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Chapter 1

The Princess, the Thief and the Warlock - REVIEW THIS STORY

Written by GambitGirl
Last updated: 01/02/2007 02:01:11 AM

Chapter 1

Emmaline Frost was a beautiful woman. It was evident even in the dim firelight of the cavernous bedroom, the way the orange played over her golden hair and pale milky skin. The troops of her wealthy but barbaric husband, Warlord Sebastian Frost, wondered how the huge, rough man had even managed to land a woman of Emmaline's exquisite looks.

The man lying next to Emmaline this particular night, on the bed that was little more than a pile of furs was also good-looking, even in the erratic light. His coppery hair and deep, fathomless eyes took a hind seat to the fact that he was not in fact Warlord Frost. Emmaline favored him with a lazy smile. "Happy, my darling?" The man nodded, his bangs, longer than what was fashionable for a proper gentleman, falling in his eyes.

"Oui, chere, but what if your husband decide to come home early?" Emmaline laughed, more at his accent than his worry. She was accustomed to having men at her whim, be it Frost or this mysterious bedfellow.

"No chance of that, darling. Sebastian never comes home from the field if he can help it. He's more animal than man." The stranger—for he was little more than that—leaned over and kissed Emmaline softly. She enjoyed it, but was slightly puzzled at his noncommittal attitude towards her. She could take a man who looked like Adonis himself and reduce him to her servant. This stranger, however, with his odd eyes that seemed to have no pupils, and then flash red in certain lights, was treating her like a diversion. Emmaline bristled slightly, and when the stranger leaned over to get a drink, clanking the pitcher of wine noisily against his glass, Emmaline didn't alert him to the other noise she heard outside the bedroom door. The voice of a soldier.

"Welcome home, Warlord Frost." The stranger whipped around, still holding his glass.

"Merde." The door banged open, and Warlord Sebastian, still in battle furs and leather armor, strode in, his hunting axe over one shoulder. He stopped dead as he took in Emmaline in her nightclothes and then the stranger next to her. Emmaline would never forget how calm he looked—a smile even flickered in the corner of his mouth. "No chance, huh?" he said wryly to her. The Sebastian slashed downwards with a yell, cleaving a huge hole through the bed and making Emmaline jump away screaming. The stranger leapt the other way, loose black pants flapping as he grabbed up his boots and other clothes and his leather saddlebag, took a dodge around Sebastian's next swing and jumped out of the bedroom window to safety.

The tavern at the crossroads of the small forest route towards the south was abnormally quiet for a busy evening. Young Drake, the bartender's indentured servant, watched the man causing the commotion, or lack of it, as he swept the floor automatically. The man sat in front of the fire, one booted foot tapping the floor occasionally, his face hooded by a deep blue cloak. It wasn't so much the man himself as the weapon resting against the chair next to him that drew young Drake's attention. It was a bow, of the deepest, richest heartwood, strung with the sinews of a wild boar bull and polished so it held reflections. An Elfin bow, the deadliest of all known weapons. What it was doing in the possession of a mere human was beyond young Drake. Elfins were the greatest archers in the land, and they guarded their weapons—each bow taking up to ten years to make and instill with the proper magic—jealously. The man must have been a very good thief if he had managed to acquire one.

Young Drake was carrying a high stack of empty tankards to the kitchen for Katherine, the barmaid, when the door opened again, letting in a bit of the icy forest night. The low conversation in the tavern stopped altogether. Katherine let out a involuntary little shriek, and the bartender pulled back further into his plump shell. The two strangers surveyed the room with black, tattoo-ringed eyes. One had a red cape, and one black. They both wore short swords and the red cape had a bow slung across his back. The pale skin and lanky height was unmistakable. Young Drake let out a whisper. "Elfins." Other patrons took up the word, shooting glances at the pair and then quickly making sure their backs were turned. Young Drake felt the tankards wobble in his arms, and he steadied himself, keeping perfectly still. For Elfins to walk among humans was almost unheard of. They were peaceful, but their queen, Lilandra, forbade most contact with mortal races. Some renegade Elfins could be found working as mercenaries or low-level magicians, but most of the time Lilandra dispatched the feared Elfin hunters and killed the defector. These men were hunters. Young Drake could feel it.

"Greetings," said the taller one, not even bothering to come over to the bartender. He knew he had complete control of the room. "I am Erik the Red. This is my partner Dekken." The bartender swallowed and spoke.

"H-how may we help you tonight, gentlemen?" Erik stepped to the center of the room, cape swirling. Dekken stayed by the door. Watching the exits, young Drake realized. At this he suddenly noticed the man with the Elfin bow had gone very still, and the magnificent weapon had disappeared from next to him. Fast hands, young Drake thought.

"We seek one among you," said Erik. "A defiler of the Elfin race, a thief of our tradition." His black eyes found the bartender's, Katherine's, and young Drake's in turn. The bartender was quivering by this point. Young Drake knew his feet were frozen to the floor and he wouldn't be able to move until the Elfins were gone. "We know this man is here. Protecting him would be only foolishness," said Erik menacingly.

"He—he—" started the bartender.

"He left!" said Katherine suddenly. Erik and Dekken turned to look at her. Kitty swallowed and met their gazes. "A bit ago." In two swift steps Erik closed the space between them and grasped Kitty by the throat, his nails sinking in to her flesh, his thumb against her windpipe.

"The truth, wench, is something other than what you say. I warned you protecting him was foolishness. Erik the Red does not warn twice." He was lifting Kitty practically off the ground. Her small hand raked at the one on her throat.

"Erik." Young Drake knew it was the man with the bow. He was standing up now, ragged hair gleaming like molten copper in the firelight, eyes black hollows. He still didn't look nearly as frightening as Erik or Dekken. His voice had a foreign ring when he spoke. "It me you want." Erik spun on him, hand going for his sword, the other unslinging his bow. The man's came up with an arrow already notched. "A warnin' for you, homme," said the man as he drew the string tight. "You don' want me dead dat bad. Trust me." The bow twanged and an arrow with a black feather was lodged in Erik's shoulder. He let out a cry and fell. Kitty screamed as his bulk thumped on her feet. Dekken moved, obviously more comfortable with his wicked iron sword, vaulting a table and slashing at the man. The man's foot flashed out and Dekken's head snapped backwards. Young Drake saw a fine mist of blood spray from his mouth. Dekken went down through the same rickety tavern table, and the stranger leaped over his body and flashed out the door, his cape flapping behind him and making all the candles flicker.

To most of the citizens of the stately capital city of Westchester-on-the-Dale, it was a beautiful morning, bright, dry and warm. To Lady Marie Darkholme, it was another morning of imprisonment, just the latest in a line of morning stretching back to her earliest memories. Marie dressed herself and did her own hair, unheard of for a lady of the upper crust of society. Marie's father was Governor Victor Darkholme, the leader of the coveted capital province of the land. He and Lady Raven Darkholme, Marie's mother, always had the ear of the king and queen, and their palace, while small, was nearly as lavish as the royal one at the high end of the sloping city. Marie had few illusions that she was a game piece in Raven's never-ceasing power play. She was going to be married off, to someone of wealth and influence who could further advance the House of Darkholme. Marie wouldn't be surprised if Raven harbored royal ambitions. Because of Marie's coveted status, Raven had taken great care in raising her, and that was the most painful part of Marie's sheltered life. She had made one trip outside the walls of the governor's palace in her memory. Raven educated her well, but practically. Marie lifted the cushion of her settee, making sure the fiction book she'd hidden there was still in its place. Raven didn't allow much reading in the household unless it was of accounts. She was usually alone, having no handmaidens. The reason Marie took care of herself was that Raven was determined she should remain pure until marriage, pristine and untouched. By anyone.

Marie made her way downstairs, where she saw her tall father leaving the great hall, sword at his side and the House of Darkholme's midnight blue jerkin over his expensive shirt. Victor was a powerful man, had been a slated for a general's position in the king's army before he married Raven. Marie had inherited none of his blond hair or clear blue warrior's eyes, for which she was sorry. She looked like her mother down to the slim nose that bumped at the end and the large dark eyes and hair. "Good morning, father," she said, dropping a respectful curtsy. Victor looked over at her. He always seemed just slightly uncomfortable when Marie was around.

"Good morning, dear," he said, tucking a handkerchief into his pocket.

"Where are you going?" said Marie.

"The palace," said Victor, taking his floppy blue hat, also bearing the Darkholme crest, and putting it in place on his spiky hair.

"Did you ask mother about letting me go out yet?" said Marie, too eagerly. She was going to be nineteen in a few weeks, past a woman, and she desperately wanted Raven to grant her an outing as a gift. Victor shuffled his feet.

"Not yet." Marie sighed and angrily brushed the red tendrils of hair that she'd arranged away from her face. Victor was afraid of his wife, simple as that. He would never go to her on Marie's behalf.

"Fine," Marie muttered. Victor reached out a hand to pat her shoulder, then put it back at his side. He could never quite tame the reflex to touch his sad, beautiful daughter.

"Goodbye," he said simply as a servant pulled for the big front door and he stepped out.

"Goodbye," snapped Marie, turning on her heel and heading for the back of the palace, and the garden. She always took her breakfast there—it was at least a relief from the dark castle, where she could feel Raven's influence in every corner. Marie made up her mind she was going to question her mother directly about going outside the walls. Anger made her warmer than the sunlight, and she felt a grim determination. Come hell or high water, she was going to get outside the walls before she was married, and trapped forever.

Lady Raven Darkholme walked in the shady part of the garden, her deep blue dress sliding behind her noiselessly over the sparkling marble path. Dark flowers grew here, under the cypress and fruit trees, vines and a particular purple creeper Raven liked. The green furry stem was beautiful until you grasped it and got a fingerfull of tiny thorns. Raven smiled slightly. Gardens held many secrets, just like her. The secret of how she wrote the account books Victor so proudly took credit for, every year taking a little more, turning into gold, putting away where no one but herself could find it. The older secret of how the destitute and dying House of Creed had found financial salvation by a simple name change and marriage to the rich but out-of-favor House of Darkholme. The secret of how someday Raven was convinced she and Victor would live not in the valley with the peasants but on the high hill of Westchester-on-the-Dale, in the royal palace. She thought about Marie. Marie was the instrument, the key to the palace door. Of course it would have to be done by covert means. King Scotten was barely twenty-five, and he had his queen. But he was a benevolent ruler and in Raven's estimation a fool. Raven heard a whisper of cloth behind her and turned quickly, satin train straying into the dirt. "Good morning, Lady Darkholme," smirked the invader. Raven let out an irritated breath, then placed a smile on her face. Marie's key would not function without a lock to place it in, and he stood before her.

"How are you this day, Magnus?" He shrugged one shoulder.

"All days have their ups and downs. Lately I am troubled by impatience." Raven pursed her lips.

"You will have to wait, Magnus, until the time is right. Just like I've been telling you for a year." Magnus pretended to think, then shook his head, his prematurely white hair settling around his eyes, making him look like the cunning and vicious warlock he was.

"No, Raven. Waiting time is past. I grow lonely and ambitious." Raven crossed her arms and glared at the younger man.

"I can't speed up time, Magnus, not even for the king's second best warlock." Magnus's eyes went hard. He walked deliberately towards her, Raven holding her ground, Magnus only stopping when their faces were inches apart.

"Then, Lady Darkholme, perhaps good King Scotten and your dim but darling husband would like you know how you've been skimming their accounts. Scotten may be a boy but he's not shy about taking heads." Raven's eyes burned into his.

"You wouldn't dare." Magnus merely laughed, and Raven knew that he would indeed. She was simply fooling herself that she was in control of him. The warlock was a dangerous man, but Raven was used to making deals with devils. She took a calming breath and smoothed her hands over her skirts. "What do you suggest we do, then?" Magnus's red lips twitched.

"You know what." As if on cue, Raven heard Marie calling her from the other side of the trees.

"Mother? Is that you?"

"She doesn't like you," Raven whispered. Magnus brushed back his hair and patted the few wrinkles out of his black robe.

"That will change once I'm the one to liberate her from this stifling excuse for an existence." Raven's mouth opened.

"Oh no." Magnus smiled fully.

"Oh yes. You are going to let me take Marie outside the walls. She will trust me, like me even. And then I will be in a position to fulfill my plans." He started to walk towards the trees, and Marie.

"And mine," said Raven quickly. Magnus looked back and almost chuckled.

"Yes, Lady Darkholme. And yours."

Erik and Dekken cut a wide swath even through the packed marketplace of Westchester-on-the-Dale. Their black eyes searched over every face, but none was the man they sought. Some palace guards, in their red and yellow uniforms, caught their eyes. Erik glared back at the leader, a short, stocky man who looked like he could go through hell and come out the other side. His gold insignia marked him the captain. The man held Erik's gaze no longer than any other mortal, though, and his band turned and clanked back towards the palace. "He is not here," said Dekken. Erik squinted into the seething mass of people, yelling, bargaining, crying or laughing.

"He is. He just can't be seen yet."

"What do we do until he reveals himself?" said Dekken, fingering the hilt of his sword. Erik found an empty stall space and stopped, crossing his arms, still endlessly scanning every face.

"We wait."

The Elfin's prey was indeed in the market, on the roof of a fruit stall diagonally across the way from the two hunters. Remy LeBeau took out his short silver dagger, reached down when the merchant's back was turned and stabbed a large red apple. He drew it back up in a split second. The merchant never knew the difference. Remy shook his head as he sliced the melon and took a large, juicy bite. The hunters were certainly persistent, more persistent than any law he'd encountered so far. Remy was a thief, a good one, and an expert at evading his pursuers. The Elfins were no different than any country sheriff, he reminded himself. Just meaner. He discarded the apple core and stood crouched over, his long legs taking him easily to the roof of the next stall, where he reached down and used the end of his bow to scoop up a wicker basket of fresh fried chicken. He let the grease cool and took out his small spyglass, unfolding it and looking down over the sloping town to the governor's palace. The House of Darkholme was supposed to have some fabulous jewels, and as long as Remy was in the city he decided he might as well profit from it. There was also a rumor about a good-looking daughter. Remy grinned as he bit off half a chicken wing and chewed. Maybe this whole avoiding-the-Elfins bit didn't have to be so terrible after all. He picked up a leg and saluted the scowling Erik with it. "Bon appetit, mon ami."

Marie was calling for her mother when she came to the garden, but instead the last person on earth she wanted to see stepped out from behind the cypress row. "Good morning, Lady Marie," intoned Magnus. "May I say how lovely you look this fine day?" Marie fought to keep a pleasant look on her face.

"Thank you, Magnus," she said politely but not warmly. The oil oozed off King Scotten's second-best warlock, and his gaze reminded her of a reptile's, always watching calmly, waiting for the right opening to strike and kill. Magnus lived in the palace, along with the chief magician to the king, Wizard Xavier, but he often visited the Darkholme castle. Marie hoped that was all he was doing now. She smiled once more, stiffly, then turned and walked towards her breakfast pavilion. She knew it would be eggs, soft bread and fruit compote. It always was on the last day before sabbath. She heard footfalls behind her and inwardly groaned. Magnus was following, not leaving her alone as she'd hoped. Marie slowed and allowed him to catch up. Magnus might be despicable, but he still had the ear of the king, who could hurt her father accordingly if Marie was rude.

"What are we dining on this morning?" said Magnus cheerily. Marie took her seat on the silk pillow and gestured to the table.

"The usual." Magnus sat opposite her.

"It looks lovely." He was not looking at the food. As he settled, Marie felt his foot brush her leg, the leather of his boot sending a prickle through her skin. She jumped and looked at his face. He was serenely spreading compote onto a slice of bread. Must have imagined it…he'd never break the rule. She realized the absurdity of her statement as she took a spoonful of eggs, fried with salt and potatoes. Come on, Marie, this is Magnus we're talking about. EVERYTHING he does is deliberate. Conniving bastard… Marie flushed, and looked at her plate. Where had that improper thought come from?

"So, my dear," said Magnus. He made the sentiment sound just fatherly enough not to get in trouble. "What interests have you been pursuing of late?" He cocked his white head and looked at her. Marie looked away, to her chagrin. She couldn't hold his face for too long. Magnus was not an old man, somewhere at the end of his twenties, but with the white hair and the predator's eyes he presented a package that seem to be as old as the ages, with cunning to go along.

"Nothing," said Marie, realizing she was silent. "I've been at my studies."

"How exciting," said Magnus dryly. He set down his uneaten bread and compote and looked her deep in the eye. "Marie, what would you say if I could get you out of here?" Marie started inwardly.

"What?" Magnus smiled, the benefactor.

"I've spoken to your father at the castle, he says all you talk about is going outside the wall. Do I assume correctly you still want to?"

"Well…yes, of course" said Marie, nonplussed at the turn of events. "But my mother…"

"There is a ball in two day's time, hosted by King Scotten and Queen Jean at their palace. I've spoken to your mother, Lady Darkholme. She has given permission for me to escort you, and to take you out into Westchester to shop for a ball gown and the accompaniments." He smiled. "What do you say?" Marie for a moment forgot it was Magnus she was looking at, the man she neither liked nor trusted any more than a sewer rat. She could go outside the walls. She could be free.

"You mean…you mean it?" she breathed. Magnus nodded.

"Of course. It would be my pleasure, Lady Marie, to escort you to this ball." He smiled and reached out across the table. Marie reflexively jerked her hands into her lap, and Magnus guided his to an apple in the silver bowl. He twirled it by the stem, looking at her with his predator's gaze again. "Please say yes." Marie looked up at the clear sky. This was Magnus, never to be trusted…but this was also her one chance to get out. She looked back at the smirking warlock.

"Yes. I will have you as my escort." Magnus set the apple down with a thump.

"Splendid. We'll shop tomorrow." He gave her one more knowing smile before he stood and walked away. Marie sat, thoughts swirling. Outside…in Westchester…and then to a ball! But with Magnus…and he had tried to touch her, knowing full well she could never be touched until her wedding day no matter how she longed for it. Not from Magnus, but from someone. Marie had a sudden, horrible thought. No. He just tried to touch me is all…but…oh god. Please god. Don't let him be the one.

The clear day came to an end in storms and wind, clouds blocking the sun and sending rain whipping across Westchester-on-the-Dale. This was the weather Remy liked. Lazy guards hated rain, and the darkness made people sleep early. He walked with his blue wool cloak blocking the large droplets, bow making a bump under the fabric. The houses gave way to simpler peasant shacks as he reached the bottom of the valley, and soon the road leading to the governor's palace was bare. Remy cut through the ditch and kept to the wild shrubs, although he could see no guards on the battlements. There were a few lights in the living quarters of the castle, but they were probably just fires left for warmth. Remy smiled slightly, cheeks curving under the layer of copper stubble he could never take the time to shave completely off. This was going to be an easy score. Then he could get the hell out of here and go someplace quiet to figure out how to deal with the Elfins.

There was one guard by the gate, but the rest had gone inside. The man looked miserable, blue uniform drooping and lance rusting by the second. Remy deliberately splashed his foot in a puddle, and when the guard turned clocked him with a hard, practiced fist. The man went down with barely a grunt. Remy clambered up the rough side of the guard tower, occasionally using his dagger, and pulled himself in. In the tower he took his bow out and notched a special arrow, with an iron head that could pierce rock at fifty paces. There was also a tightly braided cord attached to the end that could support his weight. Remy scanned his choice of balconies to fire at. Two were closed, dark and locked, but the shaded one in the living quarters was open. There was firelight behind the door, but Remy didn't call himself the best thief in two lands for nothing. He could be quiet. He took careful aim, feeling the familiar flex of the bow, and let the arrow fly. The steel head punched into the rock above the door, the cord whipping tight. Remy secured the other end to the post of the tower, and then reached out and let his legs hang in open space over the inner courtyard, a certainly painful and perhaps fatal fall. He worked hand over hand along the cord, the light always his goal.

Raven bent her head over her current account book, trying to shut out Victor's snoring and her own boiling anger at Magnus's presumption. They both wanted power, but Raven had underestimated how easy Magnus would be to woo with the bargain of Marie for a takeover Raven's way. She just hoped the stupid man wouldn't botch the job with his arrogance. Raven finally slapped the book shut with annoyance. Fiddling the king's taxes must be done with a clear head. As she was about to stand she thought she heard a noise behind her, and before she could turn a gloved hand had clapped over her mouth. "Shhh, now," an accented voice whispered in her ear. Raven struggled, but she felt the prick of a knife in her neck, and then seconds later her limbs became heavy and her eyes closed. Magic… she thought as she drifted off to sleep.

Remy quickly and methodically collected the smaller jewels from the box in the bedroom, mindful of the snoring man who looked like he broke things in half for fun. He found a locked iron case under a rack of uniformly dark and depressingly styled dresses in the corner of the room. This was where they hid the big stuff. A quick strike from his dagger and the lock gave way. "Well slap me an' call me a servin' girl," he murmured as he opened the case. He'd stumbled upon a dowry. There was a heavy ruby necklace, a pair of emerald-studded armlets, and three rings with huge jewels set in gold carved to the smallest detail of three different mythical scenes. There was more money in jewels in the chest than Remy could spend in a year, even with the way he normally lived. "Now where a little old governor get de money for all dis, eh?" he asked the sleeping man. The man snorted and turned over. Remy grinned, shoved the jewels into his pockets, and headed back the way he came.

Marie had been reading on her settee, the place where she usual closed her day, when it had started to rain. She drifted off in the flickering firelight, the sounds of the wind lulling her to sleep. When she woke up it was to her mother's scream. "Victor! We've been robbed! Wake up! GUARDS!" Raven screamed even louder. Marie whipped her head to her balcony when she realized there was another person in her room. He was just going out when he heard her gasp and turned to see her staring at him. He nodded.


"You…" started Marie, jumping up and getting in a defensive posture. He smiled. Marie paused momentarily, dazzled by the soft play of the man's sensuous lips. He came over to her before she could react, took her hand, and kissed it. His blue cape swirled, and Marie caught sight of a small, wicked-looking dagger with an amber jewel set in the hilt, along with her dowry necklace poking out of his pocket. She opened her mouth. Immediately, he pressed his finger to it, and hit her with the smile again.

"Shhh." He bounded away from her and to the door as Marie heard guards yelling down the hall. The lightning flashed and he was gone.

The next morning, Marie stayed in her room, knowing that she could never leave the palace now. Raven was in a fury. Marie could hear her shouting at Victor as they went past her door in the early morning. Marie sighed and looked at herself in the mirror. She almost chuckled when she thought about the impudent thief knocking out her mother with a magic dagger and making off with all of the clunky dowry jewels. She knew such thoughts were wrong and dishonorable, but frankly she didn't care. No dowry meant a longer time until marriage, and Marie was happy. She smiled when she thought about the thief himself, his offhanded kiss and angelic smile, doing nothing to hide the devilish spark in his eyes. Marie didn't realize how deeply she'd slipped into memory until there was a cough on her balcony, and Magnus glided through the door. Marie started up from her dressing table. "Hello," he smiled at her.

"Magnus," Marie said almost guiltily. He was wearing a black robed wrapped at the waist, with loose pants and boots beneath it. With his hair tied back he looked younger, but he still made Marie shy away inwardly. He clasped his hands together in a businesslike way.

"Ready for your big day?"

"I thought Raven would keep me here," said Marie. Magnus smiled at her again.

"Oh no. She knows you're in very good hand." He stretched out his. "Come." Marie hesitated only a second before she went to him. He closed his eyes and muttered an incantation, and suddenly they were standing on the road just beyond the gates of the castle. Marie looked up, seeing the sky, still holding a few clouds from the rain, and down to where her feet touched muddy earth. Magnus looked amused.

"I can't believe this…" breathed Marie. She forgot for a moment Magnus was watching with his animal eyes, and relished the feeling that she was out in the world, free air on her face.

"Come along, Marie," said Magnus after a moment. "We have to find you the perfect dress." He reached out as if to take her arm, but Marie clamped them to her sides and Magnus gestured away down the road. Marie stepped forward, Magnus just behind her like a proper escort, and headed with mixed feelings towards the market of Westchester-on-the-Dale.

Marie wished they had more time to linger in the market, with its crush of people, but Magnus hustled her through the stalls and into a side street full of the shops of the rich. At the finest dress store Magnus could find he led Marie among the racks of silk, satin, and brocade, in all the colors from shell pink to deep blood red. "I think the yellow one suits you," said Magnus, taking a high-necked frock down with a long hook. The dress had a large, fashionable hoop skirt and a frilly bodice, the kind of thing a young girl would wear to her first outing. Marie bit her lip as Magnus shoved the dress at her so it rustled. "The silk would be lovely against your skin," he said from behind the ridiculous skirt. That did it. Marie pushed the layers of fabric away with a gentle hand.

"No. Not this time, Magnus. Thank you anyway." Magnus's mouth set.

"As you wish." Marie turned and looked towards the darker side of the rack, where the dresses faded to jewel tones and necklines sunk considerably lower. She took another long hook and pulled down another dress. It was full skirted, with fine corset bones stitched into the bodice. The silk was watered purple, shading from deep to the most delicate lilac. It was daring, it was tempting, Raven would hate it. Marie turned to Magnus with a wicked smile.

"This one." The warlock's mouth opened and closed quickly, then he returned her grin.

"Excellent choice, Lady Marie."

The sun was cresting the tallest spires of the royal palace as it set, and Remy walked among the last of the market customers, reveling in the airy feeling of money in his pockets. He had sold off almost all of the stolen jewelry, and he was appreciating the view of well-dressed young women being driven towards the palace. The king and queen must be hosting a ball. Remy was so caught up that he almost ran smack into Dekken's back. The small Elfin was arguing with a merchant—the jeweler Remy had sold the ruby necklace and ornate rings to earlier in the day. The thief turned to slip away into the crowd, but he found Erik's hand planted firmly on his chest. "It has been too long, LeBeau," said the taller man.

"Non, homme, not long enough," said Remy. Behind him he heard Dekken unsheathe his sword. The jewel merchant scurried away.

"I owe you for those teeth, you foreign dirtbag," said Dekken.

"We owe him for a great many things," said Erik, taking out a dagger that was curved and small like Remy's, with a magical sapphire in the hilt where Remy had an amber shard. Dekken grabbed Remy by the back of his cloak and slid his blade against the Remy's exposed skin. In a second he would be dead, a pool of black blood the only evidence that the Elfins had ever been in Westchester. Remy didn't give them that second. His toes impacted with Erik's wrist, the dagger flying up. Remy's elbow went into Dekken's padded midriff, still hurting, and his arm came up, caught the falling dagger and drove it home into Dekken's shoulder. The Elfin cried out in pain, the skin around the wound instantly blackening. Powerful poison magic was housed in Erik's blade. Erik himself landed on Remy's back, taking him to ground. Remy tasted blood as his cheek slammed the hard dirt of the market ground. Dekken was crumpled in a crouch, holding his shoulder and screaming in his Elfin language, his sword lying unattended. Erik sensed Remy's intention but the thief grabbed the weapon and slashed blindly at him. He didn't make contact, but he forced Erik to rear back to avoid losing an eye. Remy slammed him in the chest with both feet and sent Erik sprawling into a left over mud puddle. The big man let out a curse in Elfin, but it was lost on Remy, who was already fleeing into the shadows.

The dress in hand, Magnus and Marie were walking the twilight streets. "It's much too late to return to your home and prepare," said Magnus as a carriage bearing a couple in formal wear passed. "May I offer my quarters at the palace?" Marie was in too giddy a mood to read anything into his words.

"Yes, thank you," she said. Magnus nodded and guided her through the nearly empty marketplace and up the high street. Suddenly a shadowy figure came bolting out of an alley and nearly slammed Marie to the ground. She gasped and Magnus drew himself up to his full height.

"Watch yourself, you heathen!" The figure stopped for second, cloak hood slipping, and Marie was suddenly confronted with the same dark and devilish eyes that had been in the back of her head since the night of the storm. Then the man was gone, racing on into the shadows.

"Magnus, that was him!" she cried. Magnus looked after the thief.


"The man who robbed us!" Marie said, more excited than angry. Magnus's black robe rippled and he raised his hand to exact some magic on the fleeing man.

"No," Marie stopped him. "Let him go."

"Marie, he's a common thief," said Magnus patiently. "He deserves far more than I was going to visit on him." Marie shook her head.

"Please. We'll be late." Magnus faced her.

"Why are you trying to save his worthless hide? Hmm?" Marie looked the way the man had run.

"I don't know, Magnus. But you will not hurt him." She raised her chin. Magnus let out an irritated sigh.

"Fine. Come along," he snapped. Marie knew she had made him angry. For some reason, she didn't particularly care.

Remy pelted on through the night, wondering why the white-haired man didn't give chase. He knew the Darkholme daughter had recognized him. Remy finally stopped behind a fancy tavern near the royal palace, his breath coming hard. He was trapped like a man on a sinking ship—his room was in the low streets below the market, and the Elfins had him cut off. He needed a place to wait until daylight, when he could blend with the market peasants, go to his room, get his money, and get far away from Westchester. Letting that girl see him had been a real mistake. But she was lying on the settee in that skinny white nightgown… Remy forced his thoughts back to the problem at hand. A place to hide from the Elfins. They'd be looking in taverns, hotels and back alleys. What he needed was a place not just anyone could get into, where he'd have some warning. His eyes traveled up to the spires of the palace as another carriage went by and through the gates. Of course…

Marie changed her dress in record time, and bound her deep red hair up so that a few tendrils brushed her neck. Magnus was waiting decorously outside the door, still in his black robe. He did not need clothes to make him an imposing presence. Marie followed him down the curving stairs of his tower room, passing locked doors that she didn't dare ask about. As they went lower the sounds of the gala began to drift up, and finally they came to the entrance at the ballroom. Couples were entering and being announced, and Magnus cupped his hand just under Marie's elbow, not touching but hovering within half an inch of her skin. Marie's mood came down a bit. Magnus frowned at her. "Smile, Lady Marie. This is a joyous occasion after all." Marie felt anger start in the pit of her stomach. I'll take his smile and…

"Warlock Magnus and Lady Marie Darkholme!" said the steward in stentorian tones. The orchestra played a graceful cord, and Marie stepped into the royal ballroom. The first impression was of space, a high ceiling topped with small, ornately carved windows that were open to the night. King Scotten and his queen were sitting on low thrones at the far end, and Marie picked out her own parents, Raven's ball gown the ubiquitous deep blue and Victor in a black velvet jacket and breeches. She also saw the regal turban of Wizard Xavier, Scotten's chief adviser, and the flashes of light from the gold threads in his kimono. Marie just stopped for a moment and took it all in.

"Spectacular the first time, I know," said Magnus. "But come along, can't stand there gawping all day." Marie sighed as Raven caught sight of her and made a sharp arrow through the crowd.

"You arrive, finally, dear," she said, her eyes flicking critically over Marie. "Whatever are you wearing?"

"I like it," said Marie more sharply than she'd intended. Raven for some reason gave Magnus an evil look. Magnus smiled serenely. The orchestra started a waltz, and he extended his hand to Marie, all the while keeping his eyes and smile fixed on Raven. Almost…mocking her.

"Would you care to dance, Lady Marie?" Raven's mouth literally dropped open, and Marie's felt like it.

"Um," was all that came out.

"She would not," hissed Raven, plucking the sleeve of Marie's dress, her nails pinching the skin. "Go speak to your father," she told Marie, her tone like cold steel. Marie backed away and went to Victor. "What possessed you?" Raven almost growled at Magnus.

"Come, now, Lady Darkholme, we've discussed this already," said Magnus, accepting a flute of champagne from a servant. "If Marie sees me as her liberator the marriage will go smoothly, with minimal rebellion."

"Touching her was never part of the plan!" Raven cried loudly enough for nearby guests to look at them. "She must remain pure until marriage!"

"You are ridiculous, Raven, and so are your petty ideals," said Magnus. "This is my game now, and you would do well to play it my way." He looked into Raven's hard dark eyes, and his own held a spark of evil. Raven's chin set, but she didn't say anything more. None but the most foolish would cross Magnus when he was angry.

Marie was angry and miserable once again. She stood near the wall, fidgeting from foot to foot and listening as Victor droned to a fat count about some long-ago battle campaign. The ball was ruined for her—Magnus and Raven had spoiled the single most important night of her life. Marie sniffed hard to keep her tears in check, feeling more like breaking a champagne flute over Magnus's smug head than sobbing. No one was asking her to dance, of course. They all knew Raven's peculiarities. Marie scuffed the marble floor with one silk shoe, then looked up at the moon coming through the open windows. Maybe she could still make a break for it… Her eyes were drawn to movement, a black figured slipping in one of the widows thirty paces above the crowd of dancers. What on earth…he's going to get himself killed, was Marie's first thought. The second was, I know him! And it was indeed the thief from the storm. He dropped down from the sill, grabbing an ornamental banner and sliding soundlessly to the ground. He whipped off the dark woolen cloak and cast it into a corner. Underneath he had on party garb, black velvet like Marie's father but a much more fashionable cut. Marie's mouth did drop open this time, and the thief must have felt her staring because he made his easy way through the crowd to her, walking like an aristocrat. "Would you like t'dance, cherie?" he inquired when he reached her. His dazzling, potent smile made it's lazy way across his lips again. Marie felt her jaw work, but no words came. The orchestra struck up a fast number, one of the dances that were still considered slightly risqué in the better circles. "I take dat as a yes," laughed the thief, and before Marie could react he clasped her arm—her bare skin!—and lead her onto the floor. He had twirled her around twice before Marie found her tongue.

"Unhand me!" He just smiled.

"Or what, chere, you gonna call your big bad escort on me?" He grabbed her waist and laid her into a dip as the orchestra paused on a cord, gearing up for the real dance.

"I'll scream," hissed Marie, tilted back into a position she was sure any mother would never approve of, the thief's breath hot on her collarbone. Then suddenly he whipped her up and they were moving in the fast, sensuous rhythm of the dance.

"But chere," he said with a full grin this time, "why would you want to?"

"I—" started Marie just before she was dipped and twirled at the same time, her hair coming out of its bun and tumbling down her bare shoulders and silk-covered back. They did two more percussive steps and then Marie found herself with the full front of her body pressed against the thief's, breath coming hard. He held her to him for what seemed like an endless second, his left hand reaching down, finding her leg under her skirts and bringing it up to his waist.

"What's your name?" he whispered, his lips so close his breath was practically hers.

"Marie," breathed Marie as a wave of emotions and pure physical feeling she'd never experienced before washed over her. She found the deep amber eyes. "What's yours?" He smiled at her, lips and bodies still in almost-contact.

"Remy. Remy LeBeau."

Raven couldn't move for the life of her. One moment she had been talking to Magnus, and the next she turned and seen Marie dancing with a complete stranger—a stranger holding her leg and practically kissing her! Raven was frozen to the floor with pure incredulity. She could almost feel Magnus's black anger loom behind her. "This is not happening," he hissed, shoving his way through the dancers. Raven blinked and then rushed after him.

"Marie!" she shouted at top volume, in the tone that meant her daughter was in a serious spot of trouble.

The spell was broken when Raven screamed. Remy turned to see Magnus and her coming fast through the crowd, and let Marie's leg and hand go. "Goodbye, chere," he whispered, and planted a light touch on her cheek, his soft lips barely brushing the translucent skin. Marie felt like she was going to faint. Raven got to her before she could react and slapped her full across the face, with more force than Marie had ever felt. She let out a cry of pain, and Raven slapped the other cheek.

"Mother! Why did you do that?!" cried Marie, feeling hot tears start. The orchestra and dancers had fallen silent, and the whole room had turned to watch the drama.

"Oh, I'm sorry my dear," said Raven in a tone so full of venom Marie cringed. "I thought since you liked being touched so much I was doing you a favor!" Marie scrubbed the tears with the back of one hand.

"It was just a dance, Mama, that's all it was!" Marie hadn't called Raven by the affectionate term since she was nine years old, but she was reduced to the quivering, scared little girl by the look in Raven's eyes. "That's all it was," she repeated in a whisper.

"Don't talk to me, you little harlot!" Raven screamed. "You've ruined your family name, brought shame to us all! Are you happy?!" Marie felt a presence behind her.

"Marie may have disobeyed the rules," said a low, soothing female voice. "But I think the only one shaming the House of Darkholme is you, Lady Raven." Raven's mouth opened and her face went pale.

"Queen Jean, I…I was just…it's a family matter." Marie turned to see the young queen looking down her nose at her mother. "Please forgive me," Raven continued to stutter. "It will…it won't…"

"That it won't," King Scotten had joined his wife. He turned and waved a finger. Three palace guards, lead by the captain in dress uniform, came to his side. "Captain Logan, please escort Lady Darkholme to the gates and see that she has a carriage home." Raven gave an incoherent gurgle, and then turned blazing, hate-filled eyes on Marie.

"You'll pay for this, you little hussy," she spat. Scotten sighed.


"My pleasure, highness," said the stocky captain. He gripped Raven's arm and the three guards propelled her out. Marie turned between her retreating, protesting mother and the royalty.

"I'm very sorry…"

"It's not your fault, dear," said Jean. "Do you have an escort home?"

"My father is here," said Marie. Jean nodded.

"Very good. It was a pleasure to finally meet you, Lady Marie. Do attend our functions again." She turned with Scotten and went back to the throne. Marie let out a breath she hadn't realized she'd been holding. Victor tapped her on the shoulder.

"Would you like to go, dear?" Marie turned to him.

"Father…you touched me." Victor turned red, then smacked his huge fist into his palm. He held out his elbow.

"It's been too long, Marie. Much too long. Shall we go?" Marie hooked her arm through his and smiled up at him.

"Yes, Father. Let's go home."

Marie had felt so good at the end of the evening that she was totally unprepared for the events of the next morning. She came downstairs, still a bit giddy from the dance and the fact that for once Raven had been shown up and Marie was the one in the right. She heard voices coming from the small private study that no one used anymore. She intended to go on to the pavilion and breakfast, but she caught the telltale rumble of Magnus's voice and crept to the slightly open door to listen instead. "This comes not a moment too soon," Magnus was saying snappily. Marie edged the door open another breath and looked in. Raven was sitting behind the large desk, looking more irritated than usual, and Magnus was bend over it, signing a large and ornate document. Raven snatched it back as soon as he was done and scrawled her own name at the bottom.

"Don't think I don't know you're enjoying every second of this, Magnus." The warlock smiled his calm snake's smile.

"Why yes I am, Lady Darkholme. I am indeed." Raven glared at him and jabbed the quill back into the inkstand.

"The only reason I'm doing this…"

"…Is because after last night you know you have no alternative," Magnus smirked. "Don't worry, Raven, I'll keep our little dancer safely in hand. She'll have so many chores around my laboratory she won't know which end is up." Oh sweet lord…that's a declaration of marriage! Marie gasped. Magnus and Raven turned in unison towards the crack in the door. Magnus made a gesture and it pulled wide, revealing Marie with her cheeks an indignant pink and her eyes holding an expression of pure horror. Raven stood smoothly and held out her hand.

"My dear, let me congratulate you on your official engagement to Warlock Magnus—someone any girl would be glad to marry." Marie shook her head, feeling no words coming. Magnus came over and took both of her hands.

"At a loss for words, Lady Marie? I understand. I have that effect on people." Marie whipped her hands out of his grasp and glared into his eyes with a ferocity no one had witnessed from her before.

"You can't do this," she hissed. Raven came to Magnus's shoulder like a dark imp and placed the declaration in his hand. Magnus chuckled.

"As long as I have this, I can." He tucked the ink-smeared parchment into his pocket and brushed past Marie to the main door of the castle. "I think a week's engagement will be sufficient, Lady Darkholme. I don't believe passions should be denied." He winked at Marie, purely lecherous, and stepped out the door. Marie whirled on Raven.

"Mother, how could you?!" Raven smiled at her daughter, in complete control once again. And that was what this was all about, Marie realized. Control for Raven—of Marie, and of her social status, and of her entire world.

"Because once a girl is shamed she must take any man that will have her, you know that." Marie felt tears screaming to be released, but she fought them back.

"This was the plan, wasn't it? To marry me off to that…that…" Raven took her arm in an iron grip.

"Come, now, darling daughter. You're getting flustered." She wrenched Marie back up to her room and practically tossed her inside.

"I won't stand for this!" Marie shouted at her before the door shut.

"Hmm, that's really of no importance, sorry to say," said Raven. She took out a pewter key and held it up. "You'll understand if I lock the door, won't you? Young brides sometimes lose their heads and do foolish things." Marie started for the door and the key, but Raven slammed it and deftly locked it, and Marie was left to fall against the hard wood sobbing.

The tears stopped as day faded to evening, replaced by a steady and growing rage. Raven had pushed and used Marie for the last time. She was not going to marry Magnus, become little more than his slave to further her mother's hunger for power. Marie looked at herself in her ornate mirror and saw that her eyes were puffy and pink around the edges, and the rest of her skin pale and worn. She turned away from the gilt frame and took a never-used traveling bag from her wardrobe. She put in a pair of shoes, some stockings, an extra blouse to fit under her bodice and all the jewelry she had in her room. She slipped out of her brocade skirt and corset and into a plain blue cotton dress. She angrily yanked an ivory comb through her hair and then tossed the trinket in the bag. She could probably sell it for a few coins. Her rich red hair was bound up in a tight braid and wrapped at the back of her head. Marie blew out her lamp and went out the door of her balcony. If the thief could exit this way so could she. Guards were slowing walking back and forth with torches in front of the gate to the outside. They had been on alert ever since the robbery.

The only way Marie could see to get down to the courtyard was climbing down the rugged stone wall itself, and after a moment of calculation she slung one leg and then on the other over the rail, sitting on the edge of the balcony. She reached out one foot to the ledge at the bottom and then gripped the railing in a white-knuckle hold and turned so she was facing inward with both feet planted on the narrow stone protrusion. Marie felt herself shaking, and cold sweat from her palms slipping on the rail. Ever so slowly, she edged towards the palace wall, the uneven stone blocks her ladder to freedom. The ledge was loose and Marie forced herself to keep silent as stone chips fell from under her feet. She reached the wall and clung to the foot and handholds almost gratefully, working her way down the high drop to the ground. It seemed like eternity, but in reality Marie had timed her escape perfectly. As she dropped into the shadows at the base of the wall, stumbling and muddying the hem of her dress, the gates to the road opened wide and Victor's carriage came through. The guards saluted him, and were distracted. Marie seized the opportunity and ran.

Westchester at night was nothing like the busy, airy daytime. The streets were empty except for the occasional spillover from a tavern, and Marie felt like unseen eyes were on her as she moved through the narrow streets. These were lined with crumbling townhouses, shanties, and regal mansions that had become bars or worse. In the roofless ruins of an ancient stone house, a fire burned while shadowy men sat around it silently. Their eyes, black in the firelight, turned on Marie as she hurried past. She should have stayed on the main road to the high streets, despite the risk of discovery. This part of the city was dangerous, she'd heard even the palace guards wouldn't venture into parts of the low streets. She passed another tavern where men were singing in drunken unison, helped along by a variety of scantily clad barmaids. Some of the men leered and called to Marie, and she broke into a run until she was away from the pools of light that the tavern lamps cast. Here it was darker still, the houses mostly in ruins. Marie heard a scuffling sound and whipped around. The street was empty for fifty paces behind her. She started walking again, more rapidly. The sound came again and this time she caught movement in the pools of blacker black behind her. Two men were walking, their cloth-wrapped feet making no sound. One was like a shadow, blending with his black cape, and the other was in deep blood red. Marie swallowed. The men didn't seem to take any notice of her, in fact they were checking each ruined doorway, searching. Marie turned again, and almost ran smack into a squat man in a filthy tunic and head wrap. He grinned at her, teeth missing and the rest yellow-black. "Spare a coin, missus?" Marie calmed her pounding heart.

"No, sorry." She stepped to go around him, and he moved to block her. His patched boots scuffed the dirt, and Marie realized he was the source of the sound.

"Eh, c'mon, missus. Pretty thing like you can spare one coin for ugly me, surely." Marie opened her mouth to say no again when she saw the short blade come into his had. Her eyes went wide, but she was silent. "That's it," agreed the ugly man. "Keep quiet-like and we'll all do our business." Another man, this one blond and not bad-looking except for his filth, stepped out behind her and gripped her arms.

"Let go of me," hissed Marie. She tried to turn back and see if the two cloaked men were coming to her aide, but the blond robber removed one hand from her arm and slapped her.

"Eyes front, missy. That's the way." The short one felt through her pockets methodically with an obscene grin and then ripped open her bag with the dagger. Her jewels and clothes fell to the dirt street.

"Well now!" he crowed. "Lookit this 'ere, John." The one called John craned his neck.

"Reckon she's someone important, Mortimer. Might be a ransom in her, what?"

"I'll say," chortled Mortimer. "Gag her up and let's get out of 'ere." He scooped up Marie's jewelry while she struggled against John. Marie heard a buzz on the air, and suddenly Mortimer was flat on his face, her jewels spilling out of his hand in a glittering stream.

"Blimey!" shouted John. They both saw the arrow with the black feathers sticking out of Mortimer's back, dead center. The shooter stepped out of the shadows, leaning his bow carefully against a wall, and glared at John.

"You wanna see if I can be as accurate wit' you, homme?" he inquired in a deadly tone. John let out a yelp and took off running. Marie barely had time to take in the fact that it was Remy before she heard more shouts.

"LeBeau! There he is!" The two men were running at them. Remy grabbed her hand and her jewelry and ran the other way, pulling Marie along into the dark alleys.

"Who are they?" she shouted over her breath and their pounding feet.

"Bad news for me, chere!" Remy called back. He whipped her around another corner into darkness and held her close, chest to chest. Marie could smell the smoky scent of him and fell his breath coming hard. The two men pelted past their alcove, cloaks flapping, and Remy let out his breath and grinned at her. "Works ev'ry time." Marie, still worried that the men might come back, hadn't moved an inch. "Much as dis is nice, chere, you mind getting' off me so's we can go?" Remy said devilishly. Marie jumped back, blushing.

"Sorry." Remy brushed the shock of copper hair out of his eyes and winked at her.

"Don' be. Dere's plenty o'time for dat later, ne?" Marie turned an even more furious shade of red as Remy casually took her hand and led her away down the street.

Remy brought Marie to a basement room in a better-lit and safer section of the low streets. The room held only a cot and Remy's scattered clothes, but to Marie it looked as good as a room in paradise. Remy smoothed the rough cover on the cot and offered her a seat, while he took one cross-legged on the floor. "So, Lady Marie, why you down here wit' us disreputable types?"

"My mother is forcing me to get married," Marie muttered, the old anger at Raven coming back. Remy tilted his head, giving Marie a good chance to really look at him. He had a face just slightly narrow, high cheekbones covered in day-old stubble, and large dark eyes that calculated everything and missed nothing.

"So you run away den?"

"Yes," said Marie. "And I'm not going back." Remy chuckled.

"Relax, chere, I ain't de type to pack you up and send you home." Marie looked down at her lap.


"Dat's anot'er t'ing," said Remy. "Stop apologizin' for everyt'ing. I don' care if you ain't perfect." Marie bristled.

"You actually believe I'd worry what a common thief thinks?" Remy stood suddenly and came to her. Marie suddenly remembered the amber-hilted dagger in his belt.

"I may be a t'ief, chere," his threatening pose dropped and he crouched down on his heels and grinned at her, "but I hardly common. Best t'ief in two lands, in fact." Marie had to smile as well.

"You're awfully confident." Remy reached out to her hand and rubbed his thumb once over the top of it. Marie felt the tingle spread through her skin. Remy looked into her eyes.

"I have t'be." He sat up on the cot with her. "Now. Tell me what makes t'ose beautiful eyes o'yours so sad."

"It's a very long story," said Marie, aware of how close he was. Remy teased a tendril of hair that had come lose from her braid.

"I wanna hear." Marie made a wry face and looked down.

"My mother believes that I should be pure until marriage—she won't even let anyone touch me. And my marriage is going to be to Magnus—that awful, smarmy warlock that works for King Scotten, and there's no way I can get out of it because he has my declaration to him!" She stopped abruptly and looked at Remy, who was regarding her patiently. "He has my declaration…if I get rid of it he has no proof…I'll be free." She faced the thief. "Remy, could you steal that paper back from Magnus?" Remy bit his lip.

"I don' know, chere. Messin' with a warlock ain't somet'ing I'd normally do." Marie grabbed his hands impulsively.

"Please, Remy. If I marry Magnus I'll be a prisoner for the rest of my life, and that won't be very long because I'd rather kill myself than live with him." Remy stroked both her hands this time.

"Alright, alright, chere. Calm yourself."

"I'll pay you anything," said Marie. "I can get the money from my father. Will you do it?" Remy nodded slowly.

"I know dis is a bad idea, but…I do it." Marie let her breath out. Suddenly salvation was possible.

"Thank you. Thank you so much, Remy. What's your price?" He half-smiled, his deep eyes taking on a warm tone.

"Tell you what, Marie—you spend one night wit' me an' I do it." Marie blinked.

"Excuse me?" Remy smiled fully, stroking the hair at her temples with one finger, drawing his face close to hers.

"You heard me. I do it all for one night wit' you." Marie was at a loss for words. Remy was so close…his scent, his heat, her eyes loosing themselves in his amber orbs. The kiss happened with only a breath between them, the touch of another's lips on Marie's a strange and thrilling sensation. Remy slipped one hand around her waist, the other behind her head, suddenly and abruptly rough, pulling her close to him and deepening the kiss to the point where Marie felt only the pulse of their two bodies. Remy finally pulled away, his chest rising and falling slightly faster. Marie knew her face was pink and warm. "Never done dat before?" he inquired softly. Marie shook her head.

"Never," she breathed. Remy smiled and chuckled softly, running one finger over her lips and then kissing her light and quick, again and again, building up until they were entangled, lying back, Remy holding her leg lightly through her skirts, their tongues brushing tenderly and then with increasing passion. Remy's warm, soft lips brushed down her neck, his tongue and teeth combining for a heavenly sensation. Marie shivered, and he stopped and came up so he could look her in the eye.

"You know what? I t'ink I waive de fee." Marie smiled and pulled him back into another kiss.

"Where is she?!" Magnus thundered. He was standing over Raven in his tower laboratory in the royal palace. Raven had discovered Marie missing when a servant brought breakfast and found the room empty. Raven had raced to the palace to try and quell Magnus's rage, but it was too late.

"She'll be found," said Raven as calmly as she could, although her pale cheeks had two spots of flame on them. Magnus grabbed her arms and shook her once.

"And what if she isn't? She's much smarter than you think, you stupid woman!"

"Let go of me!" Raven shouted at the same volume, jerking against his grip.

"You brought this on, Raven, you and your stupid lust for power have ruined my plan," said Magnus in a tone that was barely audible and far more deadly than his loudest shout. "I think it's time you started paying the price for your cowardice and your foolishness. Right now." Suddenly Raven's surroundings shifted and she was in a dungeon cell below the palace. Magnus was outside the bars smirking at her. "Enjoy your stay, Lady Darkholme. No one has come to this part of the castle for nearly a decade. Do you think starvation or madness will claim you first?"

"I'll see you burn in hell for this, Magnus," hissed Raven. Magnus chuckled, almost lightly.

"You will burn first, Raven."

Marie woke from a bar of sunlight splashing across her face, the dust motes of the underground room highlighted from the tiny window. Remy was stretched out on the floor next to the cot, snoring softly, shirtless and shoeless. Marie smiled at him and then reached over and touched his bare shoulder. "Remy?" He stirred.

"Oh hey chere. Time t'get up?" Marie sat up and nodded, working the kinks from the hard cot out of her neck.

"Yes. I slept wonderfully." Remy pulled her down to his level and planted a kiss on her lips.

"I glad." Marie pulled her hair out of its now-tangled braid and ran her fingers through it to smooth out the rats.

"We have to get my declaration to Magnus back soon, before he goes to King Scotten and gets a royal seal." Remy nodded thoughtfully, reaching for his shirt and pulling it over his head with one hand.

"Not in daytime, t'ough. Remy can't exactly go outside wit' impunity."

"Why?" said Marie. "Something to do with those men last night?"

"Oui," said Remy. "Dey be Elfin hunters—after me, unfortunately." Marie's eyebrows shot up.

"Elfins? What did you do to them?" Remy pushed his hair out of his eyes and gathered the few long strands back with a leather lace.

"I jus…liberated somet'ing from dem. Dey want it back pretty bad, I guess."

"Oh yes, LeBeau, you're brilliant. Stealing from Elfins!" exclaimed Marie. "Honestly." Remy gave her a mock-pout.

"Some sympat'y would be nice, chere." Marie handed him his boots in reply.

"Not until we get back that parchment. Now come on."

"Are you sure dis going to work, chere?" said Remy, almost nervously, as he and Marie came to the gate of the royal palace.

"Yes," said Marie. "I'm sure." The guard held out his hand to stop her, and Marie favored him with a smile. "Lady Marie Darkholme to see Queen Jean." The guard looked Marie over, then nodded and went through the man-sized gate within the huge iron one.

"Come with me, please, milady. And your gentlemen friend too." Marie nodded, smiled, and went forward, Remy following on her heels and keeping his cool. The guard turned and walked ahead to announce them, and Remy leaned over to whisper.

"Dat's de easiest in I ever got…you could be real useful, chere."

"Magnus has rooms in the north tower—go now before we get into the royal quarters," Marie whispered back. Remy nodded, planted a fleeting kiss on her cheek, and ducked away among the milling servants and stable workers in the courtyard.

The royal palace was a nice place—if Remy had had more time he would have cleaned it out but good. But his goal was Marie's promise to Magnus, and Remy ran towards the north tower.

When he stepped through the door and went up the winding staircase, the atmosphere changed completely. The ancient stones were stained almost black with moisture and mold, and the warlock's heavy wood furniture looked out of place, like it was there merely to keep up a façade of normalcy. Remy had the eerie feeling he wasn't alone, although he could hear no sound from the top two floors of the tower. He moved to the large desk, carved with sitting lions for legs, and looked at the parchments spread over the top. None was the marriage declaration. It must be up the stairs, then, in what Marie had said was Magnus's laboratory. Keeping his back to the wall, Remy crept upwards, peeking around the corner and seeing nothing. He stepped into the room, and suddenly a striking bright pain when through the back of his skull and he fell forward, face to the stone. Magnus stepped lightly from behind the door in his crepe shoes, an ornate silver scepter in his right hand. "Bad idea, sir," he said, coming around and picking Remy's chin up with one foot. He squinted at the thief's face. "She sent you, did she? Little harlot."

"Don'…know who you mean," breathed Remy. The pain was terrible, like having hot pokers shoved through your eyes. He could feel his head bleeding from the back and smell the sharp dank scent of the warlock's robe as the hem brushed his forehead. In response to Remy's words Magnus removed his foot and Remy's chin dropped back to the stone with a clunk.

"If you play games with me, you foreign devil, I will make your death more painful that hell itself," said Magnus sharply. He grabbed Remy by the back of his cloak and hoisted him so they were face to face. Magnus had perhaps five years on Remy, but the warlock's eyes were ageless and evil, and Remy felt cold fear grow in his chest. He forced it away and looked back at Magnus glare for glare.

"I been to hell, mon ami. It's overrated." Magnus sent Remy flying back to hit the curved wall of the tower, spreading the hot pain through the rest of his body. The warlock followed and pulled down some shackles draped over a rafter. He clamped them around Remy's hands and slapped his cheek lightly, once.

"Stay here, won't you? I have another matter to attend to and then we can carry on." He shimmered and disappeared. Remy could still feel blood slicking the stones behind his head, but he twisted his left wrist and brought out the fastener he'd picked off the warlock's robe. The small wire inside broke through the brocade, and Remy set to work on the shackles.

Marie and Jean were having a polite tea, Marie nervous and doing her best to hide it, when suddenly Magnus glided through the door and caught her hand up smoothly before she could react. "Lady Marie, what a delight to see you again." Marie's teacup dropped from her fingers and shattered on the stone.

"Magnus, I was entertaining…" began Jean. Magnus waved his free hand at her.

"Yes yes, I only need to borrow Marie for a moment, your highness. We'll return to you directly." Marie had the same disoriented feeling she'd had when Magnus took her out of the governor's palace, and they were standing back in Magnus's chambers. "Now," said Magnus, whipping her around to face him, all pretense gone. "I brought you here first to give you one last chance to come and marry me without complaint. I'll have you know I already cast your whining sot of a mother into the dungeon cells for crossing me. I would not advise you to do the same."

"What have you done to Remy?" said Marie evenly. She felt her stomach quaking but her face was calm for the warlock.

"The common scum is of no concern to you. Will you marry me or not?" Marie took a step back and considered. Magnus's rage no longer frightened her. It was not only her life at stake now but Remy's, and she was the only one in a position to save them both. "Well?" snapped Magnus.

"I believe," said Marie slowly, "that you can go to hell. And I hope your torment is very painful indeed." Magnus stayed calm as well.

"You will live to regret those words, but not for long." He grabbed Marie by the hair and yanked her up the stairs to his laboratory.

In the laboratory Marie saw Remy, looking slightly worse for wear and half-out of a pair of heavy iron shackles. "My dear Mousier LeBeau," tsked Magnus. "Please don't insult my intelligence." The shackle still on Remy's wrist suddenly glowed with a blue fire, and Remy screamed and dropped back against the wall.

"Remy!" Marie screamed in turn. Magnus threw her away from him into a dusty corner.

"Do shut up, Lady Marie. Now. Ah yes." He picked up the marriage declaration from among his ledgers on his laboratory table and tucked away in his robe. He turned to a wall of weapons and selected a long sacrificial knife, the steel of the blade polished to a near black and the handle a heavy death's-head. "I think this is rather fitting, considering your misguided romance. Virgin sacrifices and all that." He flourished the weapon and turned back to Marie. "It won't hurt for a terribly long time—just enough for you to pray with all your might for the agony to end." He advanced on Marie, the knife raised.

"Wait," she said. Magnus paused, lowering the blade.

"Begging is useless, Lady Marie." Marie stood, smoothing her skirt. Over Magnus's shoulder she saw Remy stir and look up. He caught her eye, and then unclenched the hand that still held his lockpick. Marie looked back at Magnus.

"I changed my mind." Magnus threw his head back and laughed.

"You had your chance, my impudent hussy. It's far too late for me to harbor even the slightest interest in you." Marie took a step towards him, letting a soft doe look creep into her eyes.

"Are you so sure about that?" Magnus nodded once.

"Yes. But since you're so desperate, I guess I can grant you a favor before you die." He tucked the knife into his belt and yanked Marie too him, their lips meeting in a hard and loveless embrace. His tongue searched into her mouth and he tangled her hair painfully with one hand. Marie fought down her revulsion, her thin fingers undoing the top fasteners of his robe. Magnus mistook this for passion and slammed her back into the wall, the kiss still going strong and battering. Marie's fingers closed on her declaration to him, and she pulled it free and rammed her knee into Magnus's groin. He went back with a loud curse, his unflappable calm flagging for once and his pale face going crimson.

"Bitch!" he spat. Marie's lip curled up at him.

"You think you're so superior, Magnus, but you're nothing but a fool. A fool to fall for my ruse, and fool for ever thinking you could own me." Marie held up the declaration and savagely ripped it in half.

"No!" Magnus shouted. He ran at Marie, murder burning in his eyes. Marie dodged out of the way, stumbling over the hem of her dress, falling and flinging the pieces of the declaration towards the carved fireplace, Magnus howling as they went up in flames. He landed on Marie, his fists pummeling her back, but suddenly Remy's weight shoved him off her, the two men rolling over and over until they collided with the legs of the laboratory table. Magnus's beakers and bottles rattled, and two crashed to the floor, a fire igniting instantly around the two men. It spread up the table legs, to the wooden handles of the weapons, the straw in the corners and the cloth hangings on the walls. In literally an instant Marie was surrounded by fire, Remy and Magnus still locked in combat. Choking, Marie ripped off her outer skirt and pressed it to her face as flames started to lick at the worn carpet. She saw Magnus get the upper hand on Remy and raise the wicked knife.

"NO!" Marie rushed through the fire, pushing Magnus, his hand turning, the knife entering his robe and then his chest, the warlock falling back into the flames on the floor. Remy was coughing, blood running from his brow, nose and lower lip. Marie looked back to the door, saw the wall of fire.

"No getting out that way," gasped Remy. "Come on, chere." He grabbed her hand and headed for the narrow window.

"Oh no!" cried Marie. "That's death, Remy!" He turned to her before the window and gripped her shoulders.

"I love you, Marie. Trust me." Marie was free falling, a scream ripping out of her throat, and then she splashed into the rank wastewater ditch at the back of the palace. She went under and then rocketed back to the surface, choking and gasping and alive.

"Remy!" she shouted, thrashing wildly. "Remy!" He came to the surface next to her.

"Marie! Marie, where are you chere?!" He saw her and stroked over. "T'ank god. T'ank god you alright." They both sprawled out on the bank, dirty brown water running back through the dirt.

"Where's Magnus?" said Marie. She wiped more water away from her eyes. Remy took a deep breath and let it out. Marie heard screams from above.

"Up dere, I t'ink," said Remy. Marie looked up in time to see the flaming body tumble from the same window they had jumped out of and splash into the ditch. Marie turned her face away. Remy helped her up.

"You did de right t'ing, Marie. He would've killed me otherwise." He kissed her with a flourish. "I told you I love you, right?" Marie managed a smile.

"Right." Throats cleared behind them, and Marie and Remy turned to see Erik and Dekken with Elfin bows drawn taught.

"Let's go, LeBeau," said Erik. Marie looked back at the thief.

"Remy?" He sighed.

"Sorry, chere. Dey got me dis time."

"What did you do, really?" said Marie. Remy scratched behind his ear once and looked like he was trying to find the best way to tell the tale.

"I stole t'eir tradition, chere." He heaved a deeper sigh. "I didn' steal dat Elfin bow." He looked Marie in the eye, regretful. "I am an Elfin, Marie. But I was a t'ief too, and I got caught. And I ran." Marie's eyes went wide.

"You…you're an Elfin?" Remy nodded.

"Not from dis land, but oui. I am." Erik had never dropped his shooting stance, and now he drew the string taut.

"And he's coming with us." Remy nodded slowly.

"I need to go, Marie." He cupped her cheek with one hand. "I understand if you don'." Marie looked down, then slipped her arms around his waist and laid her head on his chest. Remy kissed the top of her head, then Marie stepped back and the Elfins stepped forward to either side of him.

"I do." She looked up at him. "But you're coming back, right? You'd better be." Remy's lazy smile climbed his cheeks again.

"Oui, chere. Count on it."



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