You asked for an update, so I deliever. Aren't I generous? As for the reason for my long absence, all I can say is--life happens.

That'll be all.

Sophia didn't sleep well that night.

She had spent the remainder of the day lying as stiff and as still as a corpse on her bed. She didn't take food; she didn't take company. When, at last, the sun had set, she had slid between the sheets and waited for sleep to overcome her. But it was far away.

There was no peace knowing there was a dungeon somewhere under the floors of the castle. And for all she knew, it could stretch to under her very feet. While she lay there, on her expensive mattress, in her warm, soft sheets, with her head on a down pillow, she thought of those in the darkness that had to sleep on the cold ground or in festering hay. She had refused to eat, but they probably weren't given any food at all. They had been so pale and withered she hadn't believed they were human. Perhaps they weren't. Perhaps she had made them all up in her mind, just as she had the pool of blood.

And yet, the chamber itself had been real; of this she was certain. Nedezda had led her to it and the Prince had pulled her out of it, that was enough to quiet her doubts. But everything that had happened in that murky place seemed like a waking dream. Could it be that she had simply made it all up? The people, the instruments of torture, the blood? Could the chamber have been empty and her imagination have just run wild, like spilled ink across a scrap of paper?

She wanted to believe that. But hadn't Nedezda said that the Prince kept his "secrets" down there? And wasn't he awfully upset when he found her?

Everything told her that what she had thought she had seen had been real. Did that mean his secrets were the frightening things that he hid in that dark place, the sinister side of his nature that he kept locked away? Had she finally glimpsed the true nature of her Prince? And could she possibly love someone like that? She was in too deep now—she already did.

She fretted herself into a light, restless doze.

The morning came and was greeted with a bittersweet welcome. While Sophia was happy that the long night had ended, she felt groggy and tired; the events of the day before still weighed over her head. She didn't want to move or do anything, but timid Mary practically insisted that she, at the very least, get out of bed, get dressed, and go to her favorite sitting room. Mary said it would do her good and Sophia knew she was right.

She found herself staring down at her feet as she made her way to the sitting room. It was her favorite because it had a large window with a comfortable window seat that overlooked the river. She would spend the rest of the day secluded as a penance for her horrible, horrible curiosity that had clearly angered the Prince. Her heart wasn't broken but it felt sore.

Once inside the room, she closed the door and moved around the furniture to get to the window. She folded herself up on the seat and leaned her forehead against the glass. Her breath fogged up the cool pane and then faded away.

An unexpected dull thud from within the room caused her to jump and then nearly fall off her seat. She turned to where the sound came from.

Sitting in an armchair was the Prince. His lips were pressed together and he seemed to be restraining the urge to laugh; in one hand he held a closed book. He must have sat so still, so quietly, that she had completely missed him in plain view.

She immediately realized the Prince must have ordered Mary to convince her to come to this room.

"Come hither," he said, and set the book on the table beside him.

Her heart thudded erratically as she got up and moved towards him. Just the sight of him reminded her of the day before, when he pulled her out of that wretched place, and away from all the things she thought she had seen. His look and tone had been severe when he had warned her to never go there again. No traces of that remained now, but Sophia still felt unsure and a tad frightened. The flitting, bouncing sensations in her stomach seemed undaunted, however, and wouldn't let her forget that he was the man that she had just admitted she loved. She felt quite confused and hesitated a few paces away.

"Sophia?" He leaned forward in the chair. "What is the matter?"

Her voice was high: "Nothing."

"Are you ill?"


"Well, then, at least come sit." He held a hand out to her. "You look as white as a sheet; I would not want you to faint."

She did feel slightly dizzy and her legs were like pudding. But she still didn't move.

He sighed, rose from his seat, and closed the space between them. He took her face between his hands. "Tell me, what is troubling you?"

Involuntarily, she shuddered and turned her face away. She didn't know whether she felt pleasure or fear at his touch.

"What is wrong?" he asked, shocked. "Are you afraid of me? What have I done?" He let go of her face. "What, you fear me now? Is that it?" For a moment, he studied her expression. "You do. I can see it plainly in your eyes. You are afraid of what you saw."

His voice had a cold bite to it. "Do you think me a bad man?"

Sophia flinched. "I do not wish you to be."

"Wish!" he exclaimed and began to pace. "You speak as if you already have your mind made up." He stopped and turned to her again. "What precisely do you think you saw?"

"I am not sure," she answered in a quiet tone. Still, she couldn't look at him.

"That is not good enough."

"I—I saw a rack, and an Iron Maiden, and stakes."

"Did you now?" he said softly. His eyes appeared to gleam.

"And people; at least, I think—I think they were. They were pale, and looked like skeletons, and one touched my arm. And—and there was blood, on the ground, at my feet. I was standing in it. I thought…"

"You do not sound so sure," he said, now staring out the window with his hands clasped behind his back. He was as unmoving as a mountain.

"I could feel it." She swallowed hard. "The blood, I mean. But when I looked at my shoes later—there was nothing there."

"I see."

He said nothing else and an uncomfortable silence followed in its wake. Sophia wished she could see his face, wished to see if there was a hint to what he was thinking. Her dress rustled loudly in the tense air as she shifted the weight of her foot to the other.

"Under my very feet," she spoke at last. "All those people… Vladislaus, why?"

"You know nothing of which you speak," he spat. He rounded and grabbed her by the shoulders before she could blink twice; he shook her a little, as if he was trying to get the message through, while the words flew from his mouth. "Nothing! Do you understand? Nothing! There is a dungeon, yes. But it is not what it looks like. It is not used. It has not been used in nearly a hundred years. It is empty. Empty! There are certainly not any people in it. Do you understand what I am saying, Sophia?"

"That I am either lying," she said barely above a whisper, "or I am going mad."

"No," he corrected her in a tone one would use to correct a naughty child. "You are being foolish. Am I not a just ruler? Am I not fair? How could you believe me capable of such things? You are absurd, Sophia. Entirely absurd. I believed you smarter than that. You are thinking just like a superstitious peasant!"

"I am not!" she cried, eyes filling instantly with tears.

"You know me, Sophia. How could you think that? Is it in your blood? Will you always think like them?"

"No, no!"

"I have given you the world. And this is what I get in return? Broken trust and your fear?"

"No..." She brushed the tears from her eyes before they could fall. "No, no, no."

"Why then?" he questioned, seething.

"Nedezda said--"

"And you believed her, so you went to look for yourself, is that it?"

"No, I went looking for you. I just wanted to find you. That is why I went down there; Nedezda said I would find you. I just did not expect..." She didn't finish her sentence.

"Things are not always as they seem, Sophia."

"Maybe I am foolish." The urge to cry was becoming overwhelming. "After all, I am just a superstitious peasant."

He sighed. "Nedezda only meant to frighten you. And you were trusting enough to believe her." He shook his head and then spoke again in a gentle manner. "Can you not see how jealous she is of you?"

"I do not see why," Sophia said indignantly; it was only a partial truth. Nedezda had been in that place longer and was the Prince's mistress, but Sophia wasn't blind to how he treated her with cold detachment. She knew she stood between them and, although she wasn't convinced it was entirely her fault the Prince didn't care much for Nedezda much anymore, she couldn't help but feel a little smug.

As if emphasizing the point, he ran a finger delicately, tenderly along her jaw. His eyes were now as cool and calm as a sky after a storm.

Her heart gave a lurch. She hoped he couldn't see right through her.

"Indeed, that explains what happened," he said sweetly. "She led you to believe something and you, in your mind, made it come to be."

It made sense to her. Too much sense. But he looked so earnest and he had never lied to her before. She wanted to believe him. He tugged her gently to the armchair and sat back down. She didn't resist when he propped her up on his knee and circled her waist with his arms. She felt safe there; how quickly she had forgotten. Maybe he was right, maybe he told the truth after all.

"My silly, over-imaginative Sophia," he said, chuckling, "you made it all up in your head."

"In my head," she echoed distantly, allowing it to soak in.

"All in your head," he whispered back and kissed her shoulder through the silk of her dress. "But, Sophia?"

"Hm?" She turned to look at him, dazed.

He spoke gravely, "It would be best if you did not speak of any of this again."

"Yes. Of course," she said with some hesitance. "If that is what you want."

"It is." The lines in his face smoothed over. "It is what I want…"

And then Sophia saw it as it happened: his entire countenance changed. His eyes glinted with an intense fever and he stared at her, she thought, as if she were something he wanted to devour. His grip tightened and she could feel all ten tips of his fingers pressing into her stomach and her hip. She was instantly breathless.

His face drew closer to her own and every muscle in her body held perfectly still, waiting, anticipating. He hesitated; he must have felt her reaction. They were so close.

"May I kiss you?" he asked in a whisper.

She nodded slowly, granting him permission. If he didn't, she would surely go mad.

That was all it took. His mouth came down over hers with force. His lips were as hard as they were soft and he seemed to kiss her as if his very life depended on it. Immediately, she forgot everything; her fears and misgivings, his stern words merely seconds before, the haunting images that were in her mind, all of it—gone. She could think of nothing else but the avid workings of his mouth. He ran his tongue, fiery and smooth, along her lower lip, before breaching those defenses and taking all that she offered. And then some more.

The sacking of Troy hadn't been easier.

Something deep within her stirred, stretched, and moved for the very first time. What was this feeling? It spread just beneath the surface of her skin, from her stomach, over her breasts, between her thighs, to her lips and further, like a wildfire. It took control of her mind and she found her lips moving with and against his in an inflamed frenzy. Her tongue swept against his, tasting and teasing. If felt wicked and filthy—this type of kissing simply had to be a sin—but at the same time, it felt so absolutely perfect.

She whimpered urgently when he pulled away. But then he continued down the side of her neck. He nipped at the taunt, sensitive skin and left it red and hot. Desperate for more, she twisted around in his lap, all but straddling him in the chair. She didn't care; she wanted him more than anything. He shoved down the sleeved of her dress, exposing the edge of her shoulder, the top of her arm, and the swell of her breast. She let her head fall back and breathed heavily as the hands on her back pressed her to him.

His scorching mouth moved down, down, down… She gasped. So close to tender flesh; he was so close. She could feel it building, that same intense feeling. She wanted his mouth—his teeth, his tongue—on that skin just below the trim of her dress. Her fingers grasped the back of his head, urging him on. She could feel the curve of his lips as he smirked and then his eyes found hers. He looked altogether devilish.

"What is this?"

Sophia's head whipped around to the door; the Prince lifted his face from her cleavage. Standing just inside the room, with a wide-eyed, shocked, and furious expression, was Nedezda.

"What is this?" she repeated, her voice rising. "What is going on here?"

The intoxicated haze Sophia had been in was now gone. Quickly, she removed herself from within the Prince's possession and stepped behind the tall back of the chair. Heat and color flooded her face; she could feel her pulsating and swollen lips. She hoped it didn't appear too scandalous.

"Is there something you want, Nedezda?" the Prince asked in an annoyed and disdainful tone. If he had been surprised to see her, he certainly didn't show it.

Nedezda seemed to rattle with the anger, hatred, betrayal, sadness, and shock that radiated off of her. Words failed her. But then, ignoring the Prince, she found her voice.

"You," she zeroed in on Sophia, "I helped you, and this is how you repay me? This is the sort of thanks I get? I knew better. I knew I should not have helped you. You are nothing but manipulative and deceitful peasant swine!" She took a sudden, threatening step forward.

Sophia moved further behind the Prince's chair. Nedezda's eyes were ablaze, but that wasn't the only thing that Sophia noticed. They were red and puffy, the same as hers looked after a long night full of tears. Had she been crying? The Prince had been angry with her yesterday. Sophia guessed he had said some things she didn't like. Good, she deserved it; she had only led her to that place yesterday to get her into trouble. She deserved it. But then Nedezda turned up her nose, still quivering with anger, and the light hit her differently. Nestled in the hollow of her cheek was a very faint, very light spot of bluish-purple.

It was about the size of the Prince's hand.

Sophia blinked; Nedezda moved. And it was gone.

"Are you finished?" The Prince remained sitting idly in the chair.

Nedezda turned on him. "You led me to believe there was nothing between going on. That she was too chaste and too pure and too innocent. She even looks it! How can those doe eyes not be innocent? And yet—ha!—here she is, all over you like some common whore!"

Those words stung Sophia; she flinched. She wished that she could sink into the stones of the floor and disappear.

"That is more than enough," the Prince snapped, rising quickly.

"How long, Vladislaus, have you been keeping this charade?" she asked, more softly. A true question.

"Do not be a fool. There has been no such thing," he responded icily. "I think it is time for you to take your leave."

"Did you mean any of those things you once said to me?" Her voice was softer, lower still.

"You are truly trying my patience, Nedezda. Go now." It was a solid order. And it was obvious he expected to be obeyed.

In that instant, all emotion left her face and she was once again that striking, strong, composed figure. Her voice countered his. "I want her gone."

"That is not possible. I said—"

"I want her gone, Vladislaus!"

"I said you are to leave us!"

As the words left his mouth, the Prince crossed the room, grabbed Nedezda's arm at the elbow and then blotted her out of Sophia's view with his large frame. He bent his head to her ear. Sophia clutched the back of the chair from support and strained to hear what the Prince was saying. She couldn't hear distinct words, but she could hear his voice. It reminded her of the ominous and intimidating sound of far away thunder.

He stepped back. Nedezda's face looked a few shades paler and her lips were pursed. She stood unmoving for a moment before casting a quick, loathing glance at Sophia and then left without a word. The brass handle let out a loud clang behind her.

The Prince sighed.

"What did you say to her?" Sophia asked from behind the chair.

"I told her she was being insufferable and I would not tolerate the rude remarks or the way in which she spoke, and that she was to leave," he said unhappily. "Please, Sophia, I wish you would not look at me in that manner. And come out from behind that chair. You act as if I have done something dreadful."

Slowly she went to him and he gathered her close. He tucked a piece of her hair behind her ear and kissed her forehead and corner of her mouth. Nedezda's outraged face flashed before her eyes.

"No… I cannot." She pulled away.

If Nedezda had been five minutes later, what then would she have walked in on? Sophia cringed at the thought. She had been too careless, and she couldn't afford to be so again. We have the same fate, Nedezda had saidno, Sophia wouldn't let that happen. She would not be the Prince's whore, only to be tossed aside when someone else came along. He treated her with some respect now and she wouldn't lose that. She couldn't forget herself; she couldn't lose control. But he made her stomach knot up and the places where he left kisses tingled.

"I really should go," she said.

The Prince didn't say anything, but nodded very solemnly. He didn't look angry, maybe disappointed, but at least not angry. She could not bear it if he were angry with her. She excused herself and hurried down the hall.

Back in her room, she had come full circle and was more confused than she had been at the start. She struggled out of her dress before crawling into bed in only her shift and curling up around a pillow. She retreated into her mind—here, it was always safe, always private—and tried to remember the feel of his lips against her own.

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