Rhen is the monster.
I feel so stupid. So naïve.
The signs were here the whole time, I just didn’t pay them enough attention.
Ironrose’s bloodied chambers. The kidnapped girls who were dragged to Emberfall before me. Ripped from their homes, from their lives, only to be ripped off in pieces by the claws of the deadly creature, who haunts the starving people outside the Castle’s gates season after season.
The people of Emberfall.
My thoughts go to Grey, and I imagine him somewhere in the courtyard, studying our scarce volunteers, searching for the few who could manage to be prematurely promoted to the Royal Guard. I can listen to the clash of iron against iron from here, the men and women training how to properly hold a sword, training with Jamison to join the King’s Army, to be part of a façade, a tall tale next to Karis Luran’s real threat.
Fighting for themselves, fighting for Emberfall, fighting for the Crown Prince who came back for them, fighting for their King in exile in some unknown kingdom, while waiting for a backup who will never come.
A King who is long dead along with the rest of the royal family.
Everyone except one. The person who has their blood on his hands.
Now, the men, the women and the children outside will all pay for my foolishness. They will all die because I fed them with hope.
They shouldn’t have trusted me. A liar. An actress.
There’s no Princess Harper, no Kingdom of Disi.
There’s only death.
And unlike their Prince, death is permanent.
It’s already here, living behind these castle’s walls, right above their heads.
Their deaths now share the same room as me.
There’s a lump in my throat. A wrenching sob begging to escape. I let it go.
“What I have done, Rhen? What I have done?” I burst into tears, using my hands to hide my shame. I feel the salt taste against my lips, which makes me cry even harder.
I cry for Mom. For Jake. I cry for the people I care as my own.
Freya. The children. Jamison. Zo. Grey.
I cry for him, too.
The truth hurts.
It hurts to know who he truly is. To think about what he’s going to turn into. To be lost into. How it’s only a matter a time until he slaughters the hundreds of people living outside in a blink of an eye. People who have already lost and suffered enough.
Suddenly, his empty promises are as agonizing as how it felt having Lilith blurring my vision with was happening at home. The knowledge of Mom and Jake’s current state in DC. How torn I am between the Harper I used to be and the Princess Harper I became in Emberfall.
All because I learned to trust him. To miss him near me while he’s gone. I shouldn’t do it. I shouldn’t feel it, and I did it anyway.
I still want to trust him. I want to hold on to his words when he tells me he has planned everything and his people will be safe. But those very same lips promised me he wouldn’t hold back any more secrets from me, so how could I trust him?
He should have told me the truth from the beginning. From the very first time I ended up in the courtyard. He should have trusted me, just as much as I trusted him.
As I still trust.
But it’s not enough. Nor my trust or my faith alone could help all these people. They couldn’t prevent a bloodbath. And there’s my family, too. A family who needs me.
And I keep failing on them all.
Still, the thing that now hurts me the most is the hollow he left behind when he sent me away without looking at me. After all it happened between us, all we have been through together, he couldn’t even look me in the eye.
“Rhen.” I call him, trying to keep my voice from breaking, preventing him from reaching the door and never coming back.
I’ve never seen Rhen looking so defeated, and if there’s honesty in his words when he says that he would order Grey to take me back, it will hunt me, tormenting me whenever I close my eyes.
If you have not fallen in love with me yet, I cannot see how your heart would change once my form does.
How can he not understand? Love is not just something you take, it’s given . And even though I can’t give him my love, it doesn’t mean that I don’t feel anything.
“My lady,” He turns towards me, insecure.
My face is now tearstained and my eyes are burning, but the hiccups stopped, thankfully. Even with my vision blurred, I can see him as he shortens the distance between us, facing me.
He reaches out and I freeze, scolding myself for my mistake instantly. Rhen pulls his hand back quickly, as if touching me would cut his fingertips like the scales had done to me.
“Rhen, wait,” I say urgently, “Please.”
“You must go,” he repeats those painful words to me once again, and the sadness behind them makes me breathless.
“No. Not yet.”
“ Harper. ”
“No, not like that. I refuse.”
“You aren’t safe here and your family needs you more than ever. More than m– us ”, he pauses. “I kept you away from Disi for too long, my lady. You apologize for not breaking the curse, but Harper, look outside. You did much more than that. More than you should. Many people here were inspired by your fierceness. Your kindness. Just as I was. Therefore, for take you away from your family, I will be forever in debt. So let me at least try to repay, by doing the right thing to you.”
“I want to go. I must to. It’s my mom, Rhen. My big brother. They’re all that I have, and they need my help. I will go. I just… never though it would be this hard.”
“I told you, my lady. My people will be safe.”
I cross my arms against my chest.
“And you, Rhen? Will you be safe too?”
He swallows, and his expression turns dark. “You have more important things to worry about, my lady. I will talk to Commander Grey right now. He cannot go against my order.”
Rhen’s words make my heart clench. That’s it? My actions were nothing but a good deed for the people of Emberfall? What about the imminent war against Karis Luran’s army, his curse, Lilith’s threat, everything else that was in the background, all thanks to countless nights Zo played music outside my door while we danced till tiredness take its toll on both of us? He won’t convince me that it didn’t mean anything when I know the truth.
I’ll not allow things to end this way between us. If that happens, I’ll never move on.
Besides, this girl knows only one way to demonstrate how she really feels to the boy in front of her: By showing it.
Gathering enough courage, I reach him as soon he reaches the door, holding his hand on the doorknob.
“Close the door, Rhen. Stay with me.”
“My lady?” he asks, confused, wrinkles poking out between his eyebrows.
“ Damnit, I’ll not say this out loud, for God’s sake. If you don’t kiss me again, I swear–”
He doesn’t wait for me to finish the sentence.
Rhen’s lips touch mine as before – still soft, always so soft – but this time, not as gentle. There is an urgency in the way he acts now, as if every minute is too precious to waste. The season could be coming to an end. The time left between is shorter by the day. But even if we don’t have tomorrow, we still have now. Every burden I carry, every tear I let fall and every fear I feel, every people I’ve met and every choice I’ve made, they all lead me here. Right to his path, his arms. I let myself drown in how good it feels to be this close.
“I’ve made a decision,” I say through his lips, panting.
“What decision is that, my lady?” he asks me, as breathless as I am.
Rhen’s forehead touches mine, our noses brushing with slightest of touches. It tickles and I giggle, our breaths mixing even more with one another.
“I choose us. I choose this moment.”
He understands what I mean, and his body stiffs. “My lady, we can’t. I could hurt you. The scales–”
“Are part of you, Rhen. Just as my limp. I accept them just as you accept my cerebral palsy as a part of me. Of who I am. You can’t let the monster rip off your humanity, Rhen. Who you really are. You’re far stronger than this curse, I know it. If you don’t believe it, I’ll just have to have enough faith for both of us.”
He is silent, analyzing my words. Thinking of something selfless to say, for sure. I raise my hand, running my fingers through the dark blonde hair curling at the nape of his neck.
“Leave your worries outside, Rhen. Just this time, don’t think at all.”
We kiss each other like finding a lake after an entire week riding a horse under a scalding sun. I’m not even gone yet and this is the thing I miss the most. This new found intimacy, this trust.
How can things between us have changed so much over the last few weeks? How can a person become this important to someone else’s life? How this very same person could make me forget where I came from? When did Emberfall become my home , while DC sounded more like a dream, and not the opposite?
All my questions come to the same answer, I realize that now.
I feel the way he tenses up under my palm when I touch the skin of his torso, searching for his lips again. I brush the scales on his side, a rainbow pattern coloring his pale skin like a canvas. Changing him all too soon. The sharpness is still here, like a bunch of knives ready to cut me deeply, but when I move away from Rhen’s feverish embrace just a bit, to plant a kiss upon his bare shoulder, I cannot look away.
Because it’s Rhen. It’s him and something else entirely clawing his way out.
And it’s just as beautiful.
His hands find my laces, and the first one come undone easily. Rhen’s brown eyes were the darkest I ever saw them to be, and when they turn to mine, he blushes .
If I didn’t know, I’d say it’s his first time, too.
“My lady, may I?” he asks for permission. To keep going. To let me become as bare as him.
“ Yes ,” I say, with a nod. “I grant you the permission to do so, Your Highness.”
Rhen starts to strip me.
For every garment who goes away, he leaves a trail of kisses as a reward. One down my chin as the vest falls on the ground, then another on my neck when my dagger belt follows right after. A heavy breath escapes from my mouth when my chemise leaves my body too, and his lips now find their way through my collarbones. There’s a hint of unshaven beard in his face. Feeling it scraping my skin makes me feel ridiculous.
I’ve never felt anything like this before.
It’s too much. It’s not enough .
“Rhen,” I whisper, my eyes closed. My legs aches pressed against his, not in the same way the rest of my body seems to ache from head to toe because of him, yearning for something I can’t even name without dying from embarrassment. “I need–”
He looks up at me, his cheeks flushed, his eyes shining in the firelight.
“Name it and it’s yours.”
“Can we go to bed now?” I laugh nervously, biting my lower lip. “I mean, it’s nice stay with you this way, really nice, but my left leg is killing me right now, so…”
“My lady, I’m so, so sorry. I–I completely forgot.”
What a pair we make.
This makes me laugh even more, but it dies as soon as I’m lifted up by him. He carries me bridal style, guiding us to the pile of comfort pillows and warm sheets.
“Shit. I ruined everything, didn’t I?” I pull one of the pillows over my face, hiding it.
“I beg to differ, my lady,” Rhen says, taking the pillow from my hand and gently brushing the curls that fell over my face. “Should I remind you that I’ve ruined things first when the scales revealed my true nature? I thought that you wouldn’t call me back once I turned away from you.”
“So now we’re even?”
Now it’s Rhen who laughs. “Everything is fine, my lady. I assure you. Unless,” his expression becomes serious all of a sudden, and so does the tone of his voice. “You don’t want to go further, Harper. It’s all right. You can be honest with me, but above all, be honest with yourself. I won’t do anything that you don’t want. Ever.”
I hold his left hand, guiding it to my chest, just above my heart. I hope he can feel the way it beats frantically against my ribcage. It’s all because of him. It’s the best answer I can give, but I know that Rhen is a man of words.
“I want you.”
Rhen’s hands are everywhere.
Tracing softly the contours of my jaw with the tip of his thumb, caressing my shoulders, cupping my covered breasts, trailing up and down through my spine, which makes me shiver under him.
Rhen’s hands are everything.
He stops when he found the edge of my pants, hesitating. I don't know if I have the strength to say what I want him to do, my whole body burning with something that I can't quite decipher, can't name yet. Something I've never felt before.
So I just nod, and hope to be enough to encourage him. For him to understand that I'm okay with this. With us. That I want him to continue.
He agrees back, and I lift my hip as I feel the fabric slide down my thighs, easing its way out.
One by one, our remaining clothes join the forgotten pieces by the bottom of the bed, and as terrifying as it can be, it's only us now.
Skin and bones and hearts that beat too fast.
I pull one of my thighs apart, giving him space to get closer, and I gasp when I feel him between my legs. Really feel him.
"My lady," Rhen calls, his voice is nothing but a whisper. His both hands cup my cheeks, and he leans in to place a quick kiss on my lips. "If you want to stop, this is the moment when you ask me to."
You can't turn back from this, Lacy.
"I'm ready if you are, Rhen."
"Please, don't... Don't call me that."
I'm suddenly confused. "Rhen? Is there a problem?"
"No, not a problem. It's just– Can you... Call me something else? My real name, I mean?"
My memories turn back to the night when I ran away from Ironrose Castle, the night I met Freya and her children. The night that men turned her house into ashes. The way Rhen turned to them and introduce himself as the Crown Prince of Emberfall.
"Vincent." I answer, remembering that 'Rhen' is actually a nickname. "Vincent Aldrhen."
"So you remember." A shy smile curves the corner of his lips.
"My memory is actually very good, as you may have noticed." I blink at him, amused.
"The best." Rhen agrees, kissing me softly. Lovingly.
And, with a gentle push of his hips, he's slides down on me.
I call him many times. Through whispers, between teeth pressed against my lips, muffled cries against his chest.
Just as he asked me to, I call him Vincent.
This doesn’t happen as I expected to be. The only pain I feel is coming from deep inside my heart.
The way he moves in and out from me, so gentle, so careful, so Rhen , seems both like a new development in our partnership as well a closure.
It's all consuming.
But it’s perfect, too. We are perfect together.
When he's finally done – which seems to be minutes or hours or maybe, only maybe, time has stopped just a little so we could share this bliss alone –, he put me into a tight embrace, as if he is scared that I could vanish, hiding his sweaty face in the crook of my neck, letting his head rest upon my shoulder. We aren't swaying anymore – not like that night at least, but I know very well what this simple gesture means to both of us.
"This boy likes this girl," Rhen says, as a statement. "But you already know that, my lady, aren't you?" He asks, and the sound of it seems like so many things in one. Sated. Tired. Happy. But lost, as well.
"I do." My voice is hoarse, and it sounds as broken as I am, torn apart between the urge to go away and the desperate need to stay.
Rhen's scales brush my sides and, with a pang of guilt and sadness, I know that the curse isn’t broken. It's not as if I was expecting it to happen, nor I was using intimacy as an attempt to break the curse, but I wanted so much to set Rhen free before leaving Emberfall.
We weren't in love with each other, not yet. But it was blossoming into something else, something as close as love, at a quick pace. I could feel it.
The only thing we needed was more time.
But just as Lilith and Karis Luran, he is a common enemy, a threat.
Time is all we don't have.