Chapter One: Costly Mistakes
A/N: So uh, welcome to the first chapter of the sequel. If you haven't read Tainted Crown, you'd best do so or you won't understand anything going on in this story.
Content warnings will be posted for each chapter. This one has implied dub-con.
Dommiel would often hear the fiddle as Merridy practised it. The sounds had developed from impatiently repeated fragments to well-rehearsed songs. Sometimes it would be joyful tunes that seemed to lighten her heart and make her smile more often. Recently, though, her fiddle cried out in a lament for all of the soldiers who had died protecting the city from invasion by the Gifted Ones.
He opened the door to find Hyperion on the bed, seemingly spellbound as he listened to the musical magic his mother created. The child's attention immediately turned towards the source of the disturbance as Merridy's fingers faltered and stopped, a wide smile crossing his face as he saw his father.
"Isn't it time for bed?" Dommiel inquired, crossing the room to pick his son up. Merridy watched him from her chair, fiddle still in her hands. She made no objection as Dommiel entered the adjoining room and set Hyperion in his cot, before returning and closing the door softly behind him. "Why don't you play anything happy anymore?"
"What is there to be happy about?" Merridy inquired, removing the pages of music from where she had set them up and setting her fiddle back in its velvet-lined case. It closed with a snap and she looked towards Dommiel, who arched an eyebrow.
"Should you not be pleased that all is well? The battle is won, Merridy."
"All is well?" She turned to face him, her head tilted to the side and her green eyes questioning. Was it possible that not even Dommiel, Chalix's closest friend, knew the motives behind the Crown Prince's recent, baffling actions? Not only had he authorised the deaths of several Gifted Ones, but there was also the oddity that was two of his servants being executed for unknown treason. Merridy knew better than to question her brother, however. "How is all well? It's Chalix. Can't you see, Dommiel? Something has happened, he is plotting something, I know it."
"Perhaps he is," Dommiel replied enigmatically, causing Merridy to watch him with narrowed eyes. So maybe her husband was aware of what was occurring after all. She gripped the back of the chair and pushed herself to her feet, a determination coursing through her veins. She had always been persistent and now she was adamant on discovering answers, no matter the cost. She already had a suspicion that she knew what the asking price would be.
"Will you tell me?" Merridy asked quietly, and Dommiel was slightly surprised at the lack of venom in her voice. There was almost a silent plea there and he hesitated momentarily, before he firmly reminded himself that he could not afford to let his guard down around this woman. Merridy was cunning, but although she might see herself as intelligent, Dommiel would prove that he could always outsmart her.
"You know what it will take." Dommiel stated evenly, seating himself on the edge of the bed and removing his boots before leaning back, observing her with the beginnings of a smug smile lurking at his lips. "But I'm not going to force you. Everything in this world has to be earned."
Merridy understood the implications immediately. Dommiel wanted her to take the lead, to be in control. She wasn't entirely sure she knew how to do that, because the only other time she had taken initiative had been the painfully recent occasion of her first kill. Nonetheless, she forced herself to become fire, furious in its intensity. She would burn Dommiel from the inside out, but the only problem would be that he would enjoy it. Merridy had learned before that her efforts to get violent with him were only seen as windows of opportunity for him to become rougher in turn, and she didn't even hurt him in the least.
She straddled his lap, fisted a hand in his blonde hair and kissed him hard, as though by being less gentle it would be less romantic. There was no denying that there was passion, but that was on his part, as he placed his hands on her hips and tugged her forward, pressing her harder against him. Merridy's fingers fumbled with the laces of her dress. Let Dommiel think she was eager, if that pleased him. In truth, she just wanted this over with, wanted him to deliver his side of the bargain.
"Don't enjoy this too much," Dommiel whispered as she slid her dress off her shoulders.
Her smile was bitter. "Oh, I won't."
Merridy remained curled on her side with the sheets hiked up around her chest, facing away from Dommiel so that he couldn't see the anger tightening her face. She was aware of him sprawled beside her, completely unabashed in his nakedness. Of course he was pleased with himself. He slid his arms around her waist, but she tugged away from it, from him. Just how much of herself had she given him?
She was infuriated at herself, at the noise that had escaped her, confirming she felt even a slight degree of pleasure – something between a gasp and a moan right before Dommiel had finished. He had laughed huskily and kissed her neck, and even now her cheeks flared bright red, for no doubt he thought that by pleasing her even slightly, he had won. When she felt the heat die in her cheeks she rolled to face him, twisting herself in the sheets.
"So, what is it you know?"
"Know about what?" Dommiel leaned casually on one elbow, inspecting her with a lazy smile dawning across his face.
Merridy prickled with irritation. He had played his cards, won the game. She would let him think himself triumphant, just this once, if he would only give her the information she wanted. She folded her arms.
"About Chalix and the executions."
"Oh, that." Dommiel laughed languidly, his blue eyes glittering as he observed her. Merridy's stomach twisted like the sheets around her body, and the euphoria she had felt at finally getting answers died fighting. "You know, I never did actually say that I knew something. I simply played along with your assumptions."
With an animalistic snarl, Merridy launched herself at him, tangle of sheets and all. She beat her fists against his chest, as if she could break him down that way, but Dommiel merely caught her wrists. That indolent smile never left his lips, or the gleam from his eyes. He held her in place above him, making no attempt to throw her off.
"Screaming my name?" Dommiel easily flipped them, pinning her down beneath his weight. "Perhaps we could try again, and see if I can make you do it. After all, you did so enjoy it when I had you just now…"
"Liar," Merridy hissed, although in all honesty, his words held a grain of a brutal truth she had no wish to acknowledge. How could she possibly enjoy it? This man had raped her on their wedding night and now she was enjoying it, even slightly? She refused to let herself surrender in such an excruciating way again.
"You are so much like the Crown Prince." Dommiel traced a finger down her cheek as she clenched her jaw. "All that fire…but no clue how to burn it out."
She pushed at him in vain. "Get off me."
"Why?" The smile turned arrogant. "Are you enjoying it?"
Merridy turned her face, and Dommiel pushed himself off her. The Princess could blame him all she wanted, but she had felt the heat coursing through her too. He had seen it in her eyes. Dommiel tugged on his pants and turned to glance at his wife, who remained stewing in stony silence.
"You should see to our son. I have duties to attend to."
"Yet you still had time to attend to me," Merridy responded with sourness in her voice. He reached out to touch her, but she flinched away like his fingers were the point of a blade.
"I always have time for you," Dommiel responded, although he seemed somewhat irritated by her withdrawal. He clambered to his feet and straightened his clothes. "I have my duties in the court servicing my King, and I have them in the bedroom servicing my wife. It has been two years since we were wed, Merridy. You could at least try and let me please you."
You did, Merridy thought bitterly, but it was a truth that she struggled enough to admit to herself let alone her husband. It left a sour taste in her mouth and made her stomach coil like a sleeping snake. Most women would have been happy if their husbands had the ability to please them in bed, and although Merridy didn't doubt that Dommiel had the capability, she could not unwind her pride enough to surrender.
Merridy waited until Chalix was out in the courtyard practising archery with Dommiel before she found the courage to raid his chambers. They were alien to her, as she had not come to visit her brother on many an occasion. The dark, grim colours had never appealed to her and they still didn't now. Merridy didn't entirely know what she was trying to find – however, if her brother truly was keeping some kind of secret, there would be evidence somewhere. Only…would she know what it was even if she found it?
Merridy's hands ran over the mahogany table pressed against the wall, along the curtains that hung alongside tall windows. She knew her brother, much as she disliked him. So if she were Chalix, where would she hide something of great importance, something she didn't want anyone else to find? Merridy hid things somewhere she thought nobody would look, but Chalix wasn't like that. He would hide them in plain sight, where it was so obvious that nobody would think to look.
Twenty minutes of frantic searching yielded no results. Merridy sat down on the edge of her brother's bed, tracing her fingers over the neatly folded sheets. Chalix's mattress was not like the soft one she shared with Dommiel, but rather hard and lumpy. Merridy froze then, before becoming a flurry of movements, her fingers carelessly lifting up the sheets and unpicking the zip on the side of the mattress. She searched through the mattress for something, anything…and her fingers closed around something bulky and cylindrical in shape.
Merridy drew her hand out of the mattress, dragging her findings out with it. When she realised exactly what her brother had hidden – and what her brother had done – she felt a scream clawing its way up her throat. It never emerged, but the desire still remained. The Sceptre, stolen from the Temple of the Gifted Ones all those years ago during the attack, lay in her lap in its bright golden, bejewelled glory. It all made sense now. Chalix had been the one to authorise the mysterious assault, the brutal killings. She forced down bile at the unexpected horror she had discovered.
One day, you will be Queen…
Was that where such hatred had started? The Oracle had turned her attention upon young Merridy without as much as a glance in Chalix's direction. Could it be that the Oracle's prophecy had doomed her? Of course, Chalix couldn't do anything then. But after their father died so suddenly of poison, Chalix was among those blaming the Gifted Ones. He had ordered the attack on the Temple, although likely not by his name. The Sceptre had been claimed as the spoils of the raid.
"What are you doing…?" Chalix's voice trailed off as he walked into his room to find his younger sister kneeling on the floor, before he realised with sudden horror what she had found. Merridy's head jerked upwards and she attempted to hide the Sceptre, but it was already far too late. Chalix's expression darkened, his face contorting as he stalked across the room towards his younger sister. Merridy pushed herself up, but the Crown Prince caught a handful of her hair and slammed her against the wall with enough force to make her wince.
"You stupid little bitch," he snarled, but despite the loathing in his tone, Merridy could see something else entirely sparkling in his green eyes – terror. Chalix was afraid, frightened that she would reveal the truth to Farlan…who would be forced to take action, no matter the fact that the one who perpetrated such crimes against the Gifted Ones was of his own blood. "How dare you think you can come into my rooms, and…"
Merridy laughed hoarsely, a brittle sound without mirth. "You can say all you want, Chalix. Your words are nothing to me. All I know is that I knew you were up to something. That's why you killed the Gifted Ones, because you thought they might find out their Sceptre was in your possession, that they'd know it was you. Those servants found out too, didn't they? The ones you killed."
"Perhaps I'll just have to kill you, too." Chalix's hand twisted tighter in Merridy's hair, but despite the fact that it made tears prick at her eyes, she stared resolutely back at him. They both knew he didn't have the ability to do that. Chalix was an unsubtle man, and the murder of his own sister would quickly be discovered to be his work.
"Not before I present this as evidence to Farlan. He'll know when he sees it, when I tell him where I found it."
Chalix laughed nastily, a dark shadow coming across his face. Merridy didn't like that laugh at all, for it was the mirth of someone who has found a way of maintaining silence, a way that didn't necessarily involve death.
"But you have a weakness that I don't."
"What might that be?" Merridy inquired, although the sinking, sick feeling in her stomach told her that she already knew.
"Hyperion." Chalix's lips twisted into a cruel smile. Merridy felt angry tears welling in her eyes. She had discovered the truth, but what was it worth, when no one could know? "If you breathe a word of this to anyone, even Dommiel, I will ensure that your little boy meets a most gruesome end indeed."
Merridy knew better than to protest that Hyperion was Chalix's own nephew. Her brother no doubt cared nothing for blood relations. He was smarter than she had ever imagined, smart enough to keep this a secret and kill anyone who had ever found out…and she had no doubts that when he found out a way, he would get rid of her as well. Again, she had been outmatched. Furious tears leaked down Merridy's cheeks and Chalix took a step back. He opened his mouth to say something, before his fist made contact with her face.
Merridy staggered at the force of the blow, a coppery taste filling her mouth. She sullenly wiped her mouth on the back of her hand and noticed blood there. Chalix watched her with an expression that was neither triumphant nor irate. His lips were pressed together in a hard line. Merridy felt that she was drowning in her panic, in the enormity of this. She couldn't breathe. She feared for Hyperion, that Chalix would kill him whether she told someone or not.
"Get out," Chalix snapped, stooping down to pick up the Sceptre. For perhaps the first time in her life, Merridy fled without question, running from his room and down the corridors with terror welling within her and the scream still stuck inside her throat.
It was a stealth force that entered the palace in the dead of night. Cavendish wouldn't have had it any other way – too many people would be cause for alarm, so it had only been himself, Mordechai and two others of his choosing. The mission was simple: seize the Princess and make their escape. It should be an easy task, but Cavendish was prepared for there to be some difficulties. Although not usually a bloodthirsty man, he wouldn't mind spilling some Dolorin blood.
"This way," Eisla whispered, beckoning for them to follow her out of the sewers and up the staircase. Although he had no doubt that Sidra nobility would turn up their noses on their route, Cavendish had never been a man who'd cared for the means needed to achieve the end result. Eisla took the lead – she had been keeping watch all afternoon, waiting for the Princess to retire. Fortunately for them, Merridy's husband was occupied, keeping company with Chalix and Jupiter in the solar.
Casting a quick look around, Cavendish slipped down the hallway after her. This plan had been in motion for some weeks now. He was prudent, not one to make hasty decisions despite what had happened to his sister. The thought of sweet Deliana only hardened his resolve. It had been the very fuel driving him through tedious planning sessions. He would have liked nothing more than to raid the palace and slaughter as many of them as he could, but that was not their goal.
The Princess was the key. They needed her alive. Her survival was of the utmost importance – as was her husband Dommiel's death, but that was a matter for another time. Acquiring Merridy was the most pressing part of their ultimate ambition. The Gifted Ones that had accompanied him were quiet and prone to slipping into shadows, not firebrands. This mission required patience and skill, so Cavendish had chosen the best for it.
"Are we certain that her husband isn't with her?" Isak, the youngest and most skittish member of the group. His dark eyes darted nervously around as Eisla sighed impatiently.
"I am sure of it." Her steely tone reminded Isak that she did not take kindly to being questioned or doubted. Eisla moved further down the corridor and up a flight of stairs, before tensing and slipping back after peering around a corner. Knowing her retreat meant trouble ahead, Cavendish stepped up to take a look. Two guards posted outside the Princess's door. No trouble at all, really.
Slinking down the corridor with the silent grace of a mountain lion, Cavendish balled his hands together into fists. He did not relish the ease of this, how he didn't even need to touch the men as a loud crack resonated through the corridor. Both guards slumped to the ground, their necks snapped. Stepping over their motionless bodies, he beckoned to the others. It was Eisla who came running first, pressing her fingers to the door and closing her eyes in concentration. After a moment, she nodded vigorously.
"It's only the Princess and her son. Come on."
"Wait." Isak's eyes were wide. "Her son is just a baby."
Cavendish made a frustrated noise. "We aren't killing children, Isak. The boy comes with us and his mother. Do you truly think Merridy would leave her son behind?"
Isak pressed his lips together in a firm line, unconvinced. Cavendish reached out and splayed his fingers against the door handle, unbolting the other side. Smiling in satisfaction, he pushed the door open and strode into the Princess's room. According to Eisla it was rare for her to occupy her own chambers – Merridy more often than not shared her husband's quarters. They had gotten lucky tonight, and that was something Cavendish did not intend to take for granted.
"What do you want?" The Princess stood over her son's cot, clutching the fair-haired baby tight to her chest as she warily examined the intruders. Cavendish could tell she had tried to sound intimidating, but her voice was shrill with fear. He offered her a calm smile, knowing that any sudden move would be enough to make her scream and alert others to their presence.
"We are not here to harm you," Cavendish assured her, taking another slow step in her direction. "As long as you cooperate, neither yourself nor your son will be hurt."
Merridy's posture was tense as she watched him, green eyes narrowed and her arms wrapped tightly around her child. Although Hyperion had not been a part of Cavendish's plan, there could be no doubt that the baby would certainly make for good leverage. It was unclear how much Dommiel valued Merridy's life, but the life of his son…the smile on Cavendish's lips turned wolfish.
"That doesn't answer my question," the Princess said firmly.
Eisla bared her teeth. "We don't owe you answers, Highness."
"Eisla." Cavendish held up a hand to placate her, before turning his attention back to Merridy. It was imperative that she remain calm and do as she was told. He would rather not lose any more of his people tonight. "Everything will be explained, but not here. Not now. I am not asking you, Princess. I am telling you that you are coming with us. I would advise you do it quietly."
Merridy's gaze drifted down to her young son, who was watching everything with wide blue eyes and his thumb in his mouth. Cavendish was pleased that the child had not started crying, because that too would have spoiled things. After a moment's hesitation, the Princess reluctantly stepped forward. Cavendish could see that she was shaking despite the proud tilt of her chin.
"Very well." Her voice was strong despite the fear in her green eyes. "I will come with you."
Merridy paced the tent she'd been confined to, her mind ticking as she tried to process a way out of her current precarious situation. She didn't understand why Cavendish had wanted her alive, but to her that was more concerning than if he had tried to kill her. It meant the Gifted Ones had a plan, a goal beyond simple vengeance. It took every inch of strength not to break down in tears and give up. She was in a camp full of people with magical abilities, what hope did she really have of flight?
A soft noise turned her attention to her baby. Hyperion was asleep on the bed. It was for more his sake than hers that Merridy was so desperate to find a way to escape. There was no doubt in her mind that her son would be used against her if need be. He was a risk that she would not take, and Cavendish knew it. Merridy furiously wiped her eyes, frustrated and terrified at what the Gifted Ones might be planning.
"Are you crying?" The amused voice made Merridy spin on her heel, hands balling into fists as she saw Cavendish stride into her tent with that infuriating patient smile plastered across his lips. "Did you not listen when I said we had no intention of harming you? Poor, lost little Princess."
"Don't mock me," Merridy spat, her temper flaring at the knowledge that he'd seen her tears. "You told me that everything would be explained. I did as you asked. Don't you think it's only fair that you explain now?"
"I suppose so." Cavendish folded his arms over his chest, inspecting her closely. Merridy shivered, unable to help the feel that she was completely bared to him. She felt incredibly vulnerable, and she despised him more than ever. "They see you as worthless, don't they? Men like your husband and your brother Chalix. They think your only value lies in bearing sons like little Hyperion over there…"
"Enough of your poisonous words!" Merridy exclaimed, resenting that her son had been brought into this discussion. "I want the truth."
"If Farlan and Chalix were to fall…" Cavendish tapped his fingers against his chin in mock consideration. "Who would the throne go to then? It would be your husband Dommiel until your sons came of age, is that not so?"
"You know the laws of succession as well as I." Merridy's tone was terse, her hands planting firmly on her hips as she glared at her captor. "It would technically be Dommiel and myself, yes. His own claim to the throne is through me and our son, without that, he'd never be King."
"Precisely." Cavendish's eyes sparked with triumph, his smile widening. "Your husband would have a claim to the throne because of you. It could be any man, really. It just so happens that the man who married you was Lord Rhindal."
Merridy felt sick with dread. "What are you talking about?"
"Let me be plain." Cavendish stepped forward, gripping her chin lightly and tilting her face upwards. "My kind have been in the shadows for long enough. We have been trodden on by the royal family and their allies for years. Yet…what if we were the royal family?"
Merridy smacked his hand away, her knees shaking at the realisation of what Cavendish was talking about. Perhaps they had no intention of hurting her, but they would kill her brothers, her husband. Merridy had no love for Dommiel, but the thought of losing Farlan nauseated her. She shook her head fervently.
"No. I won't let you."
"You won't let us?" Cavendish laughed derisively. "Sweet Princess, you were already forced into your current marriage, it wouldn't be a shock to be made to wed again. Besides, I think you would find me to be a much more pleasant man than Lord Rhindal."
"You…" Merridy could not form words at the knowledge it would be Cavendish she would be married to. She could no longer control the sickness in the pit of her stomach, and she lurched away to vomit just outside the tent. She wiped her mouth on the back of her trembling hand. This was worse than anything she could have anticipated, and she would do her utmost to ensure that she was not a part of it.
"The thought makes you ill, it seems." Cavendish gripped her arm, gently but firmly steering her back into the tent. "I can assure you that living under the current monarchy rouses similar nausea within me. We could make a better world, you know. One where my people do not have to be hunted down and slaughtered. Is that truly such a heinous prospect?"
"My son…" Merridy was again lost for words, glancing over at the bed where Hyperion had fallen into a peaceful sleep. How blissful to be so young and so ignorant of the dangers the world held. Despite the fact that she despised her son's father, she had become full to the brim of fierce maternal instinct. There was nothing she wouldn't give to protect her child.
"You believe we would harm a child?" Cavendish's brow furrowed. "No. We are not monsters, despite what your family and your husband might tell you."
Merridy sank down on the bed beside Hyperion, pressing her face into her hands. After a moment, Cavendish had the decency to sweep out of the tent, leaving the Princess alone with her thoughts. The idea of flight was laughable now. Certainly the camp would be too heavily guarded for her to slip past, and there was no chance of her fighting her way through. She was well and truly trapped. The knowledge made her feel claustrophobic, gasping for air as tears burned at her eyes.
For too long she had attempted to convince herself that she was not weak and helpless. Yet in this situation, there was no denying that was precisely what she was. With all fantasies of running vanquished, Merridy curled up beside her son and condemned herself to the hell that was her new reality.