A Final Moment
Turmoil kept Oona’s eyes open and her mind wandering. Her luxurious bed offered physical comfort, but no relief from her worries.
The same bed she’d slept in for thirteen years made the black-walled cell she’d spent days confined in feel like something out of an awful dream. Try as she might, she couldn’t dredge up even a tiny scrap of memory of her life before the castle. Ruby, her actual mother, had told her she’d accidentally lit fire to one of the chickens at the age of three. Magic being rare among the people of Lucernia, word of the event had found its way up to the king.
And overnight, she’d gone from peasant child to princess.
Evie, her seven-year-old sister—who everyone agreed looked like a smaller version of her—lay asleep beside her. Other than a nine-year gap in age, they had two distinct differences: Evie had green eyes instead of blue, and the girl slept hard. Another assassin could kick down the door, engage in a fifteen-minute swordfight, and the girl likely wouldn’t stir. She had a room of her own, though the vastness of the castle—especially at night—frightened her. Had the king not taken Oona as a decoy, she would likely have shared a bed with her sister until being married off, so she didn’t mind having her close each night.
Oona gently squeezed her sister’s hand under the covers. Soon, you will be a princess and this will be your room.
She hated thinking it, for it made her dwell on what Kitlyn said. The Council of Lucen, the six leaders of the temple, prepared to strip King Talomir of his title as high priest. Initially, she expected they did so due to his acceptance of her love for Kitlyn—another girl, and the king’s true daughter—though much to her surprise, they objected to his causing a twenty-year war, thousands of deaths, and spending the past twenty years lying to the kingdom more than who she’d chosen to give her heart.
I am being dramatic. She sighed to herself, unable to quite pin down the exact moment she knew her feelings toward Kitlyn had changed from dearest friend to something more. But ever since that moment, she had become acutely aware of how the nation, a people devoted to Lucen, God of Purity, viewed such unions. Despite it being utterly ludicrous to even place a girl in love with a girl on the same significance as King Talomir’s crimes, years spent in dread fear had conditioned her.
She would have gladly suffered the scorn of a kingdom to admit her love, but she had feared Kitlyn’s potential rejection most of all. To calm her mind, she closed her eyes and thought back to that moment on the shore at Duskdawn Lake where they had finally admitted the truth of their feelings for each other. With such a great burden lifted, the triviality of people expecting her to destroy an entire kingdom didn’t bother her much. As long as she had Kitlyn, she could handle anything—even a stupid foretelling.
But all that had passed—and not in the way anyone had hoped for, or dreaded. Perhaps in light of the people of Lucernia learning that their beloved king had caused two decades of war, all the while feeding them deceptions as if from the tongue of Lucen himself, the revelation that the princess had fallen in love with a girl wound up an insignificant bit of news on the side. Not even the elevation of a peasant girl to the Baroness of Gwynaben elicited so much as a raised eyebrow. Then again, the people had been used to thinking of her as the princess already.
And Lady Tenebrea gave us our blessing.
Oona tried to project her gratitude up to the goddess while picturing the apparitional form that had drifted across the courtyard. King Talomir had challenged the gods directly, stating if any god had issue with who his daughter had chosen to love, let them say so in person. This, of course, had drawn a collective gasp of horror from all assembled, including several priests. Surely, even the High Priest of Lucen dare not speak with such irreverence, demanding anything of Lucen.
Though, Tenebrea had listened—and answered with a smile. Oona had long felt a sense of solidarity with her as a fellow outcast. Most people avoided even looking at paintings of her. She had no more choice in being the goddess of death than Oona had in who her heart chose to love.
Somewhere between the ensuing discontent sweeping over the kingdom and a nod from Tenebrea in person, it seemed as though everyone (at least in her near vicinity) had decided to either accept or ignore the two of them without comment. Whispers had reached her that a handful of castle staff departed quietly over it, though no one Oona could recall meeting often enough to recognize. Even Elsbeth, as awful as the girl had been to Kitlyn through the years, didn’t take any issue with them… only with their social status. She’d hated Kitlyn for being ‘a peasant above her station.’
Ugh. The girl is so fixated on who she can feel superior to.
Elsbeth had been quite unhappy that Kitlyn had promoted Piper, the kitchen maid, to be Oona’s handmaiden, but didn’t complain about not receiving the post herself. Considering her cruelty to the king’s actual daughter, she likely had expected much harsher reprisal and contented herself to remain as First Maid.
Oona opened her eyes, gazing over her sleeping sister at patches of blue moonlight on the wall. She wanted to have Kitlyn close, in the same bed, even if only to find comfort in her presence so she could sleep. King Talomir forbade them from sharing a room before a wedding took place. No one made mention of all the times they had done so before anyone knew they loved each other, albeit nothing romantic had ever happened between them. And, he would no doubt have issued the same decree if she had been betrothed to Prince Lanwick of Ondar. She would not have been allowed to share a bedroom with him either before a wedding.
She suppressed the urge to roll her eyes at the notion two people in love would be considered ‘impure’ for being alone together before some priest could officiate their union. As much as she revered Lucen, the pointless ceremony of it struck her as an invention of mortals. After all, for many years, everyone thought he forbade women loving women and men loving men, and that turned out not to be the case, merely the overreach of mortal priests taking ‘purity’ the wrong way.
Also, Oona’s magic still worked. If she ever displeased Lucen, he would rescind his gift.
She stared up at the ceiling, annoyed at no one in particular for her inability to fall asleep. Without the constant worry of figuring out how she’d wind up wiping out all of Evermoor before her people died, she’d assumed she might no longer suffer such sleeplessness. A new trouble plagued her, one that would—mercifully and horribly at the same time—not remain for long.
The priests would publicly declare King Aodh Talomir a heretic and cast him out from the temple of Lucen.
Kitlyn expected he would take his own life before suffering such a public humiliation. She’d told Oona as much, and that she assumed the priests warned her of their plans specifically so word would reach him and he would do just that, sparing the kingdom the disgrace.
How can she be so distant about her father’s death? Oona choked up, tears gathering in her eyes. Despite everything that happened, she still thought of the man as her father. She had a real father, but the man hadn’t seen her since she’d been three years old, and he had died six years ago to the war. She couldn’t remember him at all, nor anything of her home in Llanoen.
No. Not my home. Again, she squeezed Evie’s hand. Her ‘mother’ had been harsh on the little one. Quick to slap her around, quick to shout at her for mistakes. Though, somehow, the child had retained her cheery disposition and innocence. Oona couldn’t help but spare her more of that woman’s treatment. Offering Ruby money in exchange for the girl staying here had only proved her instinct correct. No real mother would sell their children. Both of them.
She fumed in silence.
I have to do something. I can’t simply lay here while the man I think of as my father dies.
No sooner had Oona started to sit up than a soft knock broke the stillness. She jumped and grabbed the handle of the longsword beside her bed, frozen in a stare at the door. A few seconds later, she remembered the war with Evermoor had come to an end and no more assassins would sneak in to harm her—at least none from a foreign kingdom.
Also, assassins didn’t usually knock.
Assassins might come for Kitlyn, depending on how various arguments no doubt going on in cellars and taverns around the land played out. Would the people accept two queens? Would they accept the heir of Aodh Talomir after what he did? Advisor Beredwyn seemed quite confident in his statement that the people loved (or at least respected) both of them. Oona had the admiration of Lucernia, and Kitlyn had won over the citizens of Evermoor. Then again, saving an entire population from a withering death tended to put you on their good side.
Who would possibly call on me in the middle of the night?
She blinked twice before the thought it might be Kitlyn sprang into her mind. Again, a knock came from the door. Oona pulled the bedding aside and slid to her feet, swallowing a soft whine of alarm at the coldness of the polished stone floor. She left the longsword be and padded over to the door before whispering, “Who’s there?”
“It is I,” said the king. “Forgive me if I woke you.”
Oona undid the lock and pulled the door open, peering up in mute horror at the man standing in the hall.
King Talomir’s cheeks held little of their usual color and more wrinkles creased his face than his age should imply. His eyes had sunken in and possessed a distant quality, his hair wild. If not for his expensive nightclothes, he could’ve been drunk in an alley outside a tavern in Cimril, screaming incoherent gibberish at passersby. He looked as though Tenebrea had already touched him.
He bowed his head. “Please forgive me for how I have treated you.”
Oona edged out into the corridor and tugged the door almost closed. A whispered conversation would likely not wake Evie, but words unfit for the ears of a seven-year-old would surely draw wakefulness where the explosion of a magical fireball could not.
“You have not treated me poorly, father. My greatest grouse had always been that you permitted everyone to behave so cruelly to Kitlyn. That and not permitting me to waste my coins at the shops in Cimril. Such a trivial, petty thing to be so upset about.” She gazed down at her pale toes, peeking out from under the hem of her nightdress. “Everyone called me spoiled, and they had been right.”
“Oona…” King Talomir grasped her shoulders, trying to look her in the eye as one might try to lock stares with a specter they couldn’t see. “I took you from your home, your rightful parents.”
She pressed her hands to his chest, unnerved at hearing his every breath rattle around as though it took great effort. “That woman is not my mother. You gave me a better life. Because of you, I found Kitlyn.”
“You lived with the burden of a station not your own for years. A burden too great for a mere child… and my fault.” King Talomir bowed his head.
Oona blinked, realizing he no longer wore a crown, not even his simple one. Of course, he likely didn’t wear it to bed. But the man had been terribly proud of his station and never went anywhere without it. “You look exhausted.” She gently pushed at him. “You should retire. Are you sleepwalking?”
He managed a faint smile, still not quite looking right at her. “No, child. I am awake. More awake than I have been in many years. For everything I have done to you, I am truly sorry.”
“You have nothing to apologize to me for. It’s Kit you should apologize to. You have always been like a father to me. You are my father.”
“I stole you from your family.” He sighed. “I stole your father from your mother, and from the realm of the living.”
Oona pivoted to the side, arms crossed, studying her toes again. “That woman would have disowned me eventually. Who I am is not of your doing. I would have certainly been drawn to another woman, and Ruby would not have accepted that either. Because of you, I met Kitlyn.”
“You are too quick to forgive.” He pulled her into a hug, mushing her cheek against his chest. “I have never known anyone so pure of heart. I have caused much needless death and suffering.”
She clutched at his nightclothes, clinging as though she’d never see him again. “Please don’t…”
Oona sniffled. “So many needless deaths. What good will it do to add one more?”
“Lucen knows my soul, and the sorrow I now feel for everything. Perhaps he holds me yet in contempt, for I regret what I did to my daughters more than speaking falsehoods under the guise of his name.”
“You can atone. Work to aid those who have suffered. Dedicate your life to undoing as much of the damage as you can.”
He let out a long, weak sigh. “I shall soon make it right with him.”
What! She tore her gaze off the floor and stared up into his eyes. The dawning realization of what he meant washed over her like a slow seep of icy water. He means to… This is his last farewell. Overcome with grief, she clamped her arms around him and burst into tears. Despite all he had done, she still couldn’t bear the thought of losing the only father she’d ever known.
King Talomir patted her back and made an attempt to comfort her, though moved much like a giant marionette worked by strings.
He’s already halfway to Tenebrea. She gathered up her tears and pushed herself out to arms’ length, again looking him in the eye. “Please, father, you mustn’t do what you’re thinking. Disappear into the hills of Gwynaben…” A suggestion to disguise himself formed, but she pushed it aside—too close to lying. “…or something.”
“Oona…” He brushed a hand across her forehead, chasing a few loose blonde strands away from her eyes. “I have done many things wrong. Perhaps selfishly, my treatment of Kitlyn bothers me the most. To have her look upon me like a stranger is… the worst punishment.”
She clenched two fists in his robe. “Then live with that punishment. Don’t do this. Please. I forgive you for dressing me up as a decoy.”
“I never intended for you to be harmed.” He gingerly grasped her wrists, plucked her fingers from his nightclothes, and pressed her hands together, holding them. “It is Lucen’s honest truth that I did everything in my power to keep you safe, foolishly denying to myself that the danger had been entirely of my own making. And with what little power I still possess, I still wish you safe. Do not betray who you are for my benefit. Do not repeat my mistakes and tarnish your connection to Lucen. I see it in your eyes that you wish me to deceive, to flee, to pretend to be someone else. I cannot place that burden on you as well. No, child. Events are set in motion that will bring about my end one way or the other. I have accepted there is no avoiding my fate. For the sake of the kingdom… I cannot allow the people to suffer even more. It was for the sake of the kingdom that I protected Kitlyn with ignominy.”
Looking at him made her want to scream and throw the phrase for the sake of the kingdom back in his face. If you cared about the kingdom, you wouldn’t have stolen the Eldritch Heart to begin with! She balled her fists, bracing to whirl into the same sort of tantrum she often resorted to on the rare occasions he denied her wants. Images of men’s insides spilling out at the end of her blade flashed through her mind as well the stench of foul poison and the overpowering elation when she had been reunited with Kitlyn. Somewhere amid all that, she had changed. Scream-whining wouldn’t change his mind, nor did it strike her as ever being particularly effective at accomplishing anything other than earning contempt. The more she thought, the more she dwelled on Kitlyn being made to toil endlessly… and worse, never knowing the warmth of a father’s arms around her.
For a brief moment, she found herself more furious at him for the abandonment Kitlyn must’ve felt than anything else he did.
A wave of sorrow lapped upon the beach of her anger, smothering it.
Oona bowed her head, feeling selfish all over again. Kitlyn’s torment paled in comparison to the thousands who had perished for his greed, or the suffering of widows and orphans left in the wake of the war—on both sides. She couldn’t tell if Lucen would be displeased at her for placing so much weight on Kitlyn’s bleak life compared to all the rest of the suffering King Talomir had caused, but she couldn’t help her heart. Perhaps because she kept the thought to herself, he would understand.
“It offers me some small peace to see you safe and happy.” The king brushed a hand over her cheek. “Though it is time for me to go.”
“Please, don’t,” whispered Oona, shocked at the coldness of his hand. “There must be another way.”
He held her for a few minutes in silence before kissing her lightly atop the head. “I shall think on it.”
His voice sounded so hollow, whispery, and lifeless, Oona didn’t even need the magical sense that Lucen gave her to detect his lie. In the brief moment grief paralyzed her arms and mouth, he slipped away and glided off toward the main stairwell, silent as a wraith. His nightclothes flashed blue each time he crossed a patch of moonlight, and for all the lack of sound he made, she wondered if he had already died.
She watched him go until the curve of the hallway blocked her view. At the moment he disappeared, it seemed he faded away as much as stepped behind stone. Oona’s heart weighed down inside her chest. She slipped into her room and eased the door closed behind her. Evie remained asleep in bed, as though nothing at all had happened.
Back pressed to the door, Oona debated running after the king, but if she had been visited by his ghost, it wouldn’t matter. Something had seemed woefully off about him, so sickly and unfocused as though his mind roamed elsewhere. Perhaps the burden of his guilt did that, as he hadn’t given off any dread or sense of chill. But Oona had never seen a spirit before, especially one who loved her.
A long, slow sigh escaped her lips. She eyed the bed, but couldn’t take even one step before grief pulled her down. Curled up on the floor, arms wrapped around her legs, she bowed her head against her knees and wept.