Inspired by this post over on Amanda Patterson’s tumblr, I will be writing 52 short stories this year. Some, like this one, very short, and some longer! If you’re joining me in this endeavor, leave a link in the comments so we can find your stories! -M
He had been watching her across the marketplace for a few minutes before she caught a glimpse of him. At first, he watched for the way the sunlight caught in her hair, for the graceful curves of her body as she bent to pick fruit. He considered telling his guards to bring her to him, but it had been so long since he had hunted…
The girl cast a glance over her shoulder, and her cheeks flushed pink with pleasure when she noticed his gaze. She dropped her eyes, then flicked them up to meet his once more; her blush deepened when he beckoned to her, and she hesitated, but she walked through the crowd to stand before him.
“Where are your attendants?” he asked her silkily, and she flushed, tucked a lock of hair behind her ear.
“They aren’t…they’re not used to the city.”
He had only then noticed the crest she wore, and he reached out to touch the clasp that lay against the pale skin of her throat. He felt her breath quicken, and felt his pulse begin to pound.
“Demmer,” he said. “What a very long time it’s been since your house has allowed one of its maidens to come south.” And what a treasure they had been hiding! Who could have known that old Dennion would produce a daughter so glorious as this?
“How do you…who are you?”
His black eyes flashed with mirth. “Ah, you would not know, would you?
Never you mind, my dear. Your father would find no fault with me.” Oh, he might complain, Dennion would – they kept the old customs in the house of Demmer, spurned the markets and clamor of the south.
But there was nothing the old man could do now to prevent it. The man felt his heart speed. Oh, he had wanted this for so long – her blood could produce an heir such as none had ever seen. When the priests were done with this son, the world would know the full power of the Empire.
And now, in a moment, she had practically fallen into his lap. How very fortuitous.
He reached out to stroke her cheek, and felt the denials and protests come to her lips, unvoiced, choked off. He reached out with his magic, let it flow deep into her mind, and saw the flash of fear.
As he leaned forward to kiss her, he let his eyes drift closed with pleasure, the laziness of a hunt completed, and so he never saw how precisely her look of satisfaction mirrored his own.
“Apple?” She held out a slice to him, and he caught her hand, kissed it.
“I cut my finger.” She looked embarrassed, then surprised as he licked away the blood and pulled her close for a kiss on the lips. He felt he could drown in the innocence in her eyes. The apple was sweet, and the skin broke against his teeth as he chewed.
He watched her lazily for a moment, enjoying the way the sunlight through the stained glass lit her hair red and purple. His head was fuzzy now, and he licked his lips—they were numb. He tried to bite them, raised his fingers to his mouth, and very dimly heard a crash; he must have knocked over his goblet. The world was disappearing in a haze, a ringing in his ears, and all he could see was her face: impassive, but strangely alight. She did not seem worried, and even as he felt
the seizure take him, she only sat, eyes fixed on him. It was not until he saw the rest of the apple and the stain of her blood that he realized what it all meant. And by then it was far too late.
When it was over, Caralla knelt by his body and closed his eyes, almost gently. She was shaking, her blood singing with the power of the spell, her energy terribly low. It had taken all of her considerable power to bind a poison strong enough for this. Even then, he would have been proof against it if he had known, if he had suspected.
It’s not over, she told herself. There is one more.
But carefully, it must be done with caution. The priests would be here soon.
Caralla drew a hairpin from her hair, dragged her fingers down one side to muss it, bit her lips for color, and knelt forward, her hands on the Emperor’s shoulders. Then, after a considered moment, she opened her mouth and began to scream hysterically for the guards.
Caralla pounded on the door, her fist sticky with blood, and tightened her other hand around the little girl’s—the girl who was, at present, sobbing loudly.
“Be quiet,” Caralla snapped.
The wails choked off with a hiccup, and the empress sighed, kneeling to put one arm around the child. The girl had just lost her father, what could she be expected to do but cry?
Caralla pushed away the thought that the little princess shouldn’t have known. That there was a gleam in her eyes, now, that looked suspiciously like the madness Caralla knew all too well. Best to feed her an apple and be done with it, some part of her mind whispered at her, but there was still a chance the spells could be undone.
The sound of a cart out on the nearby road made Caralla hunch her shoulders. The midday heat was stifling and her heavy cloak made it no better, but she must not be seen. The emperor, that mad, power-hungry fool, had made sure everyone in the kingdom knew how beautiful his bride was. The bride the priests promised would gift him with sons. The bride he’d snatched from the market and married even before word could be sent to her family.
In that, of course, she had encouraged him with just the faintest resistance, hiding her smiles as he overrode her protests. It would hardly do for him to have found out who she truly was. None of them could know until the plan was complete. She had no illusions about what would happen then, and just for a moment, her fingertips drifted up the inside of her left arm, along the tattoo that held the spell to kill her mercifully before they could put her on a pyre.
The empire would be free. That was all that mattered.
She was raising her hand to knock again when the door swung inward.
“Caralla!” The woman fell back as Caralla pushed past her into the house, the girl in tow. Her eyes flicked to the girl, and Caralla knew what her cousin saw: behind the tears was a girl of rare prettiness, with thick black hair and skin as pale as morning’s first blush. A full mouth, with lips of a deep red, and black eyes. Behind the eyes…something unsettling.
“Eisa, my darling,” Caralla said. “Take a seat. I’m sure Avenine has some cider for you.”
“Of course.” The woman went quickly into the kitchen and took down two mugs, filled them with cider from an earthenware jug, and set one in front of Eisa. The other she handed to Caralla.
Caralla waited until the girl was absorbed in drinking the cider, rich and tangy, and then she looked over at the other woman.
“I need your help,” she said, bluntly, in the Old Tongue.
“Who is she?”
Caralla hesitated a moment. She wanted so badly to tell her cousin the truth. But in this, she realized, she could not trust even Avenine. The moment had come to lie; she pushed down her uneasiness and told a version of the truth. “I rescued her from the priests. She has…power, immense power, and…Avenine, I cannot tell you the things they would have done to her. The magics they practice are…I had to bring her here.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Someone will come for her, a huntsman. Until then…someone needs to look after her. Someone who can see her magic.”
“What sort of magic…” Avenine darted a glance at the girl, who looked back; Caralla saw her cousin hold back a flinch.
“I fear it has already been twisted.”
“You cannot possibly expect me to—”
“I need your help—she needs your help!” Her voice was high, attracting Eisa’s attention. “I’m sorry, love,” she soothed the girl, and then she drew Avenine further away, lowered her voice, superstitiously afraid that the girl would understand her purpose here. Who knew what powers lay dormant, or what small action could trigger the girl’s powerful self-protection?
“I have a spell. You must help me with it; it will bind her magic down. I just need time, Avenine, I need to learn how to heal what they have done.”
Avenine looked over at the girl.
“I swear to you,” Caralla whispered, “I would not ask it if there was another who could help me.” She should not be asking at all. The girl should be dead on the floor of her rooms, her line ended forever. But somewhere behind those spells…was a little girl.
Avenine’s shoulders slumped. “Tell me what I must do.”