Chapter Eighteen: Innocence Lost
A/N: So I know it's been a long time - but this is the final chapter of Tainted Crown. I'm hoping to have the first chapter of the sequel, Fatal Sin, up soon. Please let me know what you think!
Content warning for dub-con.
Merridy glanced at the blood that stained her hands, then at her child, whose blue eyes were wide and innocent. She looked back at the body. She had killed someone in front of Hyperion. The knowledge that her son had seen her commit such an ugly act only made her stomach coil tighter. Dommiel walked up to her, looking at the blood on her hands and spattered across her face.
"No." Merridy's voice was soft and detached. She wiped at her face with her sleeve, only serving to smear the blood. "It's not mine."
Dommiel looked down saw the small dagger in her hands, stained with blood. He glanced back at the Gifted One's body and then his wife, eyes widening slightly as he realised what had happened.
"You killed him?"
Merridy's hands clenched into fists. "He threatened to kill the children."
"He threatened my son?!" Dommiel thundered, sounding outraged.
Merridy blinked, her tone remaining flat. "Your son, your sister, your niece."
"And you," Dommiel pointed out, but Merridy merely shrugged. He had never really seen her as having any true value. She was used to it – she was a political playing piece in his game, as Chalix had always assured her she would be.
"I am but a pawn."
"But you are mine," Dommiel reminded her, and she realised that they had reached the heart of the matter. Some small, pathetic part of her had hoped he actually may care for her wellbeing, and while it seemed he did, it hadn't been in the way she'd wanted. "And I don't like having my things threatened."
"What happens when you have a possession destroyed?" Merridy asked quietly. "You get a new one."
"You've just had your first kill. We need to get you away from the body." Dommiel sighed and went to pick up his son, who was sucking his thumb, before he turned to Merridy. "Come."
Merridy trailed after him to their rooms, sitting down heavily on the bed, oblivious to the blood still spattered across her face. Dommiel put Hyperion down in his cot in the adjacent room, settling him in before striding back in, kneeling in front of her. It wasn't concern in his blue eyes, but curiosity. Merridy's hands were shaking as her husband pried the dagger from her clenched fist, setting the bloodied weapon on the bedside table.
"We need to get you cleaned up," he insisted. She nodded and rubbed at the blood with her sleeve, but he batted her hand down and did it himself, picking up an old shirt of his own and wiping her face clean. "Merridy, do you know who the guards stationed with you were? They were meant to protect you both, but there was no sign of them that I saw. I want them killed, if they haven't been already."
"Tomas and Lucan," Merridy replied blankly, the words tumbling from between her lips as though she had no care for the men. In reality, she was still numb to everything, else she would know how the two men would suffer when they faced Dommiel's wrath.
Dommiel nodded, rising to toss the bloodstained shirt aside. "I'll see to it."
Merridy glanced at the blood on her sleeves. It sickened her, what she had done. She could still see the blood spurting from the wound that she had created. She had ended a man's life, and was changed because of it. Wouldn't it be better to feel something other than this coldness, than the guilt that she had taken a life? She made her decision, a dangerous one, and got to her feet.
"Yes?" He examined her critically.
Merridy didn't know what drove her to kiss him, but she did. A part of her was screaming in horror at what she was doing, but the rest of her was drowning too much to care. She would rather feel guilt for submitting to her husband than guilt for slicing open a man's throat. Merridy focused her full attention on Dommiel, just wanting to forget everything else. She slid her arms around his neck, pressing against him.
Dommiel was surprised at his wife's sudden willingness. For two years, Merridy had defied him, fought him. He didn't understand why she was suddenly surrendering herself to him, but he didn't care either. He held her close and kissed her hard, watching in fascination as she drew back to fumble with the ties of her dress.
"This is good," he breathed. Dommiel had the suspicion that it was to do with the day's events that had inspired Merridy's willingness, but it wasn't as though he was complaining.
Merridy unlaced her corset, taking his hands and putting them on her breasts. She knew that she would feel sick at his touch later, but for now, she felt nothing. She just wanted to purge the death from her mind and get herself filthy in ways other than the blood on her hands. Dommiel groped at her, leaning in and kissing her neck. She tilted her head to the side, letting his lips burn shameful fire down her neck as she slid her hands up his chest.
He quickly removed his shirt and then had his hands back on her body. Merridy pushed him onto the bed, climbing on top of him and fiddling with the buckle of his belt. She didn't want to play a long and torturous game. She wanted it over, so she could lock herself inside her walls once more. Dommiel smirked and slid his hands up her body.
"I'm rather enjoying this."
"Stop talking," Merridy snapped. Words played no part in this. It wasn't about anything emotional or mental, it was purely physical. Dommiel wanted her to have sex with him? She would, then. She would give in completely to him, and let that be her atonement for what she had done. It didn't make sense, she knew that. Yet all she wanted was to forget about the fact that she had committed the ultimate crime.
Merridy kissed him sensuously, pushing his pants down. Dommiel groaned lightly against her lips. She could feel his arousal, how much he wanted her, and it made her both sick and satisfied. She rolled them so that he was on top of her, running her hands down his muscled back. Dommiel thrust into her without any hesitation, kissing her fiercely, running his hands up to her chest and groping her. She wrapped her legs around his waist and ran her fingers through his blonde hair, wondering if he actually believed she truly wanted this.
Dommiel trailed heated kisses down Merridy's neck as she put her arms around him, silently begging for it to be over as his movements became quicker and harder. She ran her hands up and down his back and he climaxed within her, groaning in pleasure. She swallowed hard, feeling disgusted at herself…which was exactly what she'd wanted. Dommiel rolled off her and pulled her so that she was lying on top of him, smirking as she shifted uncomfortably.
"You know why I did it?" Merridy demanded of him. Now that the moment was over and the hot fire had burned out, she was ice cold once more.
"I'm hoping you wanted to," Dommiel said mildly, "But I imagine your answer will run different lines."
"How old were you when you first killed?" Merridy inquired as she rolled off him. She wanted to make it very clear to her husband that this did not mean she wanted him. She would never want him, could never love him. Dommiel had abused her too much, thought too little of her for her to ever subject herself meekly to that kind of degradation. It had tempted her from time to time, to make things easier. Yet Merridy could not unbend her pride enough to take the easy path and submit to a man who had treated her so cruelly.
He turned on his side, leaning casually on one elbow and examining her. "Merridy, you did what you did to save our son, and yourself. Whatever else, it doesn't matter. He deserved to die."
"He was doing what he thought was right," Merridy murmured. For, after all, were not their actions based on their beliefs? The Gifted Ones did not believe in the darkness and the light, in the goddess Lux and the god Nox. Should they truly be condemned because their strengths came with mystery, because they were suspected of a death five years past? "Perhaps those were his orders."
"Then he knew the risk of death and took it." Dommiel's tone was dismissive, and her resolve hardened against him once more. Of course, that was all he saw it was, blind devotion to a faceless leader – but if Farlan told Dommiel to jump from a ledge, it was more likely he would push Farlan off instead. There was no devotion in the court of Sidrum. "It's not for you to feel guilty about a choice he made."
"If I was as weak as you thought I was, Hyperion and I would both be corpses."
"It's because you weren't that you're both still alive," Dommiel assured her, "Had you faltered, I'd have lost my heir and wife."
When Merridy spoke, her tone was sarcastic. "Oh yes, which would have devastated you."
"It would have been something I should like to avoid," Dommiel drawled, which only made Merridy hate him even more. He spoke in riddles, never answering her questions as though it was intelligent to dodge them. "Believe it or not, I do love my son. Your position would make you impossible to replace."
Merridy was filled with a new disgust. That was all Dommiel cared about: the fact that she was second in line to the throne after Chalix. If she ever became Queen, he saw that he would become the driving force because of her status as a woman. She remained silent for a few moments, contemplating.
"Do you care about me at all?"
"Not in the way you mean," Dommiel responded, which irritated Merridy. She did not mean the sort of childish love she had never truly dreamed of possessing. Even when she had first been betrothed to him aged twelve, she had known that their union would always be a loveless one. "I want you, and in a lot of ways, I need you around."
"To take care of our son, you mean," Merridy remarked, although she was hardly complaining. Hyperion was one of the more joyful things in her life, something that made her think perhaps her marriage to Dommiel was worth it. She could take it all back, but not her son. She sighed heavily and sat up, tugging the sheets around her chest. Dommiel put his arms around her waist and pulling her close. She didn't pull away, too deep in thought about the events of the day.
"They came for a reason," she surmised.
"The Gifted Ones?" Dommiel did not appear particularly interested. "Revenge, no doubt."
"It's been five years," Merridy was thinking aloud now. "Why now?"
Dommiel shrugged nonchalantly. "Perhaps they were simply gathering their strength and planning their strike. Perhaps it was because of the executions. Not that it did them any good."
Merridy leaned against him absently. "Did you kill of them?"
"We killed most." Dommiel held her close, rather enjoying her dream-like state in that it made her compliant. "I think perhaps a couple may have been spared for questioning."
"Was it quick?" Merridy asked suddenly.
Dommiel seemed unbothered, almost bored. "We didn't take time to notice."
Merridy bit her lip. "Farlan would never authorise all of them killed."
"Then he is weak." Dommiel sneered at the mention of his King. "No doubt the reason that the Gifted Ones could infiltrate so far into the palace is because he is far too soft-hearted to be fit to rule and keep his kingdom safe."
"You can't eliminate an entire type of person," Merridy objected, "Some are children, or little more than. And my brother is not soft."
"You must eliminate them in one shot," Dommiel insisted, his strong tone indicating how passionately he hated the Gifted Ones. "Otherwise they come back to bite you, as dear Farlan is finding out. Had they all been eradicated in the first attack upon the Temple, this wouldn't have happened. It was a foolish lapse that could easily have been avoided."
Merridy tugged away from him, appalled. She did not like the Gifted Ones any more than Dommiel or Chalix or Jupiter, but she did not possess the blind hatred she saw from her husband now. These were rebels, a small group that didn't necessarily represent the vast majority. Yet Dommiel would eliminate all the Gifted Ones for such a small defiance. He watched her contemptuously.
"You have as soft a heart as your misguided brother."
Merridy kept facing away from him, a small smile tweaking at her lips. "You know, I used to fit Jupiter's crossbow for him before he got the hang of it."
"You've killed one man, Merridy," Dommiel reminded her, his tone growing sharper now that he saw the hidden threats in his wife's comment. "Don't let that get to your head and make you think you are suddenly more than you really are."
"Ah, but I'm not the helpless little girl you've always taken me for," Merridy replied with saccharine sweetness.
Dommiel's blue eyes narrowed. Despite the fact that the events of the day had proven that Merridy was not a defenceless young woman, she was far from being able to do anything that would harm him.
"You've hardly shown yourself to be a threat either."
"Your arrogance blinds you," Merridy informed him coolly, pulling on her dress and lacing it up. She did feel horrible now, for consenting to let her husband bed her. Of course, it was a regular occurrence for most married couples – as indeed it was for them – but Merridy had always thought that to be the only time in their marriage when she resisted Dommiel. Now she hadn't even done that. She had submitted, as he had said.
"Your habit of thinking you have power gives you that same arrogance," Dommiel retorted, causing her to whirl around, green eyes flaring with anger. He got to his feet and pulling his pants back on while Merridy walked into the adjoining room and picked up Hyperion from his cradle. "In one breath you try asserting some kind of power, and name me arrogant, and with the next you deny any of it in yourself."
Merridy continued to ignore Dommiel, jiggling Hyperion and stroking his fair hair. He did look so much like his father that it was hard sometimes, hard for Merridy to see any of herself in the child. Dommiel walked up behind her.
"Don't accuse people of blindness, when you yourself cannot see."
Hyperion waved his little fists, burbling. "Papa!"
Merridy sighed heavily at her son's words being for his father and not for her, and Dommiel smiled encouragingly and took Hyperion from her.
"No!" Merridy exclaimed, still in a bit of a state of shock from the earlier attack. She snatched her son back and held him close to her. Even if Dommiel was her husband and Hyperion's father, even if he did love their son as much as she did, she was not comfortable with her child being taken from her in such a manner.
"Merridy, calm down." Dommiel frowned, his tone warning. He watched as she buried her face in Hyperion's blonde hair and forced back tears. The child was a bit unsettled. "You're making our son uncomfortable."
"You won't take him from me," Merridy insisted.
"Relax, he's my son, I have every right to hold him when he calls for me." Dommiel tried to placate her, although she still seemed rather hysterical, holding Hyperion tight and taking a step away from him. He stepped closer, his voice becoming firmer. "Stop this."
"Please, just let me hold him," Merridy insisted, causing Dommiel to sigh heavily. When he made no attempt to take Hyperion, she murmured soft, soothing words to her son.
"You can't hold onto him forever," Dommiel reminded her.
Merridy kissed her child's head. "For now."
The cathedral was not a place Arilyn often entered for prayer, as she preferred the private confines of her rooms away from any prying eyes or curious ears. However, as the battle raged out outside the walls of the city, Arilyn found that time in the cathedral was precisely what she needed. Although the Gifted Ones had suffered great losses in the initial assault, they were powerful and hungry for revenge. They had not yet breached the city walls, but although their numbers were dwindling, Arilyn suspected it was just a matter of time.
"Did you hear the news?"
Arilyn turned from her place in the pews, surprised that she had not noticed the Princess kneeling before the statue of Nox with her hands clasped before her. Now Merridy pushed herself to her feet gracefully. Arilyn noticed her bare feet by the lack of noise the Princess made as she crossed the cathedral to sit beside her. A small smile dawned across Merridy's lips, but it didn't seem to reach her eyes.
"The battle is finally over." The words were murmured as if they themselves were a prayer. "Farlan and his men have won. The Gifted Ones have fled, aside from several that were taken prisoner."
Arilyn bit her lip as she watched her friend. The Princess kept looking towards the statue of Nox and although she should be enthusiastic about the end of a battle, she seemed only weary and grim.
"Are you not pleased?"
"Of course I'm pleased," Merridy almost snapped, before she took a deep breath to regain her composure. "Just…things are happening. Occurrences that disturb me. Not all is well. The battle may be over, but the war rages, in different ways."
Arilyn observed her critically. "What are you talking about?"
"Chalix." It almost felt like an effort for Merridy to say the word, like lifting a heavy stone. "Some of the Gifted Ones that had been captured – almost all of them, in fact – were executed by his order. They were meant to be kept for interrogation, but…something changed. I don't think Farlan authorised this, though."
Arilyn thought on this in solemn silence. It was indeed odd for the Crown Prince to order such executions without the King's permission. However, it was not as though it could be taken back. Even Gifted Ones could not reattach their heads. Merridy seemed to be troubled by this, and Arilyn was beginning to understand why. There must be a reason why Chalix was so determined to silence the Gifted Ones.
"There's so much I don't understand." Merridy leaned forward, crumbling like the walls of the city nearly had. Arilyn watched as her friend buried her face in her hands. She had never thought it would haunt her so much to take a life, even if it had been necessary. "I am no better than him, or any of them. I am a murderer."
"Merridy…" Arilyn's voice was soft as she reached out a hand to touch the Princess's shoulder. They both understood why Merridy had killed that Gifted One. If she hadn't…Arilyn didn't like to think where they would be now. "You had to."
"I would do it again," Merridy's voice was tearful and she glanced almost pleadingly at Arilyn. "I would kill him a thousand times over to protect us. To save my son. Does that make me a monster? Because if it does, I would gladly stay one."
It was a cold truth and hard to face, but she might as well accept it. Merridy would do anything for her little Hyperion. She loved him fiercely, even more so than she loved Farlan. He was her child – she had carried him, given birth to him and now she cherished him. Despite the fact that her marriage to Dommiel was loveless and strained, it had given her Hyperion. For that sole reason, she would never take any of it back. Much as the memories of the violence and the rapes sickened her, without it, she would not have her little boy.
"I would have," Arilyn stated, her tone quiet but then growing in volume and intensity. "But I didn't. I just sat there and did nothing. It was left up to you to defend us all…because I froze."
The Princess remained silent for some time. Would Hyperion ever remember this, when he grew up? Would the memory of seeing his mother kill a man pervade his thoughts, even his dreams? She reached across and clutched at Arilyn's hand as though it was the only thing that was real. In truth, Arilyn was all that seemed to make sense anymore. Even Merridy herself was slowly going under, slipping into the same pool of unwarranted violence as her brother, her cousin, her husband. She only hoped that it wasn't too late to save herself.
Cavendish rather thought that defeat suited him. It had made both him and his people stronger, and only served to harden his resolve. He was not normally a man of vengeance, but the Crown Prince had authorised the death of Deliana. His sister. His hands curled into tight fists of rage. She had been a sweet girl, who had not wanted to harm anyone. This just proved the vulgarity of the royal house of Dolorin, and how the stain of their corruption must be wiped from Sidrum once and for all.
Staring out over the blood-red sunrise, Cavendish was more than aware that they were not lost, not this time. They had lost the battle, but they could still win the war. The Dolorin family had taken what was most dear to Cavendish. They had destroyed any faith that he might have had in them, any expectation of mercy. So he would strike back, and strike hard. This time, he would not fight the glorious battle on the field. This time, he would play dirty, as they had.
"You miss her." Mordechai, a lethal hydrokinetic, stepped up beside Cavendish. The younger man missed Deliana also – Cavendish remembered teasing Mordechai for his rather obvious affection for her. But now she was gone, wiped off the face of the earth, because of one man's hatred. Chalix Dolorin.
"I will end him." Cavendish spoke softly, but there was no denying the venom in his tone. He had been willing to forgive, almost, because that was what Deliana had wanted. Now for all her fierce hopes, his sister had been slaughtered by the very people she had tried to get him to have faith in.
"How?" Mordechai glanced quizzically at the General. "You saw what they did, Cavendish. Do we really want to fight them again and be slaughtered like animals?"
"No." Cavendish watched as the sun peered out across the horizon, caressing them with its warmth. "This time, things will be different."
There was one weakness within the royal house of Dolorin, a chink in their armour – which could also be his salvation. If he wanted to completely annihilate them, there was still one link to the throne that could make any claimant legitimate. It was only a matter of marriage. The key to his victory was simple. A young woman with fire coursing through her veins, whose life Chalix valued even if he pretended not to.