A/N: I've outdone myself with this one- 11,476 words. Took me long enough... 31/5/2012
The prince smoothed back the tendrils of hair matted to her forehead and laid the newly damp cloth across it.
He pulled back the covers to check the small bruises dotting her shoulder and arm. She murmured something in her sleep and his hand immediately stilled on her wrist, watching her closely for any sign of consciousness. Her eyelids fluttered briefly, as they had these past three days, before settling again on colourless cheeks.
He passed a hand over his brow. It had been three days since he had gotten his precious one back. His fist convulsed furiously where it lay on her bed. Three days since he had unleashed his anger on those who had dared take her from him... and she had not awoken since.
Wake up, he ordered silently, raising her hand to lips that trembled imperceptibly- traitorously. Please, wake up…
She was dead. She had to be.
Her head felt like sledgehammers were dancing on it. She groaned and raised a hand to her forehead. A towel? She pried her eyes open with difficulty. The room was dark and unfamiliar and the bed much too big to feel right. Her fingers brushed silk sheets covered by something much heavier, like fur. Lynn felt the first stirrings of unease creep into her stomach. Where am I? She tried to sit up and shooting pains surged down her left leg; panic set in as snatches of her memory began to return. Tom! The ship-! Were they safe? What happened? Where -
Calm down, she told herself crossly taking a few deep breaths. You're getting all worked up for nothing. For all you know you're in some kindly person's bedroom on that island Marcus pointed out. A very rich person, she added worriedly, her fingers brushing against the heavy furs. She looked around the room again but could not make out much from the dim glow of her bedside candle.
"Hello?" she ventured. "Is anybody there?"
"Do not move."
Her body froze instinctively. Her eyes burned with tears waiting to be shed as her thoughts spiralled out of control. That voice could mean only one thing and the knowledge of it settled like poison in the pit of Lynn's stomach. She felt sick.
She watched with wide eyes as the prince approached, her heart rate skyrocketing, the oil lamps lighting themselves as he passed. Fear coiled in her gut but the prince's blue eyes never left her. He stopped at the foot of her- no, his- bed.
She cleared her throat, swallowing the lump as best she could. "What's wrong with my leg?" she whispered. Easy questions first.
"The left is fractured." He stood by the foot of her bed, eyes betraying nothing, face curiously unmasked. "I have bound it but it will be a while before you can walk without pain."
She nodded automatically. Nothing was making sense; if she had been captured, why was he being so nice to her? The prince wrapped his hand around the bedpost and for a frightening second she thought he meant to move closer- to sit on the bed even- but he didn't.
"You are weak still," he said. "I will leave you to rest."
She shook her head and his footsteps halted. Lynn took a deep breath and dared to look the prince squarely in the eye. His eyes widened but he did not look away.
"What happened to the others?" She said quietly, heart hammering like a hummingbird's. It didn't make sense; she shouldn't be here. "The others on the ship-"
The prince eyes darkened and his hand fisted atop the bedpost. "You are safe now."
She was treading on dangerous waters but she had to know. "Where are they?" She repeated. "Please. I don't remember anything after I blacked out-"
The prince growled low in his throat, mouth curling into a snarl, and Lynn froze.
"Those vagabonds received their punishment," he hissed. He shook his head slightly and his black expression lightened. "I will return in the morning. You are safe now. Rest."
She stared after him, barely registering the sound of the door being dead-bolted. Punishment? What did that mean?
"You are awake." Faint surprise coloured his voice and he approached the bed more cautiously than he had entered.
Lynn nodded. his surprise was not unwarranted; the prince made almost daily visits to her room, and though she was usually asleep when he came, she would find new trinkets on the bedside table or a missing bruise along her arm. Gratitude- feigned or otherwise- was the best way to put him in a good mood, she felt.
She cleared her throat and his eyes immediately zeroed in onto her face. She coloured under the scrutiny. "T-thank you," she stammered. "For the gifts."
His reply was guarded. "I hadn't thought you noticed them."
"I did, when I woke up, I mean," she floundered.
She looked up when he did not reply and saw him standing uncertainly in the middle of the room. Well, that was odd.
"Do you want to sit?" she asked tentatively. Was he really waiting for her permission?
It seemed he was for he was soon moving forwards and occupying the chair beside her bed with a decidedly relieved air.
"How are your injuries?"
"Oh, umm," the question had taken her by surprise, so perplexed was she by his behaviour. "My leg's still broken- fractured," she amended quickly. "But I don't feel dizzy anymore."
He nodded and retread to his own thoughts if his countenance was anything to go by.
"Sire?" The title felt foreign and false on her tongue; a lie. His head snapped up and she lowered hers just as quickly. "I- um, may I ask a question?"
"Of course," he replied quietly. There was something strange in his tone, something she'd never heard before.
"I she swallowed. "I was wondering, what happened to the other people on the ship?" She risked a peek at his expression and found it be be growing steadily darker. "I just-"
"You need not worry yourself about them."
She nodded hesitantly. "So you said, but I still-"
"Do not question me about such triviality," he said severely.
"Please," she said, raising her eyes to his. "Please, I just She thought she saw something soften in his eyes, turning the blue almost warm, but the iciness quickly returned and she was sure she'd imagined it. "I just need to know."
He crossed his arms, considering her request with a frown. "I will not entertain any further discussion of the topic," he warned.
Lynn nodded, that was fine. She just needed to know where they were and how-
"They are dead."
The prince waited for her to speak but Lynn had no breathe left to speak with.
He glanced at her before continuing. "Their ship was completely destroyed; I made sure of it. There is no chance of them ever returning."
She had begun to shake uncontrollably.
"Are you in pain?"
He reached for her and she reared back as though struck.
"Don't touch me," she hissed.
He looked concerned but lowered his hands slowly to his sides.
"You have not eaten," he said suddenly. "You should eat; it will aid your recovery."
She opened and closed her mouth but her throat was constricted with a lump the size of her fist. The devastation clawing at her chest was making it impossible to breathe and she shook her head to rid herself of the feeling.
"You do not wish to recover?"
Her head snapped up and the tears burst free of their dam, her fists forming a white-knuckled grip on the bedspread.
"You murderer," she hissed, through her tears. "How dare you stand there- acting as though you're completely innocent-"
The prince looked displeased and faintly confused; he was lucky her leg was still broken or she would've clawed the hateful expression off his face, she thought savagely.
"Murderer!" She spat, choking on the word as she shuddered. It was all she seemed to be able to say. "Murderer!"
"Enough." His voice rang with finality. "You are ill and your mind is clouded. You will make sense when you are better."
He rose to leave and Lynn was grateful for it. The door slammed behind him but she was crying too hard now to care what he thought.
She cried in the way of a woman granted another chance at life with no reason left to live. Her despair echoed in every shuddering of breath, every moan pulled out from her chest, every tear spilled from her eye. Lynn wrapped her arms around herself but nothing she did could convince herself her world hadn't fallen apart.
It was weeks before she allowed him to see her again.
"You risk this impertinence at the cost of your own life," he warned.
He could see her arms trembling on her chest but still she turned her face defiantly away- every time before she had either started screaming hysterically or throwing things. She was clearly not remorseful for her inexplicable behaviour.
The prince scowled. He could wipe her memories, here and now, with barely any effort at all; a single jewel around her throat and she would abandon this disobedience completely. It was a tempting idea. In fact, if he called one of his servants-
"What I don't understand is why you saved me."
He looked up at the question. He could hear the hatred mingled with confusion in her voice and the question still annoyed him.
"Why would I not?"
She fixed him with an eerily familiar stare; it sent a shiver down his spine. "Why would you?" She retorted.
The answer to that question was one the prince did not like to examine too closely himself so he tactfully avoided it instead. "I thought you'd died long before that night."
She stared at him uncomprehendingly.
"You do not recall? My servants informed me you had fallen into the river and when I could not find you alive I assumed you were dead."
She did not reply and instead turned her head. Her jaw trembled and though he could not see it, he knew her green eyes filled with tears.
It angered him in a strange, frustrating way that she would not tell him why she was upset.
He had rescued her from those pirates who'd held her captive, given her every luxury he could think to give, put her in his own bed- and still she was dissatisfied. He couldn't understand it. He'd tried reassuring her- countless times- that he'd dealt with them; that she was in no danger of them ever taking her again but that would result in either her being angry at him or tears. Usually both. He'd long run out of possible conclusions and as she was not forthcoming with any explanation of her own he had resorted to petty persuasion tactics- or arguing. Not that either method had proven the least bit useful so far.
Despite all her infuriating capabilities, just the sight of her shaking shoulders bothered his mutilated soul in a way he never imagined anything could. She buried her face in her arms and he lifted a hand to- to what? Console her? Comfort her? She would flinch away before he could even attempt the thought. Finally, when he thought he could take no more, she spoke.
He could barely discern the words they were so muffled.
"Why did you have to come b-back?"
He didn't understand but the hate-filled glance she sent his way cut him like a knife.
"We were so close! W-we would have been free!"
The prince looked at her in confusion. What was she saying? Who would have been free? Lynn knew nothing of the Queen. Who could she…
"We could've finally escaped this nightmare."
The prince felt as though he'd been punched in the stomach.
She was not referring to him.
She was not-
She was referring to them.
The one's who'd stolen everything from him-
Destroyed his home. Destroyed his kingdom. Destroyed everything that he owned.
She was grieving for them.
Lynn looked up at him and her tears glistened like streaks of diamonds down her face. He felt no remorse. But he had to make sure. Perhaps he'd misunderstood. If there was any doubt, any chance that he'd missed something...
"You were fleeing from me?" His voice was hollowness tinged with desperation.
She nodded silently, and it was like a nod from the judge at the executioner's block.
"The pillaging, the destruction, the obliteration of my mines, the extermination of my servants- all of it was... It was not you who had- Surely-"
The words constricted in his throat, his eyes begging to be contradicted. She'd been coerced; surely she'd been coerced. Never would she do their bidding willingly, never would she turn against him so... No. No one who looked upon him with those eyes and those lips could be capable of such crimes. Only, what was she saying?
"It was a distraction. We'd planned the whole thing mo-"
"No." Those cheekbones, that brow- nothing so familiar, so dear could be responsible for such destruction. The prince breathed out through his mouth and his eyes clouded. "No," he repeated, more forcefully. He could not align the two in his mind. And if he could not make sense of it then it must not be true.
Her eyebrows arched defiantly. "I was the one who-"
"NO!" Roared the prince. His eyes were like pitch. She was an innocent in their schemes. A pawn. She was lying to him. "You have not betrayed me." They had made her lie to him. "Lies. They are all lies!"
"I'm not lying," she said. This too was a lie, a trick to blindside him, make him do something foolish. He breathed out through his mouth. Things were fraying, falling apart. He had to get away. He had to-
Why was she looking at him like that? With triumph and contempt and- Dammit, why was she looking at him like that!
"Enough!" He stood up, knocking his chair to the floor. "I will- I will leave you." He hardly knew what he was doing but if he stayed in her presence any longer, while she continued to tell him these falsehoods, while she continued to look at him in that repulsive way-
He was outside and running before conscious thought could catch up to him. Lies, lies, lies- The sunlight filtered weakly, feebly, through the dense canopy as though wary of the creatures it illuminated. As they should, thought the prince.
He flitted through the forest, footsteps nimble, whole body fluid, and presence so light branches were barely broken underfoot. The forest was clearing the way for him and he almost clawed it back to him to present himself with a greater challenge. He could feel the muscles in his legs begin to tremble with exertion but he would not stop till he every ounce of his strength was spent; a foolish endeavour, he knew, but it was the only way he could stay ahead of the whispers already twining around his heels.
When the terrain in front of him grew too rugged to tread he turned upwards, pulling himself up the nearest, tallest tree he could find, hand-over-hand till the air was too thin and every breath tore viciously at his lungs. He sat with his back against the thinning trunk and closed his eyes, enjoying the feeling of being slightly out of breath. His limbs tingled and he felt the muscles spasm and shift gently under his skin. Here, where the world was stiller and the air was thinner- where he could barely breathe- the prince felt himself finally calm.
He sat shrouded in the trees, one leg gathered against his chest. The half-moon sat serenely in the sky even as the last creeping rays of dawn bled into the darkness. If he turned his head he would be able to make out the topmost turret on the queen's castle. The air grew chilly but he neither noted nor felt its bite. From here he could see as far as the sea and all the ruins of his empire in between. He breathed out heavily, forcing his thoughts away from the pain in his chest and the pounding in his head.
There were two beasts that warred within prince's chest: the first was one he had, foolishly, decided to run from; the second was what he had chased as he ran. Both had turned on him now and if he did not face them, they would tear him apart. He had no choice.
Carefully indifferent, he unfolded the situation in his mind.
The queen was coming. He had no workforce; the mines were destroyed; his servants either dead or injured and he was still weaker than he had even been. An empty, detached panic stirred in his chest.
The setting sun bathed his face in an orange glow as he swung his leg in the evening breeze and tried to think.
Lynn trailed her fingers over the wood grain pattern of the windowsill. The servants the prince had left her had carried her over to an armchair, at her request, but it had been three days with only her thoughts for company and they were driving her insane. She pushed open one of the drapes with a finger. The view was mostly filled by trees but there was a chink in the greenery she she could just make out the sparkling blue of the ocean.
There was a chance they'd survived. She'd been thinking about it- God only knew how much she'd thought about it- and even if the ship had capsized, as she feared, there might have been enough time for some of them to reach the lifeboats. Or cling to a piece of driftwood, or a barrel or something. She remembered reading a book where the survivors had clung to bits of driftwood and drifted ashore. She didn't know how far they'd travelled when the prince attacked but maybe, if the current was flowing the right way, maybe John, Michael and Tom could drift ashore too. It was a slim chance but she was clinging to it, clinging to it with all the optimism she could muster- it was either that or complete and utter hopelessness, and if she allowed herself that then she might as well lie down and die now, and Lynn was not one for giving up.
There was just one remaining problem: how was she going to escape?
Her legs weren't as bad as they had seemed that first day. She could almost put weight on the left one; if she could make herself a crutch of some sort she could probably manage hobbling. It was too high a drop from the window so she'd have to pick the lock on the door somehow. Or steal the key from one of the guards. She frowned. They were always so careful though, and she was so frustratingly weak compared to them... Maybe if she knocked one out- but they always came in twos so that would never work...
Lynn propped her face in her hand and frowned as she stared out of the window. Think Gwendolyn. Think!
The boy saluted. "50% completion, sire. We should be up to 53% by the end of the day."
"I want 60% by tomorrow morning. Dismissed."
The prince watched the boy scurry off, his thoughts chaotic.
The queen was due to arrive any day now.
The southern mines had been completely destroyed. Two weeks he'd spent surveying the extent of the damage wrought to his mines; two weeks he'd spent trying to fix those damages- to no avail. It would take months- at minimum- to restore them to working order, and the prince was not foolish enough to hope he'd have the luxury of luck on his side. He'd managed to salvage the lift shaft, which meant the argentum that had already been mined could be salvaged. Even that had been a perilous venture; the mine was so unstable now he'd almost lost two of his servants trying to haul it all out, and what a meagre quantity it was. But with the queen's arrival so imminent the prince could not afford to be picky.
Today he was in the western mines beneath the mountains that surrounded the queen's castle, inspecting. Fortunately, the blaggards had left the other three mines untouched. But the unyielding numbers persisted in taunting his tired mind as he paced the dimly lit corridors, drawing frightened stares in his wake. It wasn't good for his workers to be so taxed; it would lead to fatigue and sickness and slowed production- but what choice did he have? His own servants were beginning to feel the strain. He strode down the tunnelled corridor, looking into each cavern as he passed. He couldn't push them any harder even if he tried, but if he didn't, they'd all be dead.
He was too exhausted to even curse because no matter how often he tried to ignore it, the truth was he simply would not be able to make enough. There was no conceivable way he could procure enough of the precious rock in time. No matter how hard he drove his remaining task force or how deep he made them dig for the larger crystals- unless the queen decided she was more partial to a visit three months hence- he was as good as finished.
If only there was a faster way to unearth it all, he thought desperately. Better pickaxes? A larger workforce? Pretend the argentum had run out... Now he knew he was going mad. He slammed his fist against the wall, barely refraining from slamming his head against it as well. But what else was there? What could he do? There was no way he'd be able to meet the quota in time, and he was barely strong enough to leave the island as-
He drew his hand away from the wall and examined it, perplexed.
He was bleeding.
It was only a trickle of blood, but he was bleeding nonetheless. The prince did not bleed from mere rock. He leaned in closer, chipping away the surrounding rock with a fingernail. By the time he stepped back, a hole the size of his hand glittered back at him.
He had workers summoned there within minutes.
If his servants had been allowed to voice the thought, they would have sworn their usually stoic prince was on the verge of smiling.
The prince stood off to the side, watching the mountain of opalescent, white jewels grow. Perhaps he had been too too quick to judge Lady Luck. He summoned a passing worker.
"What is our status?"
"We have three other teams working on all sides of the mountain-"
The boy shrank back. "Sire, we still need teams for transportation, you understand..."
The prince's nod was curt. "Continue."
"I-if we m-maintain our current progress, we should be at e-eighty percent within three days."
"Excellent," murmured the prince. "Dismissed."
The queen was due any day now- any minute, even. She had taken measures that rendered him unable to detect or predict her arrival. It was both worrying and infuriating but there was nothing he could do about it. With his latest find though, perhaps she would be pleased enough to let the shortages slip by unnoticed. Twenty percent was a large margin, and the queen would not forgive anything less than half that.
The prince decided it was time to do something he had never- in the century of his prince-hood- lowered himself to do.
He pushed back his sleeves, revealing lean forearms and rubbed his palms together in a circle. Children scrambled out of the way as he approached the rock-face. He lowered his hands and the force of it shook the cave, sending debris flying everywhere. The exposed glittering jewels shone back at him and he grimaced in a satisfied way.
Desperate times called for desperate measures.
Her legs were on fire. If the left one wasn't broken before, it sure was now. Lynn tore at the shrubbery in her way, ripping the thorns away from her face and leaving a messy trail of destruction in her wake.
She was going to make it. She had to make it. She had to.
Her makeshift crutch caught on an uncovered root and she fell face-first in the detritus-laden forest floor. She could hear them coming after her.
Her foot caught on something but her leg was well and truly broken now and none of her desperate tugs could convince it to move.
"No," she whimpered, dragging herself forwards with her hands. Her fingernails scrabbled desperately in the dirt as two sets of feet settled beside her. "No-"
Small hands clamped down on to her wrists, lifting her up.
"No!" she screamed, writhing in their grasp. "Let go of me! Let go!"
One clamped a painful hand over her mouth. She bit down viciously, surprised at the faint, coppery taste of blood trickling onto her tongue but the boy barely looked at her, removing his hand only when his partner had a cloth securely fastened over her mouth instead.
The one she'd bitten lifted her into his arms and she struggled in his grasp, pummelling and shoving his chest with all her might. He was no boy, she realised as he loped over the uneven terrain with ease and his smaller companion cleared the way before them; he was almost as big as her.
The rag was filthy and nauseating and it was all she could taste in her mouth. Her eyes swam with tears and her head slumped against her captor's chest in defeat. She was exhausted. And they weren't going to let her get away.
She pounded her bound hands feebly against his chest. "Please," she sobbed, muffled. "Please..."
She was asleep, her breath coming out so shallowly that her chest barely moved. Thankfully there was no fever; she was merely exhausted. The prince drew closer and pulled away the bedcovers, his expression darkening at what he saw. Raw welts and scratches ran up the lengths of her legs to her thighs, dotted with purple-blue bruises the size of his fist. Both legs were horribly swollen. He threw the covers back over them to hide the ghastly view from sight. Foolish girl.
The prince could not decide whether he was more angry or pained to see her this way. He was not strong enough to heal her- not without arousing suspicion or causing himself harm- but she could not stay here for long. He rested a hand on her forehead and gathered what strength he could manage.
She blinked almost immediately.
"Let me go," she said. Her eyes were narrowed and there was venom in her voice.
"Your legs are broken."
"Release me," she hissed.
"You cannot move. How would-"
"It doesn't matter!" She screamed, thrashing wildly.
She was becoming hysterical.
"Why do you even keep me? Why didn't you kill me when you killed everyone else? What makes me so special?" She spat. Her eyes burned with hatred and unshed tears. "Tell me!" She screeched.
His voice, when he finally found it, was coarse and unsteady. "I- I do not have time for this."
He moved to the table beside the window and opened a locked drawer while his servants kept her pinned to the bed.
"Let me go! I'd rather take my chances with the beasts than stay here with you!"
Carefully pushing aside the hidden compartment he lifted out the small bundle of silver furs. Laying it flat on his palm he pulled away the furs to reveal an intricately carved silver pendant, set with a large, glimmering black gem. It flashed blue whenever it caught the light. Obsique... The stone he had so meticulously prepared for her so long ago, only to discover it unwrapped and untouched nestling among her petticoats.
He lifted it up by its chain and all the reservations he'd had so long ago came rushing back in force. Would the spell be so powerful as to kill her? Would it drain her life- and if it didn't, if the gem left her alive but as a husk of her former self, would it better if it had? Well, consequences be damned, she had forced his hand now.
She reacted violently to his coming near her but he forced it over her head in the end. The prince watched for the transformation with something akin to dread. The moment the jewel made contact with her skin Lynn went completely still. Her mouth stopped mid-protest then closed and settled into a line of complete neutrality. Her eyes, so full of fire just moments before, emptied and grew vacant.
A sour feeling filled his gut and he turned away.
"What have you done to me?"
The prince turned around in shock. She was battling with herself, with the obsique, he realised amazed.
"Repeat yourself," he ordered. The muscles in her jaw relaxed and she practically sighed as her lips parted.
"What have you done to me?"
The same neutral, impassive voice but her eyes were trained on him. There was no mistake: she had spoken. Servants could not speak without permission- yet, she had. He bent down to look at her more closely. The muscles around her mouth were taut and trembling, as though she were fighting them for control, but her eyes were fixed on him. He could see the ire quivering behind the green irises; never before had he felt so relieved to see such an emotion.
The prince stopped short. He could've strangled himself for such folly. What was he thinking, indulging in emotions at a time like this? The queen was on his doorstep!
"You will obey me," he ordered, bringing his thoughts back to the room. "You will not remove the necklace."
He frowned when she did not respond.
"...Yes." Again that empty, dispassionate voice.
"You will not run away."
"You will not try to escape."
The prince halted mid-stride when she did not respond. She had resumed struggling, biting her tongue no doubt, to keep the word from slipping through her lips. He fixed her with a hard stare.
Her eyes screamed for his painful demise.
Satisfied, he nodded. "Take her away."
Long ago the walls of the queen's castle had been white but over time the forest had encroached its boundaries and laid waste to its beauty. It hid like a vine-covered tumour, buried deep within the mountains on the west side of the island. It was a large castle with more rooms than the queen ever had need of and looming defences that made it virtually impenetrable; the only accessible route by foot was a narrow winding pathway that snaked up the side of the mountain where the queens 'pets' were wont to roam and the ground was in habit of falling beneath travellers' feet.
The interior of the castle was constructed and furnished completely in white marble. The throne room where he awaited the queen's arrival was a magnificent hall with cathedral ceilings that supported the cobwebbed chandeliers hanging every few feet. In comparison, though considerably warmer, his own subterranean 'castle' was a hovel in ground.
The prince had donned full royal regalia in honour of the queen's arrival. Argentum glittered at his throat and ears, complementing the black, satin tunic he wore; it had once fitted his form perfectly but now it hung loosely off his thin frame, revealing just how trying the past few months had been on him. He had donned an ermine cloak in the hopes of hiding it. He wore leather gloves and boots as was customary, leaving his face and throat looking luminously pale in comparison. His feathered mask was tucked into the lining of his cloak but he took out every now and then, brushing his fingers over the studded gems, betraying his anxiety.
The prince felt her presence on the surface of his skin before he saw her, shivered with it, and felt it slither into the recesses of his mind. He was unmasked and waiting on bended knee when the queen swept into the throne room, her shimmering black gown in stark contrast to the white. It was a gown made of the night sky; black and shimmering with stars. The weight of her gaze prickled on the back of his neck and he sank his chin lower onto his chest. The prince felt the chill resettle beneath his skin and so cold did he feel that he half expected to see his breath condense on the air when she gave leave for him to speak. He felt naked without his mask and tried as subtly as he could to deny the queen entrance into his mind; her probings were as twisting as smoke and just as poisonous; he could not tell how successful he was.
The queen settled back against her magnificently throne, an intricately carved slab of marble, studded with teardrops of argentum along the back and arms. It had been a long time since he had seen her and almost instantly he was drawn to her eyes, completely black with no whites to surround her dilated pupils, framed by thick lashes and a pale, heart-shaped face. Her crown sparkled atop her dark locks like sheathed diamond daggers. There was no smile on her thin lips.
She had brought her servant boy with her; stoic and unexpressive, he was taller than Peder remembered him. She turned her gaze on him then, crossing one leg over the other with a casualness that belied her disposition. She tapped her nails against the arms of her throne and the marble chipped away under her angry fingers. The prince suppressed the sudden, inadvisable urge to flee.
Her voice promised a thousand painful deaths but he stared back without so much as a flicker, the furious rhythm of her nails serving to distract him. "What would you like me to explain, my queen?"
"Do not play me for a fool, boy," she warned, voice echoing ominously in the cavernous throne room.
"Forgive me." He bowed his head so that his face was bent too low to see; there was no 'good' way to express what he had to next. "Forgive me, my queen." He repeated, displaying his hesitation. "There was a…revolt- Ah!"
The staccato beat stopped and the prince sank to his knees, eyes streaming with pain.
"And why, did you allow this revolt?" The queen carded knives through his mind, punctuating each emphasised word with a degree of agony that surpassed the one before it. "How could a prince- No. No, you are no prince to me. How dare you, a worthless mortal, entrusted with the responsibility of my most prized fortress, have allowed a meagre band of filthy human children to revolt?" The prince could barely see, so severe was the pain. "Answer me!"
"Forgive me," he gasped. "Forgive…"
"I gave you my blood," she snarled, a stream of barely suppressed curses slipping past her teeth.
He felt like he was on fire, his skin raw and peeling and- suddenly the heat was replaced by cold, intense, mind-numbing cold that robbed all sensation from his extremities and rendered him immobile. It was all in his head; he could feel the marble beneath his knees- distantly- but it did not make the torture any more bearable. The blood in his veins was freezing and boiling him alive. He could not get enough air.
He collapsed, convulsing with effort of keeping his mind in one piece, in one place. He felt her stand and seconds later she had him hauled up by his shirtfront, watching him struggle for breath. She lifted him higher until he was forced to look her in the eye. Her voice was pure venom and her breath felt like noxious fumes ghosting against his cheek.
"Name one reason why I should not claim your miserable soul, this instant, Peder Pannerson."
He gasped, the name striking him almost as hard as her hand, before she let him crumple to the ground, whimpering. She looked down at his pathetic form, eyes ablaze with hatred and contempt. He had never seen her so livid. He had to act quickly. He knew this. If he didn't, he'd never get another chance- not if he was dead.
But he was choking. He couldn't-
The queen snapped her fingers and the pressure eased. He slumped against the ground for a minute to catch his breath but quickly pushed himself into a sitting position. His tongue was clumsy in his mouth.
"I found it," he gasped, coughing dryly. He looked up at her, communicating with eyes red-rimmed and teary. "I found it."
Her sharp intake of breath was all he heard before the room swung violently and he passed out.
The minute his head touched the ground, the queen revived him, intent on knowing if he was speaking the truth. He awoke, head splitting, and barely conscious to the sound of her ordering him to bring evidence to support his claims- on pain of death.
He was too weak to summon his servants so he called for one instead. The boy, who'd been waiting outside, was uneasy in the queen's presence and doubly so at the sight of his master so incapacitated. He beckoned the boy closer, getting him to help him right himself before passing on the order.
"Bring up a sample of the latest…jewels for her majesty." Now.
The boy bowed and disappeared instantly.
The queen returned to her throne and her nails resumed their staccato beat. His cloak felt like lead upon his back and he massaged his throat to help the air through it. The large double doors at the end of the room slammed shut as the boy exited and the prince winced, feeling the sound reverberate painfully through his head. He pulled one knee up against his chest and let his head slump onto it, princely attitude be damned. The pain was still there, make no mistake; the queen was not letting him go just yet, but it did not have the same skull-splitting intensity, which was more than he could have hoped for at this point.
He was almost asleep by the time his servant returned, opalescent stones cleaned and buffed, presented in an ornate trinket box as was befitting a showing to the queen. The prince bowed his head from his position on floor unable to lift himself higher. The queen ordered her servant boy to take it from the younger boy and bring it to her for closer inspection. She lifted one carefully out of the box and held it to the light. Even from his low position, the prince did not miss the gleam that entered her eye.
"And how did you come upon these?" Her tone was carefully indifferent.
"You said you missed the gifts," said the prince quietly even as the queen raised a sardonic brow. "I had not forgotten."
"So certain, were you, that these were the treasures I sought?"
"No, my queen," he admitted. "But they closely matched your description of them so I was… hopeful."
She looked down her nose at him, her pupils no longer swallowing the whites of her eyes and the sight of it allowed him to breathe easier. She was pleased. He could tell, despite the pains she was taking to feign indifference.
"Very well," she said finally, her eyes lingering on him a moment longer. "Though I warn you against interpreting my…acceptance of this 'gift' as an act of clemency."
He inclined his head. "Of course not, my queen."
"I need to rest." The queen waved a hand at her servant boy and he closed the jewellery box though she kept her hold on the few in her hand. "I have travelled a long way." She flicked her eyes towards him, cold and sharp. "Do not disturb me before noon."
The prince bowed long and low, keeping his back parallel to the ground as she passed. The minute he felt her presence diminish and his mind drain of her venomous presence he summoned his head guard to him. He pulled his mask out from the confines of his cloak and fastened it across his face. Already he felt stronger. He got to his feet unsteadily and followed his servant out of the room.
They had till noon.
They descended the dark tunnels, feet slipping quietly over the uneven ground, urgency in their movements. The guard held the torch aloft, casting just enough light that the prince would not bump into him when he stopped. Clanging echoes of the miners pickaxes surrounded them and the prince's face was twisted with pain; it was like hey were picking at his brain. The prince's shoulders brushed the walls when he moved and he felt their jagged edges through the thin fabric of his tunic. It steadied him. He brushed aside his fatigue, willing away the burning behind his eyes and forced himself not to think too clearly about what he was endeavouring to accomplish by the end of the night. He needed to act, not think.
Deeper and deeper the boy led him, their feet fairly flying over the rutted ground. It was quieter here, for which the prince was thankful. The tunnel grew narrower and the walls glittered all the more brightly for it in the half-light. He allowed his hand to brush along the wall, collecting the glittering dust on his pals; a little extra never hurt. Finally their frenzied pace slowed and the boy stopped to open a small, crudely made wooden door. Inside two guards stood surrounded by carts of argentum waiting to be transported along the treacherous mountain routes to the queen's castle. But this was one of the deepest storage chambers and would not be relieved of its cargo for many weeks yet.
Between the two servants, barely discernible in the murky light, was Lynn. Her eyes shone like twin defiant emerald fires in the gloom. She was seated in the middle of the room on a small wooden chair, hands bound and mouth gagged. Her legs, propped on a low wooden crate, had bled through their bandages; her dress was torn and glittering dust streaked her hair and face. She made a choked noise through the gag when the prince stepped forwards and immediately strained against her binds.
He turned to glare at her two sentinels before noting the angry red scratches decorating their faces. They lowered their heads in contrition and he pursed his lips. Clearly his orders to not escape had not prevented her from wreaking minor havoc on his servants.
"Stop," he commanded, noting with displeasure the red spots blooming on the dirty cloths at her wrists. "Do not struggle."
The obsique flashed at her throat and instantly her movements were checked. He nodded at the guards and they quickly united her wrists. She flinched when he reached for her gag.
"Do not speak," he warned. The gem flashed again and the lines of her mouth tightened.
Wordlessly the two guards lifted the belligerent girl between them, one supporting her upper body, the other her broken legs. He checked them to ascertain they were not causing her any unnecessary pain before the party of four exited the storage chamber, the prince at the head, and began their gradual ascent to the surface.
The grounds outside the mine were swarming with workers and guards alike. The queen's servants would not have been deployed yet, tasked as they with with the readying of the palace. Still, no precaution was undue and he ordered a five minute delay between his emergence from the mines and his entourage's to avoid arousing suspicion. Once past the hustling expanse of the mine grounds that lay between the exit and the line of the forest, the prince's purposeful stride accelerated considerably.
He ignored the faint twinge as another thorny branch sliced his exposed cheek. With the queen newly arrived, tonight, the forest which was usually so attentive of him paid no heed to his meagre presence, and though it hindered his progress considerably, it was the first time he had considered the queen's presence an advantage. His sensitive hearing picked up the minute his servants set off from the mines and he noted with satisfaction their efforts to keep up. There was only one tree that still clamoured for his attention and as he marched towards it he regarded it with satisfaction. He paused at the edge of the western forest, waiting for his servants and their charge to catch up to him. The minute their feet passed the western border the prince transported them to his own palace with a suddenness that left them all unsteady on their feet.
His pace never slowed and he pulled the leaves and brambles out of his hair impatiently. His tree hummed louder the closer he got. It comforted him to think he had at least one creature under his command that did not need bewitching to inspire loyalty.
He stopped at its base and placed the flat of his left palm against the rough bark, feeling it thrum readily under his touch. His servants placed the girl at his feet and he pulled three, pilfered white gems from his pocket. He removed his hand from the tree and almost smiled when he felt it protest. He extracted his mask from inside his cloak and fastened it across his face briefly touching the tear-shaped jewel at his throat as well. The three servants arranged themselves in a half circle around him but he would only have strength to bring one of them tonight. He rolled the gems in his palm and muttered the low words of the spell he'd learned a lifetime ago. The gems began to glow, at his throat and face- the white ones most brightly of all- while his tree pulsed at his back. He replaced them in his pocket and lifted Lynn into his arms, resting his back against the shuddering bark of his tree.
The air charged around them, flashes of darkness chasing sparks of white; a new experience for him but he was too exhausted to take notice. The trees surrounding them shimmered; it would not be long now. Unbidden, his eyes fell to the green ones staring widely at him from the cradle of his arms. She looked scared, he mused. Darkness chased light in an unending spiral, trapping them in a vortex of light and shadow. The prince felt his feet lift and Lynn's head lolled forward in a dead slump against his chest.
The air was muggy and thick and the streetlights glowed through the haze of pollution like dimmed stars. The streets were empty this time of night and with a quietly muttered word the prince slunk through the shadows with only the moon to highlight his somber profile. She was warm and heavy in his arms and his hold tightened around her the closer they approached their destination. He overcame the barriers of walls and locked fences with ease and touched down lightly on the windowsill. With a signal to his guard to stand sentry outside he nudged the window open with his shoulder and stepped backwards into the room.
Dust motes rose to meet him as he crossed the carpeted floor, swirling around him in greeting. He walked over to the bed and laid her down gently, taking care not to jostle her legs. He hesitated. She looked pallid and sickly against the white lace of her bedspread and the moonlight slanting across her face only paled her complexion further. A bundle of firewood lay in the in fireplace and within moments there was a pleasant crackling in the hearth. Lynn murmured in her sleep, her brow creasing in pain. He returned to her bedside and glanced down at her legs. Silly girl.
He rubbed his hands together slowly to concentrate the energy in the muscles of his hands. He regretted not healing her sooner, but truth be told he'd never gotten the chance. Placing his palms on the breaks in both shinbones, one slightly higher than the other, he leaned over and murmured the incantation that would heal them. He maintained pressure on both breaks- fractures now- till he was certain they were fixed. Her expression smoothed. The skin was warm under his hands and he traced the imaginary cracks with his fingers before returning them to his sides.
"You will think me a dream by the time you awake," he said quietly. The door connecting her room to the nursery next door hovered in the periphery of his vision and his tone turned self-mocking. "Perhaps not even that."
He settled his weight carefully on the bed and stared at her quiet countenance, unhappiness creeping into the corners of his expression. Her chestnut locks were splayed across the white pillow in untamed perfection, her milky complexion fairly glowing in the pale moonlight. All this he could see and was denied. He could not covet this treasure without destroying it- or it destroying him- and the knowledge was a bitterness that spread to the very depths of his soul. It was a night like this that he'd first snatched her, he recalled. If he'd known then how much this frail little girl would come to mean to him, he could've been so much better prepared…
His wandering gaze was arrested by the pendant nestled in the hollow of her neck.
"Can't leave this here," he murmured, extracting the obsique with an expert flick. The pendant lay empty and jewel-less at the base of her throat. That wouldn't do. Slowly he extracted one of the white gems from his pocket and coaxed it into place. Much better.
At length he stood, conflict raging in the blue eyes beneath the mask. She looked so peaceful, free of the wildness that had consumed her after he'd found her again; so much like she was before. From this close he could see the light sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose; the high, clear swathe of her forehead; the long spidery lashes that rested on cheeks that were so captivating when tinted with colour- and his resolve crumbled.
Sighing at his own folly, he threw himself into the chair beside the fire and stared into the flickering flames as he waited.
Her mind felt muggy and her head heavy. She raised a hand to her forehead and the torrent of memories flooding her mind left her dizzy and fighting for breath; she had to stop waking up like this. As her senses slowly caught up to her she realised the sheets were far too soft under her fingers to be considered a good thing. She was reluctant to open her eyes but it was the smell that aroused her suspicion.
She sat up slowly. That scent, so familiar yet so impossible… Warm firelight bathed the room and though it was gentle on her eyes she blinked them till tears welled. She was dreaming; the smell, the lace bedspread, all of it some elaborate dream she'd concocted to comfort herself. She looked down at her clothes and found them to be the same dirty, torn rags she'd been wearing in the prince's realm. Her hand shot to her throat and closed around the amulet resting cold and heavy against her collarbone. She tugged at it ineffectually; it would not come off.
The firelight hesitated across her face and she squinted into the gloom, fingers tightening painfully around the accursed amulet. "Who's there?"
He detached himself from the shadows and Lynn felt bile rise in her throat. Her eyebrows came together in a frown and she looked away bitterly. "I should have known."
His continued silence irked her.
"I suppose this is some elaborated illusion you've produced to satiate me," she began hotly. "Well, let me-"
"It is no illusion."
She paused mid-rant and frowned at him again. "You're lying."
He stepped back, his heavy cloak swinging behind him. "See for yourself."
"How can I? My legs are-"
"I have healed your legs," he interrupted quietly.
She closed her mouth again and pulled the covers back to see her legs indeed healed. Chagrined, she disentangled herself from her bedsheets and stood up. The fire crackled comfortingly in the hearth and he stayed respectfully out of her way while she made her inspection. It seemed real enough and when she leaned her head out of the window and was greeted by the familiar fumes of London she was convinced. She turned to him, confused.
"I don't understand… why would you take me home?" When he did not reply her tone quickly turned suspicious. "Or are you here to steal more children? I won't-"
"Stop," he said wearily, raising a hand. He looked at her for a moment but the mask hid his eyes from her and she could not tell what he was thinking. "You don't trust me to do you any good, do you?"
Her silence was answer enough.
"I have returned you," was all he said. "I have no other business here tonight."
She was still skeptical when suddenly it came to her; the amulet!
"Why can't I take it off?" She demanded, fingers tugging against the stone.
He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. The stone flashed white under her chin.
"You may remove it now, if you wish."
She halted, the chain sliding between her fingers. There was something unspoken in his statement. "Why wouldn't I?"
"You do not trust me; the matter is irrelevant." He sounded…annoyed.
"Tell me," she demanded; being in her own home had emboldened her.
"I placed protective enchantments on it while you were asleep," he retorted. "Obviously, you will think I am lying, so as I said, you may remove it if you wish."
She let the chain drop against her neck. "Why? Who do I need protecting from?"
He hesitated. "No one."
She stared at him for a long while before shaking her head. "I don't understand you," she said finally. "I don't understand you at all." She walked to the window feeling his eyes on her back and hugging her arms around her. "I don't understand how the two reconcile; on the one hand you take me home and heal my injuries, and on the other Her voice broke and she muffled her sobs against the flat of her palm. "On the other hand you enslave children and kill an entire ship full of people without a thought." She turned to him then, emerald eyes spilling tears down her cheeks. "My brothers are lost to me; Michael, John- I'll never see them again." His expression remained empty and her voice turned to incredulity and desperation. "How could you do that? Don't you feel anything? Any thing at all?"
"No." He looked away. "Not until recently." His eyes flicked to her face but she did not understand. She told him as much. "I am a servant; I carry out my orders as they are given to me. I do not- cannot- feel emotion."
There was something raw and painful in his voice that touched her heart.
"The queen rules the island; I am merely her errand boy."
Unexpectedly, he ripped the mask from his face and turned it over in his hands. He looked down as he spoke. "For more than a century I carried out my duties faultlessly and without question- and then you, with your delicate face and eyes like emeralds, you make me feel things I have no right to feel; you come along and I lose everything."
Feathers began to fall from the mask in his growing agitation.
"How can it be that a single human girl has the power to fell a prince imbued with fey blood with a single glance? How is it that a mere tear fallen from her lash can convince him to commit transgressions at the risk of his own life- when the queen herself has made it so that I cannot change?" His voice raised in fervour and his blue eyes shook, looking hurt and confused as they burned into her own. "Why am I so powerless against you?"
She was shocked into silence.
He turned away roughly but he could not hide how his shoulders trembled or how loud his breathing was in the deathly quiet of the room.
She waited, not daring to speak for fear she'd say the wrong thing. She didn't- couldn't understand how she could possibly wield such a power over him but it distressed her to see him so anguished at her expense. She moistened her lips.
"Wh-why do you suppose that is?" Her tone was light, tentative; encouraging.
His shoulders stilled suddenly and he turned to her with the saddest, smallest, most heartbreaking smile she'd ever seen twisting his lips; the sight of it touched her to the quick. His voice was so soft she almost missed the words.
"You remind me of my mother."
And Lynn was reminded of a memory given to her lifetime ago, about young, beautiful boy who'd grown up too fast with sorrows he'd not known to bear.
"Aria," she whispered.
The name parted his lips and bought tears to his eyes. Eyes that spoke volumes; I cannot hurt you, she read in them. But you have the power to destroy me. Do you see that now?
"It pains me to see you cry," he admitted quietly.
Her gaze skittered and she dashed the salt drops away with her fingers. Her heart felt pulled in a million directions; how could she blame him when she saw him looking so young and so naked in his defences before her? Nothing was as simple as she'd believed.
"What did you mean," she began, "when you said you couldn't feel emotion?"
The moisture receded in his eyes and he spread his hands. "I can- could not. As I said, it was only after your arrival that it began."
Lynn shook her head, confusion scrunching her brow. "No, I'm sure you mean that metaphorically." She looked up in time to see a faint smile hovering at the corners of his lips. "You can't mean that literally."
"It is the truth. Happiness, sadness, guilt; I was removed from it all."
Lynn could not wrap her mind around it. "But... how?"
"It was part of my contract."
He nodded. "The contract between the queen and I." His eyes darkened but there was a touch of sadness there too.
"And how long ago was this…contract written?"
The prince's smile was mocking but he did not elaborate. "A century or more, perhaps. I do not keep track."
"Why?" The word was dry as it left her mouth and he looked at her queerly before answering.
"Why did I sign the contract?" She nodded. "I do not remember."
There was silence for a while, each occupied in their own thoughts.
"I'm sorry," she said finally, hating how hollow and inadequate the words were.
But the prince only shook his head. "It was inevitable."He stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight, revealing a narrow face and a long, slender nose to match. Dark slanting eyebrows arched over pale lids and long eyelashes brushed the high cheekbones beneath; Aesop's predictions had come true, she thought ruefully. His gaze was intent. "In time, I hope you come to forgive me."
"Of course." But her smile wobbled at the edges.
"Truly I did not wish the death of your brothers," he murmured, lowering his face so she could read the honesty of it in his eyes. "I only wished to ensure your safety from those whom I'd thought intended you harm."
It was useless to try explain the truth to him so she bit her lip as the salty tears slid down her cheeks. He brushed the tears away with his fingers before stepping back, melancholy in his expression.
"I must go."
His hands rose to his face and when he lowered them, both mask and expression were firmly in place. "Keep the necklace on your person," he said, stepping towards the open window. "It will keep you safe."
She clutched the pendant in her fist and nodded soundlessly.
His eyes glittered behind the mask and she knew this was farewell.
She took a step forwards. He hesitated, his eyes flickering with confusion. Wiping her eyes she put one foot in front of the other till she was standing right in front of him. Slowly, so as not to startle him, she wound her arms around his torso, pressing her face into his shoulder. He smelled like the forest.
He was broken, this boy; she saw that now. And while that did not absolve him of his crimes, she could not find it in her heart to think of him as a criminal; he had returned her home, and for that she was grateful.
She could hear his heart, fluttering and uncertain in his chest and she risked wrapping her arms a little tighter.
"Take care of yourself, Peder."
There was a sharp intake of breath- or maybe it was the sound of air rushing out as her bedroom door opened, but when she finally opened her eyes the dark prince had disappeared and she found herself surrounded by her mother and father's fierce embrace, hot tears raining down on her face and neck. No wonder he'd taken off so quickly. From the shelter of her parents' arms she looked from the billowing drapes of her open window to the clear night sky beyond.
"Thank you, my prince," she whispered.
Her mother was weeping at the scratches on her face and tattered dress and her father was threatening to murder the scoundrels who'd taken his daughter but Lynn only had eyes for the skies.
"What on earth are you smiling at, child?"
The second star to the right flashed once before dimming, scattering the twinkling lights and the words written in them them. Lynn shook her head, burying her face into the crook of her mother's neck.
"It's nothing, Mother." Her eyes wetted with tears as she breathed in the familiar perfume. "I'm just glad to be home."
A/N: In an alternate universe (say about a week ago) this chapter was ready to publish with the prince leaving before Lynn had the chance to wake up and him basically leaving completely heartbroken. Luckily, I stabbed that authoress in the back before she had the chance.
I would never have finished this story without you guys. Thank you for pushing me when I was sure the written word was a curse and for motivating me with your reviews when writer's block had me by the throat. I hope you enjoyed this story as much as I did writing it; you've made it a blast.
P.S. There is an epilogue on the way but this is the end of Lynn and the Prince; if you want to issue a complaint, head down to askanonymouse. tumblr. com ;)