. It makes his hair stand on end and a cold sweat dampen his back, so he shifts so he is facing the door, ready to shove it open if the spell starts to feel malignant, Meliodas’s impatient scoff only fueling his turmoil. He knows he shouldn’t be this wound up about Moth; she had chosen someone else and broken his hearts in the process. But there is a part of him that thinks of her and reacts with mine, and that is the part he listens to now.
The longer he is away from her, the greater his urgency grows. Finally Gowther opens the door, and Estarossa shoves passed him to reclaim his earlier position by Moth’s bedside, his palm cupping her face. To his surprise, her head turns towards him as though she knows he is there, the pained expression she wears even in unconsciousness easing the smallest bit. He watches her color even out, enough that she looks sick without looking like she is dying, holds back a noise of shock with the ink-like strands halt in their progression, their pulsing sluggish instead of lively. Even he feels calmer, his body still tight but not unbearably so, his temper leashed and controlled. It reminds him of the way he has always been around her, as though she takes what he has to offer and makes it better, sharper, something he has always attributed to his love for her. Do you feel the same? A foolish hope, but one that he cannot rid himself of.
He is so lost in his musings that he nearly forgets they are not alone, and the sound of Gowther clearing his throat rips him back into the present. “Interesting. I’ll need to run more tests, but I believe the best way to ensure the princess’s survival is to have Estarossa remain by her side as often as he can be spared. It’s not certain, by any means, but I noticed a sharp decline in her condition when he left the room, which leads me to assume that there is some connection between them, whether magical or emotional, that allows her to draw strength from his presence.”
“Then I’ll stay —”
“No.” Estarossa whirls to face his brother, finding Meliodas regarding him coldly. “He’s put us on the brink of another war. How do you expect me to keep the Witch Queen satisfied that her daughter is safe if you, the one who took her under easily misread circumstances, are constantly in her quarters? Find another way, magician.”
Estarossa’s sword is in his hand and he is striding across the room when Gowther says sharply, “Be that as it may, I cannot deny the apparent correlation between his being nearby and her recovery. If you desire more evidence, then I propose this: he stays with her for one hour, during which I will assist you in drafting correspondence to the Queen, and then I will run another examination. After that, he is removed for an equal amount of time, and I will perform another evaluation.
“Doing so will yield undeniable results, but, as she is, she does not have very long to live. The choice must be made now.”
Meliodas scrutinizes Moth. Then his calculating gaze returns to Estarossa. “I don’t like it, but having her death on my hands would be stupid. You get one hour. Try to force any more and I will carve your hearts out myself.”
He and Gowther depart, the mage conjuring a clock to countdown the hour, and then Estarossa is alone with Moth. At first he stands by the door, convinced Meliodas will return and force him out. Then he moves to the windows, his eyes scanning the sky for any signs of white wings and gold armor, his grip on his sword tight enough that his fingers tremble. When no threats present themselves, he sits on the edge of the bed and reaches out to take one of Moth’s hands in his, tracing her knuckles with his thumbs. He’s never really noticed how dainty her hands are, the little knicks on her fingers like shards of silver implanted in her skin, and he smiles to himself as he holds her palm flat to his and sees how easily his own dwarfs it. She is so vibrant and full of life, like a sun in his world of darkness, that she often seems larger than she is. To him, she is everything.
He presses a kiss to her temple when Gowther returns, promising to be back as quickly as he can be. Then there is nothing but waiting, the anxiety pulsing through him unfamiliar and unwelcome. Estarossa cannot be still, so he paces the hall outside of his quarters, his fingers trembling and his hands clenching and unclenching, the seconds dragging on with painful clarity. Every nerve in his body howls for him to return to her, his body strung too tightly, like a wire under strain. The clock hovering by the door has barely struck the half hour when Gowther bursts out of the room, his gaze sharp and urgent, and Estarossa needs no urging to dash back inside. Inside the threshold, he pauses, horror eclipsing fear; Moth is unmoving, the tendrils curling along her cheeks, her arms, and her chest is still.
“What the fuck?!” He whirls on Gowther, ready to tear him to pieces. “What the hell did you do?!”
Meliodas grabs Estarossa by the shoulder and shoves him roughly towards the bed. “Go to her.”
Snarling, he does as he is told, but instead of merely sitting next to her, he slides into the bed, drawing her to his chest and holding her there tightly, his expression furious as he stares at Gowther. The mage meets his stare evenly and says, “It would appear that she cannot be away from him at this time. I’ll need to perform tests to figure out why, but removing him from her for extended periods of time would most certainly kill her. Until her condition stabilizes, Prince Estarossa, you must remain with Lady Alessa.”
“And her mother?” As much as he does not want to admit it, the Witch Queen would have every right to demand Moth’s return, and Meliodas’s earlier warning about war could become reality should they refuse on the basis of something they do not understand.
“Gowther and I have written a proposal.” Estarossa studies Meliodas through narrowed eyes while his brother scowls. “She can’t travel like she is, and we have the field orders regarding the ceremony to back up your claims. Zeldris will go to Cailleach when he returns from Edinburgh to explain. Hopefully the Witch Queen won’t demand your head as payment for your idiocy.” Then his head turns to Gowther, his voice displeased. “You, mage, will be responsible for her recovery. Watch her. And keep an eye on him, as well. If she dies in our territory, it will mean war.”
With that, Meliodas leaves, his rage thick and heavy in the air, his shoulders tense with it. Gowther sighs as soon as the door closes behind him, and his smile is both mild and rueful when he returns his attention to the two on the bed. “I will arrange to have meals for the both of you prepared and delivered, if that pleases you?” Estarossa nods shortly. “Very well. I cannot say for certain when she will awaken, so I will leave a golem here that you can use to summon me should her condition worsen, and either myself or Glariza will return every hour to check on her.”
Estarossa watches him as he turns to leave, his chest abnormally tight. “Mage?” Gowther pauses, and he swallows to dislodge the lump in his throat. “You have my thanks.” Then he drops his face to Moth’s hair, and the relief he feels when she draws in a sharp breath has him sagging against the pillows. Don’t you dare die, he thinks fiercely, and she sucks in another, the dry rattle both terrifying and reassuring. Don’t you dare leave me.
Chapter 21: The Abnormality of Truth
No matter what happens, I will always return to you.
“To die, to sleep —
To sleep, perchance, to dream — ay, there’s the rub
For in this sleep of death, what dreams may come . . .”
— William Shakespeare
Pain? No, that isn’t . . . It shouldn’t hurt like this . . . Then there is agony, white-hot and ripping through her chest, and she cannot breathe, cannot scream, as her knees buckle beneath her. Mael’s arms are around her, holding her to his chest, his voice distant and drowned out by the sound of some creature shrieking in distress, the melodious song gone and replaced by sounds of torment so acute that it brings tears to her eyes, even as she feels it for herself, the ache of living and dying alone, the cold, yawning dark reaching out to swallow her whole. Something warm on her cheek — blood? tears? — as her fingers scrabble against Mael’s chest, the ribbon a scalding brand around her arm, sharp pain like the point of a knife digging into her ribs as her vision blurs and spots dance in front of her eyes. What is this, what is this, what is this, over and over with no answer, until even thinking hurts and she knows that she is dying. Why . . .? Ah . . . Black eyes and silver hair and a sharp grin, and her last thought is, I really . . . wanted to see him again . . .
She wakes violently, her body snapping into an upright position as panic floods her lungs. Her surroundings are too clear, too silent, the stone beneath her fingers rough and cool, but she cannot focus, cannot piece the fragments of her mind together to figure out who she is or where. When cold fingers draw her hair back from her face, she whips around, only to fall when the ground lurches beneath her. Or did it? A soft voice murmurs awkward reassurances as she closes her eyes and tries to breathe, tries to steady her heart and still her whirling mind. But all she feels is terror and grief, and she does not know why. Why does it hurt? Why this remorse, this fear, this cacophony of emotions that batters her like a storm? Why can’t she remember? She is drawn into an embrace that should be comforting, but it is cold and dark and she craves warmth — warmth and eyes like obsidian, black fire and dark wings, something fierce and hungry in his kiss — and . . . but the thoughts are gone as quickly as they come.
“Breathe,” a quiet voice commands. To her surprise, her body obeys, her chest loosening so she can draw in air without a struggle. “Do you know where you are?” She considers that and then shakes her head. “I see. You are safe, and that is what matters. Whether or not you return is in your hands, but you cannot decide until you are whole once more.”
Strong fingers grip her chin and lift her face so she is looking at the one who holds her, and she cannot suppress a soft cry at what she sees. A man who would be beautiful if not for the voids in his eyes, in which all of time is contained, a man whose power flows and ebbs around her like the tide. There is a word on her tongue, forbidden and strange, one that she knows but does not understand because it cannot be connected to this creature in a man’s body, this ancient and hollow thing. “Who . . . ?”
He tilts his head contemplatively. “So even that is gone from you? I am the god of your people, Na Seinne a bhios a ’coiseachd eadar, the One Who Walks Between. I am without name, which is, perhaps, why I have been called the Nameless God. And I am . . .” He halts there, and, shaking his head, he stands, pulling her with him. “No. Not yet.” Her legs are trembling; the god lifts her as though she weighs nothing, murmuring, “Sleep.”
And she does.
The dreams come, fragmented and warped:
War is brewing. The woman with gold-spun hair kneels before a statue, old and covered with moss. From her lips fall chants and prayers and painful songs, a plea within each one, but the stone does not move. It does not weep. It merely stands and watches as men rape and slaughter, as women drive daggers into their chests to escape their fates. It watches as winter comes and babes wither as their mother’s milk dries, as man turns on man because it is better to be a cannibal than to die. It watches the scorching summers when crops dry and the earth cracks. It watches tribe war with tribe, watches as demons and beasts devour the people. Once a moon, the woman comes, and her words grow angry and harsh. Yet it watches, until one day she comes with a girl, clean and pure, and carves her heart out on the altar. Then it wakes, and the words it whispers are words of power and cruelty, and the woman leaves to become a conqueror.
One night she dreams of a cold place where a mournful song echoes without end, and in it is a man with empty eyes and pale skin, and he tells her that he has come. She wakes screaming, her arm a brand that burns and aches, but stronger. Soon the western tribes fall to her, then the eastern and the southern. The northern warrior chieftess becomes a queen, and builds a palace, a city, carves out a territory for her people. From the demons, she takes a lover with hair and eyes as dark as sin, and with him she rules and whispers and pays empty homage to the other gods. Her god is the god of nothing, of death and cold, and she does not fear the light or the dark because she knows that the void devours all in the end. From her lover she bears a daughter, and, when her milk has dried, she entices a king to her bed and whispers words of conquest and rule.
Her god takes her lover as punishment for her crimes. Another comes to her from the southern tribe, a man with hair as golden as her own and eyes of steel. She names him her consort and father of her daughter, and her people bow to their queen and her heir. The embers of war spark into a blaze when one god violates the treaty they made with another, and the queen bows her head when her own demands her neutrality. “You caused this,” he tells her, “and I should kill you for it. But your ambition is to rule, and rule you shall, until another comes to undo what you have done. You will die alone, and then you will die again. This is the promise I give you now.” She laughs at that, because she does not need another to find joy and she is reckless with her power, her status giving her the delusion of immortality, of being untouchable.
She prepares her people for war, yet her daughter is her downfall. With her bastard lover at her side, the queen-to-be becomes a queen and exiles those who clamor for blood, for superiority. Her mother she binds and secludes, and the former queen’s humiliation is complete when, instead of the weapon she had wanted, her god gives her a granddaughter. The girl comes quietly into the world, and she learns too quickly. The conqueror becomes a tutor, guiding the girl, hoping to shape the future to her whims, but the girl is as kind as she is stubborn. She takes friends from the rival Clans and, one day, there is new magic in her blood, slumbering yet strong, and the former queen knows that she is out of time. She is sick, ailing, and she must craft a worthy successor to her throne, one who will return their people to glory. When the assassin comes in the night, his golden eyes dancing in the light of the fire, she curses him, and dies with those curses upon her lips as he thrusts his dagger into her chest.
Even apart, the magic grows. It is two souls becoming one, a connection that will last even in death. Yet the girl is blind and chooses another, one made of sunlight, and the darkness aches and waits. The moon cannot survive under the sun; it cannot be seen, and it withers. But night is where it is safe, where it is home, and it is the night that comes for her when she draws too close and begins to burn. It is the night that wraps her ruins in its embrace and takes her away, and it is with the night that the fragments begin to piece together. And the god watches all, knowing what is to come, knowing the cost of his love will be death, and draws her to himself so that she may live.
The fires of war are burning again.
“Alessa,” a voice murmurs, and she comes to with a start. Her mind is full of blood and burning, but it fades as she stands and makes her way along the island until there is only a lingering sense of unease. She finds him on the next, a book open in his hands, though his eyes are fixed on the flames that crackle in the hearth. “Do you remember?”
“Yes,” she answers, and he nods. “I am Alessa, daughter of Nemain and Caim, heir to the throne of the Witch Clan, and I am dying.”
He turns his head to look at her curiously. “Are you not afraid?”
“No. I am . . . I was happy. And that was enough.”
“Were you? I wonder.” She resists the urge to squirm under his scrutiny. “You lived half of a life, and only a fraction of the years you are due. You could survive this if you so chose, yet you are accepting your death. And I must ask why.” At that, she hesitates. There is no real reason for it, other than a sense that her living only brings suffering to others, but that is something she thinks he will not understand. The Nameless God closes the book and returns it to the shelf. “Do you hear him, Alessa? Is that why you have lingered so?”
Don’t leave me. Her throat constricts. Stay. Stay with me. Live. A steady stream in the back of her mind, fierce in its sorrow and longing, a voice like silk that calls to her. I don’t want to live in a world without you in it. “I can’t —”
“Will you not go to him?”
She closes her eyes to hold back her tears. Regret sweeps her into its hold at the thought of his grief, of all the things she should have said but did not for the fear that her feelings were not reciprocated. She had loved him, and he had broken her heart without knowing it, so she had forced herself to ignore how she ached at the sight of him, had rejected him and let another love her and had allowed herself to love them as well. Is this the price for her foolishness? She thinks of him, of the scent of fresh rain and earth and spice, of his body against hers and the heady, rich taste of his mouth. Her palm itches and aches and burns, so she closes her fingers into a fist and digs her nails into her skin. Will you not go to him? Always. She will always go to him, she will always return to him. Even now she feels that draw, the pull towards him inexplicable and inescapable, and she opens her eyes to find the Nameless God reaching out for her, his hand cold when it touches her face.
“Live,” he says, and she does.
This time she wakes to a steady, persistent pain. It radiates from her chest and fills her lungs, and her body is weak and heavy from it. Nearby, she can hear raised voices, anger and disdain in every word, yet she knows she is safe because she has seen this place once before and his scent is on the sheets, the pillows, surrounding her with its warmth. She lets herself bask in it. Distantly her mind registers that her body is clean and freshly washed, that the shirt she wears is too large and spun from soft cotton, that the sun slants across the bed and warms her legs. It is a large, well-furnished room, fit for a prince, and she smiles at the sound of birdsong outside. Then there is the sound of the door opening, and she turns her head to see who has come inside, expecting perhaps a servant or healer. He may have brought her here, but a prince has more important things to do than attend to a dying girl.
Yet Estarossa is the one standing in the threshold, and his stormy expression gives way to surprise when he finds her watching him curiously. They stare at each other for several heartbeats, the silence thick and heavy between them, and then he is by her side, his arms winding around her and pulling her into a fierce embrace. She clings to him, breathes him in, and the tears she could not shed in the Nameless God’s realm fall freely, soaking into his coat. “Moth,” he breathes, just that, and she chokes on a sob and presses her face to his chest. His fingers wind in her hair to pull her head back, then he kisses her, hard and desperate, his arm winding around her waist to keep her crushed to him. She is breathless when he pulls away to drop his head to her shoulder, her thoughts whirling because she does not know what to make of his kiss, and she lets him guide her back as he climbs onto the bed, holding her to his chest.
“Don’t ever,” he says harshly, “don’t you ever fucking do that again. You hear me?”
Moth rubs her cheek against his shoulder, reading the fear beneath his biting tone. “Can we stay like this for a while?”
He curses, but kicks off his boots and slides beneath the quilts. Moth curls around him, reminded of all of the nights they had spent camping beneath the stars, sharing blankets and space as easily as they breathed. Her body aches, but his presence seems to soothe the worst of it, as though he is lending her strength, and she sighs and drapes her leg over his; Estarossa grunts and moves her knee down, but makes no move to push her away. “I thought I’d lost you,” he mutters, and she blinks. “You were dying, and there wasn’t a gods damned thing I could do.”
“You saved me,” she replies.
She does not tell him that she heard his pleas and felt his anguish, nor does she voice the endless questions that she has. For now, she is content to lay with him, listening to the beating of his hearts and his steady breathing. Mael will be sick with worry, but she is too tired to care. He had seen her suffering and continued the ritual, and she does not know whether she blames him or his brother or the woman with the morbid mask or all of them, or if it matters. She is alive, and soon she will be subjected to healers and her mother, and she has no doubt that Meliodas will want to speak to her. Yet here she is safe, and the contradiction makes her smile; demons are ruthless, they are warriors, death and darkness incarnate, and yet the one at her side was the guiding light that brought her home. Moth closes her eyes, home, home home, thundering through her blood. And neither of them notice the magic that winds about their wrists, the scars on their palms dark and fresh as a red mist knots around their fingers.
In the Void, the Nameless God smiles.
Chapter 22: Shuffle the Deck
The noose is tightening. Can you feel it?
[A very large thanks to lickitysplit, without whom this chapter would not have been written, and to Galfridus for keeping my writing on track.]
“‘Don’t look, don’t look,’ the shadows breathe,
whispering me away from you,
‘Don’t wake at night to watch her sleep;
you know that you will always lose
this trembling, adored, tousled, bird-mad girl.’
But every night, I burn, every night I call your name.
Every night I burn, every night I fall again.”
— The Cure
There is a tenuous peace after her awakening. Estarossa, under the orders of his brother — “If you will not leave, then I forbid you to.” — has remained by her side, maintaining a steady distance after their indiscretion. For that, she’s thankful; it is bad enough that he took her from a bonding ceremony and brought her to his bed without knowledge that she had climbed into his lap and begged him for a kiss, and she does not want to know what her mother would make of her behavior. Nothing good, she assumes, but she cannot deny that having him close aids her healing, that her pain fades and her strength returns whenever he is next to her. Nor can she fight it, so they come to the compromise that he would sleep next to her at night and sit with her whenever the agony became too great, but would stay on the sofa otherwise. Safer for them both, he says with an unreadable expression, and, as much as she loathes it, she agrees.
Moth’s days are divided by meals and visits from Gowther and Glariza. The food goes from simple broth to heady stews, the examinations become more hopeful as the weeks pass. When she is cleared to walk without assistance, she nearly cries, even if she dislikes the cane that she is given to aid with her balance. Meliodas comes only twice, once to order Estarossa to remain with her in his quarters and another to command him to accompany her when she leaves the room. Sometimes he is a shadow, near enough for her to feel yet far enough that she cannot see him, while others he stays by her side, but always there is that distance, that fragility in their silences. We are at a crossroads, she thinks one morning, watching him wash his face in the basin on the dresser, where we will either part forever or become something more than we are. What does he want? What do I want?
One night, two months after her arrival, he returns from wherever he has been with a grin on his face and mischief in his eyes. A market has come to a town nearby, one that moves and only comes alive at night. Does she want to go? Moth decides that she does, and the two of them fall easily into their old life, as though the time and wounds between them do not exist. There he teaches her to gamble like a demon does, and it is there she learns both the vices of men and how weak her will is when it comes to him, and it is only the interruption of an angry proprietor that saves what little is left of her virtue. Estarossa does not say much on their return to the castle, but the darkness he uses to cover her torn clothing gives a voice to the draw of his own desire, and that night is the first that he sleeps on the sofa. Better not, he says, smiling ruefully when she pats the bed next to her, unless you want a scandal on your hands.
The next day, he returns to his duties. There is an emptiness that fills her when he is gone, yet with her strength returning, there is no excuse for him to remain. Sometimes he returns in the evenings, while others he is gone for days, and, though he is always tired and bloody, he makes certain that she is comfortable before tending to his own needs. Finally she starts waiting for him with hot food and cold ale, and there are more nights than she can count where he falls asleep with his head in her lap, the two of them curled on the sofa. Home, her heart whispers, and she brushes it aside. Home is the mountains and forests of Cailleach. Is it? Then why does the thought of leaving hurt you so? To that, she has no answer. And, when the letter demanding her return finally arrives, she swallows her sorrow. Her Clan needs her. Or, at least, needs to see her, to know that she is alive and well and that war is not needed.
Meliodas must agree, because her departure is set for a week after the letter, plenty of time for Gowther to ensure she is healthy enough to travel. Unspoken is the idea that Meliodas is giving her and Estarossa time to say their goodbyes. She isn’t sure whether or not to be grateful for that; part of her loathes the idea of leaving, but being around him seems to sap what common sense she has. The blood pact when they were children, the sword she had given him, the fact that she had not thrown him out after he threatened and barged in on her, responding to his kiss outside of the tavern, and now, with their constant brushes with impropriety. Moth is finding that she can not control herself around him, as though every cell of her body craves him. And, perhaps worse, she does not want to. She knows that it unwise and that this is probably nothing more than her clinging to his kindness after the horror she endured with Mael. Liar, a small voice whispers.
The morning of her leaving dawns with the first signs of winter in the air. Estarossa is gone when she wakes, and that both hurts and makes her happy. She has had enough of goodbyes. Moth waits patiently through Gowther’s final examination — he studies the healing wound on her chest with a perturbed expression, but says nothing of it — then gathers her things. Or she would, if she truly had any. Everything she has used or worn came from someone else, and there is a note on the dresser that invites her to take whatever she needs from the wardrobe in Estarossa’s untidy scrawl. Instead of dressing, she sits on the bed and watches the light creep along the walls and floor, her mind whirling with wants and wishes and doubts. Stay or go. War or peace. Do you hear him? Is that why you linger? I want to stay with him, she thinks, selfish as it is. It is a servant coming in to change the sheets that draws her from her thoughts, and she murmurs a quiet apology as she stands.
Opening the wardrobe does nothing to ease her turmoil. Everything in it smells of him, like spice and fresh earth and something woodsy, and she holds one of the shirts to her face and breathes it in. “I don’t want to go,” she says quietly, and isn’t surprised to hear the tears in her voice.
Moth chooses a shirt made of loose, light linen, large enough on her to make a dress of sorts, and a belt to cinch around her waist to hold the fabric to her. She has no shoes, but decides that it doesn’t matter. Laina will arrive in the courtyard, and they will depart from the same place. So what if her feet get a little muddy on the way? Her mother will order her to bathe and rest, and she will likely be confined to her quarters while she is questioned and the fragile neutrality of her Clan is maintained. She is simply trading one prison for another, though her new one will be much lonelier. Not fair! They only want what’s best for you! Yes, but also what is best for them, and that is what irks her, what makes the rebellious streak from her childhood rear its head. What is a little mud on the floors when she is returning because her mother will not accept that Estarossa did not force her here?
She is preparing to close the doors when a glint from the bottom catches her eye. For a moment, she is still, hardly breathing, torn between curiosity and respecting Estarossa’s privacy. He said whatever I need, didn’t he? But that doesn’t apply to things he’s hidden away, and she knows that. So why is she kneeling? Why does she reach into the wardrobe and brush away a few cluttered items, scrolls and other small scraps, to reveal an intricately carved wooden box with metal edges? Why do her fingers trace the engravings, smooth over the dragon’s scales and raven’s feathers? She draws it out and sets it in her lap, breathing quietly. Had Estarossa made this? The quality is astounding, like something she might find at the artisan’s shop in Cailleach. She runs her thumbs over the latch, considering. Then she opens it, and her heart stops at what she sees.
Nestled carefully with velvet as dark and soft as sin is a pair of daggers. The care that went into crafting them makes it apparent that they are or were intended for someone close to the maker: the steel is nearly black, polished to a lethal shine, and eddies like a river current swirl within the surface. There is no guard on either blade, only a faint ridge that fades down into a grip covered with intricately woven leather. The pommels are carved to resemble a cluster of feathers, each rendered in careful, loving detail. Moth reaches in and lifts one, weighing it in her palm; curling her fingers over it reveals that the fit is perfect to her hand, and it feels nearly weightless. She’s so caught up with the daggers that she nearly fails to notice the letter beneath, and then she sees her name written on the parchment and sets the dagger down to take it.
It is sealed with dark red wax emblazoned with the Demon King’s sigil, and the wax is old and flakes in her hand when she presses it with her thumb. Her heart is thundering in her chest — the daggers and the box and the letter, all pieces that paint a picture she cannot accept yet cannot refuse — as she flips it over and breaks the seal to unfold it. She shouldn’t read this, she knows that she shouldn’t, but it’s meant for her, isn’t it? Uncertainty leaves her frozen, the parchment trembling in her fingers, then she sets in on her knee and leans over it to read.
Alessa, daughter of Nemain, heir to the title of Queen of the Witch Clan,
I am writing to acquire your consent to court you. Enclosed is a gift crafted by my hands to express the depths of my affection for you, which I hope you will accept.
Estarossa, second son of the Demon King, the Love of the Ten Commandments
She is still trying to process what she sees when she hears footsteps outside the room. Moth scrambles to rearrange everything, but there is nothing she can do about the wax — careless, she thinks bitterly, always so careless — and the door clicks open as she folds it. She hears Estarossa enter, feels him like an itch under her skin, and looks up to see him frozen with his gaze on the letter in the hand. Several heartbeats pass in silence, with Moth trying her best not to look guilty and Estarossa’s fingers twitching by his sides. Then he speaks, and his voice is laden with anger and disbelief and what might be fear. “What the fuck?”
Chapter 23: Homecoming
Be careful what you wish for.
“Maybe this isn’t home, nor ever was —
maybe home is where I have to go tonight.
Home is the place where, when you go there,
you have to finally face the thing in the dark.”
— Stephen King
The city is silent when Moth returns. Banners of black silk are draped over every door, hang from every arch, and for a moment she is afraid that her mother has died. Then it comes to her, the knowledge that her people were preparing for her death, and the emotion that fills her is a bitter mix of sorrow and rage. She cannot explain it, or does not want to, so she clutches the box to her chest and trails after Laina. Just fucking take it, an angry snarl, black eyes that won’t meet her own. It was meant to be yours, anyway. He had left before she could ask him anything, or even think of what to say, left her gaping after him with words strangled in her throat. He had given her, in a way, a courting gift, and she does not know what to make of it, or how she should feel, or what it means for the two of them. Had Estarossa intended it as what it was meant to be, or had he simply been ashamed of it? Moth shakes her head; Estarossa would have destroyed it if that were the case.
“My Lady?” Laina’s quiet murmur breaks through her thoughts. “We’ve arrived. Shall I have Anais take that to your quarters for you?”
It takes her a moment to understand. “Yes, of course. Do I dare ask what mood my mother is in?”
Laina smiles, but will not look at her. “She was worried for you, my Lady. We all were.”
Moth nods and allows the courtier to take the box from her. Then she squares her shoulders and heads for the throne room, giving a polite nod to Donovan as he opens the doors to admit her. It is cold within, and dark, a reflection of the queen lounging on the ornate throne, and she swallows her fear and dismay as she pads across the tile. Her father is standing in his place to her mother’s side, dressed in the dark armor of his station, and she catches the brief flicker of sympathy in his eyes before they become sharp. A father’s love, a father’s ire. His she can bear — Caim’s anger has always been short-lived when it comes to his daughter, a softness he cannot rid himself of — yet her mother’s might ruin her. Knowing that makes her wary, and she stops at the base of the dais, keeping her gaze focused on a spot left of Nemain’s shoulder.
“The prodigal daughter returns.” Her mother lifts her head from her hand, and her eyes are glacial. “Did you enjoy bringing all of us to the brink of war?”
Moth dips her head, biting back a childish cry. It will do nothing but anger the queen further. “Mother. I am pleased to see you in good health, and I beg your forgiveness for my absence. I was recovering —”
“Whoring.” The word strikes her as harshly as a blow, and Moth flinches. “We have heard of your actions from Lord Ludoshel. Not only did you toy with Lord Mael, leading him into a bonding ceremony before having your lover steal you away, you then accompanied that demon to a black market. To a brothel.”
“That’s not true!” Caim shakes his head in silent warning, but Moth pays him little mind. She had nearly died, and this is her welcome? “I agreed to the bonding ceremony, yes, but only because there was a priestess there, one who whispered into Ludoshel’s ear! And it almost killed me, mother, it would have if Nyos had not gone to Estarossa, if he had not come for me! Do you want to see the scars?”
Moth yanks down the collar of her shirt, revealing the mark that spreads lazily from her chest. It is better than it was, yet still ugly to bear, a dark gray that pulses in time to the beating of her heart. Nemain’s lips are white when she hisses, “Enough! You would insult an Archangel’s honor on top of all you have done?”
“I would demand a rhythe were he to show his face,” Moth cries, and her mother goes very still. “Prince Meliodas wrote to you. I know he did, because I was shown the letter when I awakened. You know that I did not toy with anyone. I will accept the blame for the brothel, because I did go, but I will not stand here and be accused of whoring when I was dying and you did not come.” She takes one step forward, then another, until Caim steps in front of her to halt her progress. “I will tell you what happened if you will only listen.”
Nemain studies her coolly, then nods once. “Very well. But should I dislike what I hear, you will find yourself stripped of your title and cast out among the Nora, and we will see if the prince has any interest in you then.”
Taking a deep breath, Moth explains. She speaks of her visit, of Mael’s earnest pleas and Ludoshel’s reassurances, of the priest with the antelope-skull mask and the pain that had devoured her and the certainty that she was dying, of waking in Estarossa’s bed (ignoring the way her mother’s mouth twists), of the days spent in agony with her magic locked behind the trauma. She admits to the black market, because there is no need to lie, and to her own weakness where Estarossa is concerned, to the fact that she does not know whether she wants him or the kindness he gave her, to the crawling slowness of her recovery. She tells of arguments, of Meliodas’s concerns over war, of her strange dreams and stranger thoughts. She leaves nothing out, and by the end of it she is weak and trembling and tired.
“I see,” Nemain says softly. “So you are a fool, yet for reasons different from those I had heard. A brothel, Alessa? Could you not indulge in the privacy of his quarters?”
Moth flushes, but part of her is pleased. The true danger has passed; her mother has always known her dishonesty, and so she knows that she has spoken nothing but the truth. “When I was near him,” she says slowly, “it was like I was drunk, in a way. Like I could not resist him, and did not want to. I wanted . . .” Here she trails off, uncertain. “I wanted to be one with him. Not just physically. I wanted to share my soul with him.”
Her parents share a glance, Nemain arching a brow when Caim’s lips twitch. Then her mother asks, “Have you slept with him?”
“No. We shared a bed, but that was all.”
“For that, at least, we can be grateful.” Nemain relaxes against the throne and drums her fingers against the armrest. “Things will need to be handled delicately. As far as the other Clans are concerned . . . You were dying, and you reached out to a childhood friend out of fear. He acted rashly, but in doing so saved your life. However,” her mother’s eyes narrow, “you are not to contact either him or Lord Mael until I say otherwise. We are too close to ruin to risk them clashing over you.”
“Thank you, mother.” Moth bows her head, keenly aware of the disaster she has avoided.
Nemain regards her with warm bemusement. “I am still furious with you. You broke my trust in agreeing to the bonding ceremony without my leave, and nearly brought the Witch Clan to war. But you are not the only one to have defied tradition for love. Know this, daughter mine: once you have recovered fully, you will be sent to the outposts to learn of battle. It is not exile,” she holds up a hand when Moth begins to protest, “but punishment. I also hope that it will prepare you for whatever is to come in the future. As for Prince Estarossa, should he wish to prove his affections for you — if they exist, which I am inclined to believe they do — then he will do so properly. No more of these childish games.”
Moth clenches her jaw; if she loses her temper now, they will return to where they started, and there is no telling where that path would lead. Instead, she murmurs an assent, turning on her heel to go. Her mother does not stop her, nor does her father, and, once the doors have closed behind her and she is blocked from their gaze, she dashes up the stairs to her quarters, ignoring the way her lungs scream and her legs numb with the sudden exertion. The room is the way she left it, merely tidier thanks to Anais, and the box with Estarossa’s letter and daggers rests on the center of her bed. Moth stares at it, loving and loathing it in equal measure, and then she turns her back on it, heading to the washroom to bathe with her own soaps. The water she fills the tub with is nearly too hot to bear, yet she sinks into it, watching as her skin turns pink and steam curls in the air, and her mind seems to drift with the tendrils, back to the box, to Estarossa.
“What the fuck?” He starts towards her, his hands clenching into fists. But Moth is not afraid, because he has never hurt her and she believes that he never will. Not physically, at least. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I was only looking for clothes,” she stammers, cursing how surprise has left her witless. “Then I saw this, and I was curious. I shouldn’t have looked, I know that, and I’m sorry. I just . . . It’s so beautiful.”
Estarossa’s nostrils flare as he scowls at her. “What are you, a fucking magpie? Can’t keep your hands off of anything that shines? Gods be damned, woman, what if something dangerous had been inside? Did you think of that?”
“Why would you keep something dangerous in your wardrobe?” she asks, amused despite the situation, and she watches the question catch him off guard, sees the way his mouth tilts with the vestige of amusement.
“Perhaps because I want to,” he snaps back. Then he pauses, taking a deep breath before nodding to the letter in her hands. “I guess it would be too much to hope you didn’t read it.” She drops her gaze, and he groans. “Goddamn it, Alessa.”
“It’s addressed to me,” she argues. “Why shouldn’t I have read it?”
“Because it was fucking hidden! Because you had to snoop to find the damned thing in the first place!” His anger fills her mouth with a taste like hot iron. “If I wanted you to see it, I would have given it to you. Instead . . .” Estarossa shakes his head and turns on his heel, his voice bitter. “Just fucking take it. It was meant to be yours, anyway.” Then he is gone, leaving Moth staring after him with questions and emotions clogging her throat and her eyes burning with unwanted tears.
“What do you want from me?” she murmurs drowsily. “What do I want from you?”
But the water does not answer, and finally she pulls herself from its comforting embrace to drape herself in a towel and wander back into the bedroom, where she comes to an uncertain halt. It does not feel like it is hers, not really, as though the girl who once inhabited it, who filled journals with her musing and collected feathers and oddly-shaped rocks, has gone. Moth takes it in, the frilly quilt and childish decorations, and a low whine escapes her. This is not hers.
That is how Anais finds her when she enters with a tray bearing fruit and roasted boar, standing in the middle of the room with her hand fisted in the cotton of her towel, and the maid rushes to her side. She shrugs off her concern, mumbling vague assurances. When Anais is satisfied that she is not in pain or dying, she places her hands on her hips and begins to scold her for lazing about in nothing but a towel, only to halt when Moth rattles off an order — which, judging by the maid’s expression, is very peculiar — to have everything removed from the room and replaced.
“Milady . . . ?” she whispers, and Moth turns to her curiously.
“I’ve outgrown some of it. That’s all,” she says evenly. “I should have been more specific, shouldn’t I. You sort the furniture and the bedthings. I’ll sort through the rest on my own and decide what to keep. Can you coordinate with Rost? He carves such beautiful things.”
Anais perks up. “Of course, milady, straight away! Shall I send in the decorator, as well?”
“No, no. Thank you.” She allows Anais to hand her a nightshirt and fuss over her hair. “I’ll make a trip into the city when I’m feeling better and choose. There’s no need to bother her.”
“And what of this, milady?” Turning, Moth sees Anais standing with the box in her hands, and she swallows to clear the sudden lump in her throat.
“You may leave it. I’ll find it a home.”
“Of course, milady, of course.” Smiling gently, Anais returns it to the bed, then she heads towards the door. “Will there be anything else?”
“No, thank you.”
Anais bows before, to Moth’s utter surprise, throwing her arms around her shoulders. “I’m so glad you’ve returned, milady,” she says tearfully. “I was so worried for you. And your poor mother, she hardly slept a wink. Just spent her nights sitting in here, holding one of your scarves in her hands and praying for your return.”
To that, Moth has no reply. Her throat closes with emotions she cannot name, yet Anais takes no offense, merely patting her shoulders and giving her a watery smile. When she is gone, Moth turns her attention to the box once more, ignoring the food on her desk in favor of pushing open the lid and lifting one of the daggers from the velvet. Blood of my blood, she thinks, resting the edge against the scar on her palm. Flesh of my flesh. What magic did we invoke when we sliced our hands and pressed the wounds together? Did we create it, or did we awaken it? Her feet carry her to her desk, and she shoves the food aside impatiently to find parchment and a quill, setting the dagger next to her as she works. She cannot contact Estarossa, but nothing was said about putting her thoughts to paper. And, if she should send them once her mother allows it, what harm will it cause? If her mother will not consent, she decides, she will send it anyway. Her fingers ache by the time she is done, and she studies what she has written with a critical eye.
I don’t know if you’ll ever speak to me again. I know I’ve hurt you, and more terribly than I imagined when you confronted me all those moons ago. The gift you crafted for me, the letter you wrote, I wonder how long ago you did so. When did you know? And why did I not see it? For the pain I’ve caused you, you have my utmost apologies. You have always been my friend. I was a fool not to realize that you wished to be more.
As soon as I am recovered, I will be heading to one of our outposts. I do not know which one, only that I will be there for some time. Nyos will be with me, and I will entrust this to him as soon as I have arrived there. Should you wish to reach me, you must only send a letter with him, and I will receive it. I hope that you will, and fear that you will not. How foolish you must believe me to be. How cruel I must seem.
I have asked you before about the scar on your palm, and not without reason. There are times when mine aches as though it is fresh, and others where it seems that I can feel a ghost of your touch against it. I wish I knew what it means, but all I have are vague, unfinished ideas. My mother knows more, yet whether or not she will tell me depends on if I can find my way back into her good graces.
Know this, please: I do not regret any of the time I have spent with you. I do not regret kissing you. But I do not trust my motivations, because I do not know what they are. And when I come to you, because I know that I will, I want it to be without any shadows or doubts lingering between us. Thank you for saving my life. Thank you for loving me when you did, if you no longer do.
Chapter 24: The Fierceness of Wolves
Does separation truly make the heart grow fonder?
“Why do you go away? So that you can come back.
So that you can see the place you came from with new eyes and extra colors.
And the people there see you differently, too.
Coming back to where you started is not the same as never leaving.”
— Terry Pratchett
“Is that what passes for archery in the city?” Moth cuts her eyes to Lochle, finding him watching her with open amusement. “You might actually hit something, if it’s standing still.”
“Fuck you,” she mutters, just loudly enough for him to hear.
There is no real anger behind her words. Since her arrival in Sterling six months ago, Lochle has acted as her tutor, teaching her how to survive in the wilderness, how to use her size to her advantage in battle, how to strike quickly and never miss her mark. You’re little, he’d said on her first day, sizing her up with a critical eye, and that will make them think you’re weak. After I’m through with you, it will be the last thought they have. And, true to his word, he has worked her fiercely, waking her before dawn and keeping her up far beyond sunset. He pushes her until she feels that she is dying and then farther, harder, so that it is all she can do to breathe at the end of the day, her body a mess of bruises and aches. He reminds her, in a way, of the instructor Macha had hired for her when she was a child, and that tempers whatever anger she might have felt for him. To Lochle, she is not a princess, and certainly not his. She is merely another soldier, one that he must whip into shape to protect his home, and for that she is grateful.
“Nay, girl. I like my women with a bit more meat on their bones.” He crosses the clearing to stand beside her, turning to study the target from which her arrow protrudes proudly. “Not a bad shot, by any means. But you hesitated. And that will get you killed.”
Moth considers and discards several replies. “I wanted to be sure I would hit it, so as to not waste the arrow.”
“Waste it. You are learning, and it is better to do so now than in battle.”
She bites her tongue, trailing after him when he heads back to the outpost. Tonight will be salted venison and bread as tough as leather, and then she will replace one of the others on watch until Lochle comes to relieve her for what little sleep she is allowed to get. When they enter the gates, several heads turn to mark her passing. Her time among them has left her lithe and lean, removed what little childish roundness was left in her cheeks to reveal the woman beneath. With her hair braided in the style common among the wilderness, she looks like the warrior chieftesses of old, yet there is nothing inherently sexual in their appraisal. She is one of them, and they greet her with the cheerful bawdiness reserved for soldiers. Moth, to her credit, gives as good as she gets, all with a good-humored smile. These men would die for her. Not because she is their princess, but because she is their brother, and that is all that matters.
From the cheerful, if talentless cook, she retrieves her dinner, and then she finds a place to sit between Aldren and Neyan. The former jostles her elbow playfully, and she swats him with an open hand in retaliation, while Neyan merely mumbles a faint hello around a mouthful of bread. “You know,” Aldren says thoughtfully, “I think I saw that bird of yours earlier. Didn’t I, Neyan?”
Neyan swallows as he nods. “He went back into the barracks. Looked like he had a letter.”
“Got a lover back home?” Though his tone is teasing, there is a seriousness to Aldren’s inquiry that has her pausing between bites. “Woman as pretty as you is probably beating suitors off with a stick.”
“That’s what you’re for,” she replies quickly, and Neyan chuckles.
“She’s got you there.”
“You wound me!” Aldren clutches his chest, falling backwards off of the log they’re resting on, and Moth huffs.
“The only thing wounded is your mind.” Her eyes drift to the barracks, and her fingers twitch as she thinks of Nyos waiting for her within, perhaps holding a letter and perhaps not. She does not want to hope, yet finds herself doing it anyway; it has been four months since she sent her letter, and not a word has reached her from its recipient. Nyos, too, has been absent. Can his return mean a break in the long silence? “I suppose I better check on him before my watch. Try not to choke on your food. I’d hate to have to pull double duty because you forgot how to chew.”
“I live to please you,” Aldren replies, his eyebrows waggling, and Moth shoves his shoulder as she stands.
No one stops her on her path, each too intent on what little rest comes from meals to bother her with inane questions. Her mother had sent her to the south, to the lands watched by the Iron Wolves, whose strength is second only to the royal guard, and they are as loyal and playful and unyielding as their namesake. The air inside the barracks is markedly cooler than the air outside, offering relief from the scorching heat of midsummer, and she finds Nyos perched sleepily on her pillow. He gives her a quiet croak in greeting as he sticks out his leg, upon which is tied a letter sealed with the Demon King’s sigil, and her heart thuds harshly in her chest at the sight of the familiar scrawl on the front. So he has written to her. Now the question is whether or not she has the courage to read his words, whether good or ill, whether she can accept the decision he has made. Her hands are trembling as she takes the envelope from the ribbon, and she strokes the top of Nyos’s head as she breaks the wax to read.
Don’t make promises you can’t keep.
The demon stands in the village square, taking a moment to breathe in the scents of smoke and blood. He had chosen his target well — it is well within the Witch Clan’s territory, yet too far from their city to garner much attention — and here he and his comrades are free to do as they please without interference from their prince. His lip curls at the thought of Meliodas, the cold eyes that never looked at him with more than disdain. Soon, he and his will replace the Ten Commandments as the Demon King’s elite, and then they will lead the Demon Clan to its rightful place as the ruler of all Britannia. Bellion smiles as he considers what he will do first; perhaps find a highborn girl with which to amuse himself? He has heard that the Witch Queen’s daughter is as wild as she is lovely, and nothing would thrill him more than to break her will, to have her compliant to his every demand. Estarossa the Love might have something to say about it, if Bellion chooses to let him live. In fact, perhaps he should. The second prince’s affection for the witch is well known. Why not allow him to watch as he takes her as his own?
“You are a long way from home, soldier,” a voice says mildly. It is pleasant, musical with an accent he cannot place, and Bellion turns to find a young woman watching him. She is dressed in form-fitting clothes fit for riding, with daggers strapped to her thighs, and his body quickens at the lithe curves, the pretty face. “You have no place here.”
“You would dare to tell me where to go?” Amused, he prowls forward, keeping his grip on the broadsword at his side light. How convenient to have one such as her simply appear, as though begging to be brought to heel.
“I would.” His mood sours at the steadiness of her gaze. “These people are mine to protect. Anyone who does them harm is not welcome. Go home, and I will leave you in peace.”
Bellion throws back his head and laughs. Pump and Gaara are nearby, and all he needs to do is raise his hand and they will be there. Yet this one has defied him, so he will be the one to punish her for her transgression. “Are you daft, woman? Do you truly believe you can stand up to —”
A burst of pain in his shoulder numbs his hand. To his disbelief, his sword clatters to the dirt, and he does not see the second blow coming until he is crashing into the dirt. Above him stands the woman, her face as impassive as it was when she hailed him, though now there is black blood — his blood — splattered along her cheek. He has only a second to realize this before she is moving again, a blur of steel in her hand as she drives down, and she misses one of his hearts by a mere inch when he twists away, drawing a howl of rage and pain from his lips. “You would do well to heed me,” she says coldly. “I am Alessa of Cailleach, of the Iron Wolves. We do not take kindly to those who attack our own. Will you yield, or will you die?”
“Fuck you.” He spits, and she cocks her head consideringly.
She rips her dagger to the side and cuts through his heart, and he chokes on blood and pain so great that he thinks it will kill him. “Remember my name,” she murmurs. “Remember that I could have killed you and did not.”
Then his world is black.
Estarossa turns his head, one brow cocked with quizzical amusement at the sight of the Six Knights of Black staggering through the gates. Leading them is Bellion, clutching his chest and scowling at all who stare at him, and Estarossa cannot help the chuckle that escapes him as he pushes his way through the demons in the courtyard. “Did you lose something? A heart, perhaps?” he asks pleasantly. Bellion snarls at him, and he throws back his head and laughs. “I wish I could have seen it. The great Bellion, brought low by . . . Ah, my mistake. I should ask how you lost it, shouldn’t I?”
Watching Bellion’s jaw work furiously brings him a cruel sort of pleasure. The demon has always been too arrogant for Estarossa’s liking, boasting to all who will listen that he will one day usurp the Ten Commandments, yet all of his supposed victories belong to one of the Demon King’s sons. “Your highness,” he grits out, “I thank you for your concern. It was taken from me in battle by underhand tactics, and I intend to repay the one responsible.”
“I see.” Estarossa nods, the concern in his voice poisonously sweet. “Might I inquire who deprived you of it? They must have been cowardly, indeed, if they would not face you in battle. Or,” his voice becomes bored, his expression cold, “did you simply lose? Should I fetch Galand to ensure your honesty?”
The other Knights shift away, eyeing him warily. Yet it is Bellion who holds his attention; if the fool managed to get the name of the one who harmed him, then Estarossa will delight in shaking their hand before slitting their throat. As much as he enjoys seeing Bellion brought low, his defeat will only bring shame to the Demon Clan, and anyone who would boast about causing it will need to be silenced. “A witch,” Bellion says at last, and it is clear that each word pains him. “A woman.” Estarossa cannot stop the laughter that bubbles in his chest, but the demon’s next words kill it as quickly as if he had been struck. “She called herself Alessa, of the Iron Wolves.”
He keeps his face disinterested despite his growing dismay. Moth, what have you done . . .?
Two years. After so long in the wilds, with nothing but Wolves for company, is it any wonder that returning to the clean, even streets of Cailleach makes her uneasy? She has had nothing but open skies over her head for twelve months, since she had proven herself capable of surviving, and the idea of sleeping in a bed is foreign and unwelcome. Yet she knows that she cannot deny her mother’s summons, so she treads the path to the palace, ignoring the stares of those who recognize the dust-covered warrior as their princess. Even Donovan, the ever-faithful steward, takes several heartbeats to realize who she is, and his eyes are uneasy as he opens the doors to admit her into the cool halls. Moth strides to her mother’s study, knowing without thinking that Nemain will be there, uneasy over the hostilities that are spilling across their border, the unrest that is brewing within. Belatedly, she muses that she should have bathed first. No matter. Of utmost importance, the message had said. Return at once.
She has barely entered the study before her mother is on her feet, magic crackling at her fingertips. Then the queen pauses, studying her closely. “Alessa?” At her daughter’s nod, she relaxes, dropping her hands to her sides. “My apologies. With your appearance, I nearly mistook you for one of the Nora.”
Moth smiles. “Well met, mother. And I take no offense. Next time, I’ll remember to knock before barging in.”
“That would be appreciated.” Nemain smiles wryly, but it turns to one of genuine affection as she crosses the room to cup Moth’s face in her palms. “You have changed. Now that you are older, I can see more of your father in you.”
“He would say that he sees you,” Moth replies as she leans into her mother’s touch, and Nemain laughs brightly at that.
“So he would! So he would. Come, sit. You must be exhausted from your travels.” She leads her to the chairs by the hearth, fussing over her as she sinks into the cushions with a sigh. The fire’s warmth is more than welcome after her trek through the frozen woods, as is the cup of tea her mother presses into her hands. “Did you find your journey difficult?”
Moth shakes her head. “No. I used a spell to travel most of the way back. Then on foot once I reached the wards around the city, but it wasn’t so bad. It gave me time to think.”
The two of them lapse into silence. There is something in it that speaks of good or ill fortune, and Moth wonders which it will be. If her mother had hoped that she would return from her punishment docile, then she underestimated the fire needed to survive amongst the Wolves. Yet she has barely been in the city for an hour, and already she feels herself sinking back into the Moth-that-was, a girl who was unknowingly cruel in her carelessness. The only thread that binds her to that woman child is the bittersweet longing that fills her whenever she finds herself thinking of black eyes and silver hair. Perhaps I have not changed as much as I thought. The notion shouldn’t be comforting, yet it is. Absentmindedly, she runs her thumb across the scar on her palm, finding solace in the faint warmth that fills her when she does. Are you there? Do you feel me like I feel you, like the ache from a missing limb?
It is Nemain who breaks the stillness. “You must know why I have called you home, though I am loathe to bring you into this. You are still young, no matter what you might think, and I wanted your years to be filled with joy.” The queen leans forward, clasping Moth’s hands in her own.
“Mother . . . ?” Moth shifts uneasily, yet it is Nemain’s next words that stop her heart.
“Lord Ludoshel is demanding your return to the Celestial Realm, to finish the ceremony you started with his brother.”
Chapter 25: The Many Faces of Truth
Will you stay awhile and listen?
“The truth is always something that is told,
not something that is known.
If there were no speaking or writing,
there would be no truth about anything.
There would only be what is.”
— Susan Sontag
Fear. It is sharp and stinging, ripping through her until she feels that she must scream or it will kill her. Is there no rest, no end to the misery of her own making? Ludoshel was there! He saw! Yet he must not care, or his ambitions are too great for him to; she has no doubt that he will twist whatever bonding there is to force her mother’s allegiance, even if it leaves her lifeless. And what of Mael? Does he agree with his brother? Moth wants to believe otherwise, but then why? Why didn’t he stop when she was dying in his arms, why did he not reach out to her afterwards? Shame? Or disgust? She submerges her head beneath the water, closing her eyes against the burn. If I return to them, it will kill me. I don’t know how I know, but I do. And if her mother fails, the only escape for her will be exile, to cast off her name and make her home among the Nora. Death or death. What can she do?
“I won’t go back.” Pleading, “Mother, don’t make me.”
Unwavering. “They are sending an envoy to discuss this. I will refuse them, if I can, but I must have our god’s support to do so.”
Hope, that dangerous thing. “What should I do?”
“Write a letter.”
But who should she write to? Only one name comes to mind, yet it has been two years since she has heard from him. All of her other letters have gone unanswered, Nyos returning each time with nothing to give her but an apologetic croak, and she doesn’t know if her words have been read or if they have been burned. Will he listen? Will he care? Moth pulls herself from the tub, shaking her hair out of her eyes as she reaches for a towel. Maybe not, but there is no one else she can appeal to. She knows her mother’s reasoning — if the first ceremony’s failure will not deter them, having her tied to someone else might — and the thought of writing him for political gain leaves a sour taste in her mouth. It will hurt him, which she does not wish to do. So why does her heart quicken at the thought of seeing him again? You know why. Just admit it.
“Because I love him,” she says aloud, and her words echo off the tile.
That eases her discomfort a bit. She will write him both because she has been told and because she wants to, and she will hope that he will listen. Even if he will not come. Moth makes her way to her desk, where she hesitates over the parchment. How to begin? Nyos taps at her window, and she lets him in. Then she bows her head, finding that the words come easily once she starts.
I don’t know how many of my letters you have read, but I hope this one will reach you. Call me selfish, or cruel, but I need you. Now more than ever.
My mother called me back from Sterling because of a message from Ludoshel. He is demanding that I return and try the bonding ceremony once more, and I have no doubts about his intentions. You saw me after the first. A second will kill me. This I know.
I am begging you, even if you no longer do, to at least pretend that you love me. To come and help me keep the Goddess Clan at bay. If you will, and they are dissuaded, I will not bother you again. I swear it.
Please send a reply with Nyos, even if it just to tell me no.
“I will send you as far as I can,” she tells Nyos as she seals the letter. “After that, you must deliver this to him. Peck his fingers until he reads it, if you have to.”
The raven squawks, flapping his wings. Then she murmurs, holding her hand above his head, and he disappears from view. With that taken care of, there is nothing for her to do other than wait, so she dons a simple tunic and a pair of leggings before heading out, intending to reacquaint herself with her city. Almost as an afterthought, she straps one of the daggers crafted by Estarossa to her thigh; Moth has spent so long with them that to be without it makes her feel naked, vulnerable. And they are all she has of Estarossa, them and a well-worn letter that she places on the table next to the bed as she leaves.
When she returns, it is to find her father sitting on her bed, turning a bundle of letters over in his hands. Some of them are yellowed with age, while others look as though they might have been recently written, and Moth pauses in the doorway, flexing her fingers around the bow she bought from Loqi. It’s not the sight of her father that makes her hesitate — he has always been a more common visitor than her mother, for as long as she can remember — but what he holds. Who are they from? There is only one person she can think of who would write to her so frequently, yet, if it is him, why does her father have them? Why were they not given to her? Caim watches her steadily, and she knows that he is looking for fear and will find none; no matter how afraid she is, Lochle had taught her how to hide it.
“Alessa,” he greets her quietly, the use of her name rare and unpleasant. “I had hoped to find you here earlier, but Anais said you went out.”
Moth nods. “I wanted to see the city, how it had changed. Did Hesan move to a new building? I didn’t see him on the square.”
Caim hesitates. “No. He was executed last spring.” Her mouth opens, yet no words come out, and he shakes his head. “Your mother hired him to prepare desserts for a banquet, yet it was found that he had poisoned them. Treason.”
“On whose coin?” It is hard to think of Hesan, who had served her sweetrolls whenever she had gone to the market, who always asked about her mother’s health and greeted her with smiles and warmth, acting as a killer.
“Your mother believes the Nora.”
“But you don’t.”
He looks at her evenly, his lips quirking. “I’m not sure. These are difficult times. And the Nora are too convenient for my tastes.”
Moth nods. Later, she will allow herself to cry, to grieve. For now, she sets her bow next to the door and the crosses the room to kneel in front of her father, reaching out to cover his hands with her own. “You have something for me, I think.”
“Yes.” Caim lets her take the letters, but he stills her with a hand on her shoulder. “Don’t hate her, Alessa. She was furious with you both and, no matter how prettily Ludoshel might speak, she wasn’t sure that she could trust him. In her mind, it was best to isolate you from them both. But you were in the Demon King’s palace, and she could only keep one of them from reaching you.”
“How long has she had these? How did she get them?” When he doesn’t answer, she pulls away. “If you love me, you’ll tell me.”
“Don’t be cruel,” he says sharply. “I love you both. Was I to choose between my wife and my daughter? Even now I’m betraying her trust to bring these to you.”
Moth takes a deep breath. “I’m sorry, father.”
He studies her for a moment, then releases her. “Your mother . . . The moment the news reached us, she contacted all of the courtiers. Any letters addressed to you from the Celestial Realm were to be delivered to her. She had Nyos captured and brought to her so she could bespell him with something similar.”
“She bewitched Nyos? My familiar?” White hot rage flares through her, and she stands and backs away from him, holding the letters to her chest. “Get out, father.”
“Get out!” The room grows cold, their breath frosting on the air.
Caim regards her warily as he gets to his feet. For a moment, she thinks he will reach for her again, but he merely looks pained as he leaves. Once he is gone, Moth walks on unsteady legs to her bed, where she sits down and sets the bundle in her lap. Without looking at them, she uses her dagger to cut the twine and draws one out, bringing it to her face, and how her heart thunders at the elegant script, her name spelled out in black ink on parchment yellowed with age. There are so many of them that she knows they must have been written consistently for some time, yet instead of excitement all she feels is dread. Does he know what his brother is planning? And, on the heels of that, Why did he never come? When his letters went unanswered, why didn’t he come? Her fingers tremble as she opens the first to read.
Where are you? I cannot find you, and I cannot feel your coin, and I fear the worst. I have tried to leave to find you, but the Supreme Deity has denied me because Ludoshel told her who took you away. Please come back to me. Please.
Are you alive? Ludoshel says that the demons have probably killed you, but I think I would know if they had. If you cannot come, then I beg you to write. Please. I love you, and I cannot live without you.
I am under house arrest. They say otherwise, but there are guards on the doors and I unable to leave my quarters. I tried to come to you. I was caught. With all that I am, I love you. I would never harm you. Please. Please.
I have not heard from you since Estarossa took you away from me. I do not know if you are awake — I know you live, because your mother is not marching on the Demon Realm — but I must explain myself to you. I hope you can forgive me. If not, I hope you understand.
The day before the ceremony, I went to Ludoshel. He told me that the Nameless God had blessed our union and that we should act quickly, because your mother would waste time thinking but would ultimately agree. He said it was best for us and our Clans. He said you would be safe. And I believed him.
When things went wrong, I froze. You were dying in my arms, and I did not know what to do. The priestess — who is long gone — reassured us that pain was normal. Then, when you collapsed, she laughed. She said horrible things about how easy it was to get to you, how all she had to do was go on her knees and my brother was wax in her palm. That is when Estarossa arrived.
I tried to follow him. I swear that I did. But Tarmiel and Sariel caught me at the border and forced me to the ground. I do not remember what happened next, but I was told that I fought them fiercely. If it had been noon, I would have killed them. Sariel was burned, and Tarmiel had a gash that barely missed his heart.
Please write to me. I cannot stand this much longer. I have been told that I become a beast at noon and must be restrained lest I come after you. Please, Alessa. I cannot do this without you.
“Huh?” Moth watches as one tear smears the ink, then another, and she touches her cheek to find it wet. “When did I . . . Why am I . . . ?”
“Because you loved him,” a soft voice says, and she looks up to find her mother closing the door, and Nemain’s eyes are sad when she looks at her. “You loved him enough to try bonding with him, and for that I cannot blame you. Mael was always sweet when I spoke with him, and it was obvious that you were very dear to him.”
“So why did you keep these from me?” The letter crinkles in her fingers, creasing as her grip tightens.
Nemain sits next to her, and Moth allows herself to be drawn into an embrace; it annoys her to give in so easily, but it has always been this way with her mother, craving comfort from her even when she is the cause of any hurt. The way she tucks her head under her mother’s chin reminds her of being a child, of the love and laughter that filled her home, and that makes her think of Mael’s visits and she cannot stop the sob that escapes her. “Because you weren’t for him,” Nemain says quietly, stroking her hair, “and we both know that. Cry for him, let yourself grieve, but listen to me as you do. Can you do that for me?”
Moth closes her eyes, trying to reel in the tears. “Yes,” she rasps.
“When you were a child,” Nemains says slowly, “I read the Arcana for you twice. And twice I saw things that no parent would wish on their child. Those I will not tell you about. We both know how fickle fortune can be, and how only fools rely on the cards to judge their fate.” Moth nods, thinking of the noble who had set his house alight because the cards warned of shadows in his home, shadows which had turned out to be his wife’s death from illness.
“Through it all,” Nemain continues, “there was an image that repeated. I saw it in my dreams, in the snow and water. I could not escape it. A wolf and a fox, both circling, ready to spring. When the sun set, the wolf dipped its head to the fox before rolling to show its belly, and then they disappeared into the forest, waking side by side. I didn’t understand it then. I do now.
“Our Clan bonds. You know of the ceremonies, such as the one your father and I performed.” Moth nods, and Nemain sighs. “But there are others. Created at birth, with no outside magic needed, these bonds are so much stronger than the ones we craft. And they are fiercely protective of themselves. May I see your hand?”
“My hand . . . ?” Without thinking, she offers her left, and watches as her mother strokes the scar on her palm.
Nemain smiles, tracing the outline of it, her touch light and sure. “They might be there from birth, but there is always a catalyst that sets them in motion. A kiss, or,” gently, she closes Moth’s hand, “a blood pact between children. And from that, every intimate moment you shared only strengthened it. When you tried the ceremony with Lord Mael, it reacted, warring with the new bond you were attempting to form, and nearly killed you in the end.”
Moth cannot breathe. Her chest aches, her head is a whirl, and she knows what her mother will say yet still she asks, “What do you mean?”
“You are bonded to Prince Estarossa,” Nemains says, her mouth pinched with worry, “and I am happy for you. But, if it does not go answered and I send you back to the Celestial Realm, it will bring ruin to us all.”
Chapter 26: Familial Bonds
Love is weakness.
“This was the trouble with families:
like invidious doctors,
they knew just where it hurt.”
— Arundhati Roy
Moth curls into the chair, a steaming cup of tea in one hand and the crackling of the hearth fire in her ears. Since her return, she has spent the days by her mother’s side to reacquaint herself with the court, and each evening she retreats into her mother’s study to doze while her parents discuss trade routes and alliances, half-listening to their quiet conversations. It’s not that she has no interest in her people or their needs, but rather a sort of fatigue; there is a shock that comes from moving between the wilds, where she wore hunting leathers and roughspun tunics, back into the civilized world of Cailleach, where she dons dresses that are so elegant they itch and the danger is far more subtle. Yawning, she leans her head against her palm, mulling over the new demands of the council. Suitable marriages and successions. But what holds her attention is neither of those things. It is the apprehension that they showed when news of Lord Ludoshel’s demand was given to them.
She can’t fault them, she supposes, for being afraid. The council itself only exists to aid in the transition between queens, and was newly convened upon her arrival. They are merchants and tradesmen, and have had nothing to do with battle in all their lives. So the prospect of one of the other large Clans coming to wreak havoc if their demands are not met must be frightening to them. Yet they do not understand — or do not care, and she doesn’t know which is worse — that should the Goddess Clan attack the city, her mother would seek alliance with the demons. Their Clan’s neutrality only extends as far as joining conflicts for their own gain. Should someone attack them, her mother is free to seek blood for what they have lost, and both Clans have long courted her favor while waiting for the other to push her to war. And, despite knowing that, still the council had cowered, suggesting that it might be best for Moth to return and complete the ceremony, only falling silent when her father had quietly placed his hand upon the table, palm up. The next to speak, that gesture had said, will find this around their throat.
Her fingers tap an idle tune on her chin. She had written to Estarossa one week ago, and has heard nothing since, and the Goddess Clan is set to arrive at the end of the next month, thanks to her mother. If they are going to pass themselves off as lovers, then the proper courting must be underway, and establishing themselves is the first. If he waits much longer, then it will be a pointless endeavor. No harm in becoming an outcast, she thinks dryly, unless you count their loathing for the royal family. How long would I survive? Every morning, Nemain asks her if there has been any word. Every morning, she says there has not. Nyos himself has not returned, but she knows he is alive from the glimpses of a murky sky she gets whenever she taps into his mind. So why no letter? She finds herself thinking of and yearning for the days of her youth, when communication between herself and the mercurial demon prince has been constant and reliable. Now there is only silence, and each hour of it leaves her mood lower than before.
“Will you have enough time to coach the prince when he arrives?” Her mother’s question draws her from her musings, and Moth turns in her seat to watch her parents.
Caim sighs, shaking his head slowly. “Perhaps, if it’s soon. The courtship itself can be handled how he and Alessa see fit. It’s the expectations of the court that trouble me. We both know how they react to those they deem unworthy.”
“Yes.” Nemain steeples her fingers under her chin. “If we want this to appear legitimate, then it must seem as though he is being instructed on what would be expected of him as a future consort.”
Moth blinks at that. Mael had never received any such training, and, curiously, she asks, “Is this a new policy? I don’t remember hearing of it before.”
“No,” Caim answers, “but you not knowing shows how little we prepared you for things like this, and for that I apologize. Whenever it becomes clear that someone intends to become the next consort, he or she is subjected to training from the current one. However, since your courtship with Lord Mael started at such a young age, and with no immediate plans for succession, his tutoring would have begun after the two of you were bonded.”
“I am still young, after all,” Nemain teases, and Moth stifles a laugh.
Caim continues, “Since you are now working to become more involved with the court, a sign that you are training to take the throne, Prince Estarossa would be acting as though he is to one day take my place, should he agree to help. So I would need time to prepare him.”
Moth frowns, hiding her pensive expression behind her tea. “But there’s no guarantee that he would stay after the Goddess Clan leaves, is there? Won’t that cause problems later on if I’m forced to choose someone else?”
Her parents share a look she cannot decipher. “If you took someone else,” Nemain says slowly, “then, yes, it could cause issues for us in the long run. I believe, however, that you won’t have to. From what I remember of him, and his actions when your life was threatened, the prince has always been fond of you, and his silence these last two years could come from any number of reasons, uncertainty and heartbreak among them. He did prepare a courting gift for you, after all.”
Moth opens her mouth to reply — or he could have moved on, is what she intends to say — but she is interrupted by the door being flung open to reveal Laina, out of breath and disheveled. “My apologies, Your Majesty, my Lord, my Lady. An envoy from the Dark Court has arrived and is requesting an immediate audience.”
“So late?” Nemain raises a brow. Even Caim looks taken aback, a sentiment Moth shares; it is one thing to demand to speak with the queen during the day, but doing so at night suggests either an emergency or rudeness.
“I tried to inform them that you were done receiving visitors for the day.” Laina bows, looking contrite. “I’m sorry for being unable to deter them.”
Nemain waves away the apology as she stands. “Very well. If they’ve come all this way, then I suppose I can grant their request. Have rooms prepared for those in their party and tell them to wait in the throne room. We’ll be down shortly.”
Laina bows again before exiting, much more quietly than she had entered. When she is gone, Caim barks out a laugh that causes Moth to jolt in her seat, and she curses quietly as she sucks her fingers, burned by her sloshing tea. “That answers the question of whether or not he will come, doesn’t it?”
“It might not be the prince,” Moth points out, though all of them know it is. “Or not that one, anyway.”
Nemain favors her with a glance that goes from impatient to sympathetic. “We must hope for the best and expect the worst. Either it is him or it is not, but that does not change the fact that, having agreed to meet with them, we are bound to do so.”
“Shall we go, then?” Standing from her seat, Moth smooths her skirt.
Her parents exchange another of those unreadable looks, yet Nemain stands and takes the arm Caim holds out to her. Moth trails after them, trying to crush her blooming hope, praying that her excitement does not show on her face, nor her fear. A queen must always appear calm, supplementing that with whatever emotion is appropriate to the situation, whether that is sympathy or disdain, but never showing more than a vague hint of it. Yet her heart is pounding wildly in her chest and her pulse is roaring thunder in her ears. Two years, that redundant phrase that circles every conversation she has about Estarossa, and she still feels the same nervous anticipation she did the last time she saw him. But, if it is him, why did he send no word of his arrival? A thought, sudden and unpleasant, nearly stops her in her tracks: if, she thinks, mother meant to stop all communication between us two years ago, might she have done it after my return? But how could she? Nyos was with me in Sterling, and she would have needed him to work a spell on him.
She brushes that to the side; Nemain had been the one who told her to reach out, and she had lifted the ban on Moth’s writing when she left for the outpost. It would make no sense for her to hinder communication now, not when all of them know what’s at stake. Then they enter the throne room, and letters become the least of Moth’s concern when she sees the envoy with Estarossa at its head. He has not changed much, if at all, but the clothes he wears are foreign to her, a black tunic opened to reveal his collarbones, a cloak fastened over his shoulder. It is regal, but understated, and makes his pale hair and dark eyes stand out. Seductive, powerful, dangerous, it says, and all of that is confirmed by the aura of quiet strength that surrounds him, like a wolf prepared to spring. His gaze lands on her as she takes her place at her mother’s side, but there is nothing friendly there, and her hope withers inside of her chest. So this will be unpleasant, then.
“Well met, Prince Estarossa,” Nemain greets him, and his attention shifts to her as he bows.
“Well met, Your Grace.” His voice is flat, and Moth winces. Forget unpleasant, this has the makings of a disaster, and she clenches her hands behind her back to hide their trembling.
There is a pause while her mother waits to see if any of the usual courtesies will be offered. When none come, she smiles thinly. “I suppose your travels have left you tired. Shall we get to the reason for your visit so you can retire for the night?”
Estarossa straightens, his face cold. “I’ve come to court your daughter, at her request.” Moth watches her mother’s shoulders tense and glances anxiously between the two of them, the pit in her stomach growing heavier.
Yet it is her father who speaks, an unusual thing for the consort to do without invitation from the queen. “Why should we allow this? You seem neither enthused to do so nor as though you desire her in any way.”
“Why should I?” Estarossa flicks his eyes to Moth. “Her letter spoke of this as a desperate move on your part. According to her, if this doesn’t happen, she will die.”
Nemain’s face is unamused, her gaze sharp. “Will you at least be able to act as though you wish to court her? Otherwise this will be pointless, and will fall apart quickly under any scrutiny.”
“I’m sure I can remember how.”
Digging her nails into her palms has become painful, but Moth knows that if she doesn’t do it, she’ll wind up crossing the room to strike the smug expression from his face. “You’re too kind,” she says instead, her voice wavering with irritation.
“For the duration of the courtship,” Nemain glances at her warningly, “you will be required to remain in Cailleach. We expect the Goddess Clan to arrive within a month’s time. Is that agreeable to you?”
“But of course.” Estarossa smiles coolly, crossing his arms over his chest.
“Very well, then. You’ll find your quarters prepared for you, and the city is open for your envoy to explore. Now I must ask you to leave us, as we have much to discuss.”
Estarossa bows once more, then he turns on his heel, the demons around him parting so he can leave the room before they follow. Caim frowns when the door closes behind them, his expression one of worry. “Will this work?”
Nemain sighs. “Hope for the best —”
“— And expect the worst,” Moth finishes quietly.
The next morning finds her in the courtyard, contemplating the tree that was planted before she was born. It isn’t, in itself, particularly interesting to her, but studying the knots in the trunk and the gnarled branches keeps her mind from dwelling on the meeting she had requested at dawn, which keeps her nerves settled. Part of her hopes that Estarossa will decline to see her, while another, larger part wants him to come, wants to figure out where they stand because she knows that if he acts like her lover her heart will latch onto it and the hurt when he leaves will be terrible. What if it isn’t an act? What if does love you, but he doesn’t want to show it? What then? To that, Moth has no answers, so she returns to counting what little leaves are left. He will come or he won’t. There is nothing else she can do now that the door has been opened. With a groan, she rubs her eyes before reaching for the cup at her elbow. Whiskey might have been a better choice than tea, she thinks ruefully.
“I hope you didn’t call me out here to talk about the weather,” Estarossa says coldly as he takes the seat next to her, “or I might return home.”
Moth bites her tongue to hold in a sharp reply. “Actually, I wanted to talk to you about us.”
“Us?” He arches a brow.
“Yes. I understand that you don’t want to be here, but . . . servants talk. And if any of what was said last night gets out, then . . .” Moth falters when he scowls at her. “I’m sorry, I just need to know that it was an abnormality, that you were exhausted and that it made you short.”
“What you need to know,” he replies coolly, “is that I’ve answered your summons and will do what’s required of me, and then you won’t have to see me again. Which, to my understanding, is what you want.”
She frowns, reaching for him before dropping her hand back to her lap. “Why would you think that? I told you two years ago that I just wanted time —”
“So there would be no shadows or doubts between us?” He laughs quietly. “That’s all there is, Alessa. Do you want to know what life has been like since you returned to Cailleach? Do you want to know the insinuations of my brothers, or what they think of you? I’ve talked myself hoarse defending you, and then you go and prove them right in a single letter.”
“What do you mean?” It is a struggle to get the words out; dread has made her body numb, and it is all she can do to keep her breathing even.
Estarossa scoffs. “Pretend I love you. Come here and put on a show for the goddesses because, if you’re to be believed, Ludoshel wants the ceremony that nearly killed you to be finished. You wear my courting gift at your side, and use your life to entice me here. If I listen to Meliodas, you’re a whore who has been with Mael since you left my home. So tell me, what I am supposed to think of you?”
“Don’t,” she breathes, “don’t you dare. I wrote to you every week, even when your reply never came. I took the daggers you made and wore them with pride, I tried to reach out to you, and you ignored me. So don’t you dare sit there and act like I’ve lied to you, or don’t care for you. And if you want to see if I’m telling the truth about Ludoshel, my mother has his demands. You can see them for yourself.”
“Don’t play the fool, Alessa,” he says sharply, “it doesn’t suit you. You wore them with pride? You should have been at my side. You took them, which meant you accepted my courtship, and then you never came back. You used them to attack one of my Clan —”
“He was attacking one of our villages!” she cries, and he grabs her arms and pulls her across the bench, tipping her back as though he intends to kiss her.
His lips graze her ear as he hisses, “It was his word to yours, and which do you think Meliodas believed? In his mind, you are plotting with the goddesses, you are a liar, you have bewitched me in some way.”
Her hands rest on his chest. To anyone else, this would look like an intimate moment, and the thought makes her face flush. “And what am I in yours? You saw me at the ceremony. Do you think this is a ploy?”
“No,” he answers quietly, “if only because I know you would do me the honor of attacking from the front, not behind. But don’t ask me what you are to me if you aren’t prepared to know.” His hair tickles her cheek when he draws back just enough to look at her. “I will do what’s required of me, but nothing else. Do you understand?” Swallowing thickly, she nods, and he murmurs, “Good.”
Then his lips press to hers, so quickly and so lightly that it can barely be called a kiss, before he stands and returns inside, leaving her more apprehensive than before. Nothing else. Moth leans forward to cover her face with her hands, breathing deeply. Nothing else. Her heart constricts, her eyes burning. Nothing else. The next breath hitches on a whimper that she tries to reign in, but — nothing else — it is useless, as is trying to stop the tears that streak her cheeks.