Alessia wondered when she’d see Oskar again.
That she would, there was no doubt. That he was still alive, there was no doubt either. She felt it. Knew it, the way a compass knows north. He was alive. And he would be there for her.
The first day after her bargain with Faltus, her breath had caught at every sound outside her window, every knock on her door. She saw him clearly in her mind’s eye, riding in to save her, green skin glistening in the light of a new day’s dawn. But he hadn’t come that first day, and it was the longest day of Alessia’s life. It would soon be eclipsed in that regard, however.
Because when Oskar didn’t come for her on the first day, she knew he would on the second day. And every second of that day, she waited, feeling, praying that it would be the last second she’d have to wait for him. But Oskar didn’t come for her on the second day, either. Nor the third. Nor the fourth, fifth, tenth. Not the twentieth. Not the thirtieth. Oskar didn’t come for her as the last clutching fingers winter began to lose their grasp on the world, and spring started its inevitable rebirth.
He didn’t come for her carrying the first bloom of the new year. He didn’t come for her heralded by a flight of songbirds awakened by the warm sun. He didn’t come for her on any of the lonely nights when her bed was cold, nor any of the lazy afternoons when she felt like taking Lauriam and galloping off into the forest and the purple mountains beyond it. He certainly didn’t come for her when she wondered, feeling the swelling of tears in her eyes, when she’d see him again, or when she realized she didn’t remember what he’d looked like on that last night they had been together.
He didn’t come for her when her sadness turned to disbelief, and then to anger, and she spent hours alone with Taria screaming out her frustrations. He didn’t come for her when her house arrest ended, and she was allowed to go out (under heavy guard) into the town, where even the scrubber-maids and the tramps avoided her—her, who had loved an orc, who had been culpable in the narrowly-averted infiltration of their town. He didn’t come for her when she spoke to Faltus for the first time, and saw, no, there was no lie in his eyes when he told her: he had gone free.
He had lived. He had vanished. He had left her, been released from Druvenlode’s dungeons, and Faltus swore to that freely on any name. I will come back for you, his eyes had promised her, that horrible night as he was arrested, lead away, and she feared she’d never see him again, not alive. But he was alive, she knew that as a compass knew north, and as Faltus would point out (with care for the pain it might cause her), he had, it seemed, abandoned her.
“But that couldn’t be”, he said, shaking his head, looking away from her. “He loved you, I thought. As much as you love him.” As spring turned to summer, she wondered still where he was, but she wondered, too, where Faltus would be, and when they would next see each other again.
That—that she knew the answer to. Faltus hadn’t taken her that night, when in her desperation to save him, she would have allowed him to. He had, he said, more honor that that. “Only, look on me with kindness once again”, he asked of her. “Not as the man who imprisoned your lover, for I know him to be innocent of the other crimes he was accused of. But the people of Druvenlode—they don’t know that. They can’t accept that. And as much as I’d want to release him, to let him come to you and see you smile again, I can’t. For the people of Druvenlode, I can’t. But I swear to you, he will not see my noose.”
She spoke with Faltus often, as the months went by. They spoke of Druvenlode, of her wanderings in the forests and within the town, of the time she’d almost gotten lost in the tunnels beneath the town. Of his war stories, of the close calls in his career as a Crownsguard, of his dreams of being an adventurer himself. They spoke of much, and though Faltus never brought it up, they spoke, too, of him. And where he might be.
“He said he loved you, Alessia, before he left. But he said nothing of returning”, Faltus said one day, as the sun was dipping into the west. They had been talking for hours already, the time burning away as easily as candlewax.
“I saw it in him. He wouldn’t...”
“Wouldn’t abandon you to your people? To me?” His face turned downward, and Alessia’s eyes grew wide with pain.
“No! Well, yes. I would have thought that once. There were a few hours, I admit, when I hated you more than anything in creation. But you’ve been kind to me, you and Taria alone have been kind to me.”
Faltus’ jaw set, and he looked out, toward Druvenlode, through her window, the window in which he had stood to capture him. “They’ll forget, Alessia. They’ll remember your goodness. I swear it. As you remembered mine.” He stood, and walked slowly, as though in a dream. His eyes looked out still on the town, but they no longer saw it. “I will admit as well, I wanted to kill him. I love you, Alessia. I always have. And he had your love, rather than I. And I wanted him dead for it. But I knew—I hoped—that he could make you happy, and if I had to feel pain to make you happy, then, well, so be it.” He stood silent for a long moment, and put a hand to his mouth. When he turned back to Alessia, Faltus had tears in his eyes. “I’m sorry. It’s my fault. I hope you can find some happiness, Alessia, I—“ But any more was lost when he turned his head from her, tracks of shining wetness on his face.
She stood, and she rushed to him. And still, Oskar did not come for her. But Faltus—Faltus had come for her, and he had put his career, perhaps his life, at risk, for her. “Shh.” She wiped away the tears with the corner of her thumb, taking his face in her hands. “You don’t need to apologize to me, Faltus. Not for this. You did only what you thought you had to. I know it.” Yes, Faltus was here. And he loved her. And—perhaps—maybe—she loved him.
She guided his face with her hands. Her lips parted slightly as he kissed them, and she felt the tracks of his tears on her face. They had kissed before—they had done more than that—but only now had they truly meant it. He kissed her in a way that no-one had done. Apart from Oskar. But he had seemingly abandoned her. Abandoned with Faltus, she mused, as she felt his hands grip her in their strength. Not such a terrible fate, is it, Alessia?
He pulled her tight about her waist, his mouth hungry for hers, and she reciprocated. “Alessia”, he moaned, into her lips. He wasn’t carrying his sword, but something was poking into her nevertheless. “Alessia, I love you...”
She smiled. “Just shut up, Faltus.” Pressing her weight forward, he backed up against the wall with a thud, her still glued to him, his pants beginning to strain. She slid a hand down his front, a mischievous smile spreading as she felt him shiver at her touch, and cupped him. He trembled when she squeezed, her mouth straying down to his neck, his ear. “We haven’t done this in a long time, have we?”
“No”, he breathed out. “We haven’t.”
Her fingers dug under his shirt, pulling it up and over his head, showing his muscled chest, smooth and scarless. She took his wrists in her hands, sliding them up into her shirt. He was sweet, but he moved too slow for her. Perhaps that was why she’d never fallen for him before. But when he felt the blossom of her breasts, his hands knew what to do, working beneath the fabric. “Let’s see what we remember”, she said, smiling sweetly.
“Should we—the bed—?” Faltus gasped, as her quick, skilled fingers unworked his belt and his pants. He throbbed as he was released from them, and he stood before her naked, bare, back pressed against the cold stone wall.
“You talk too much, Faltus.” She wriggled his hands free again, and with barely any pressure, sank him down to his knees in front of her. Her fingers worked in his square-cut black hair, the hair that most of the women in Druvenlode dreamed of having wrapped around their fingers. It wasn’t just his hair she had wrapped—it was him. Dutifully, he raised up the hem of the gown over his head. And when he hesitated, she thrust forward for him.
Faltus performed eagerly, hungrily, responding to her body’s involuntary cues. She closed her eyes and rose up onto her tip-toes, one hand going out to the wall for balance, the other gripping tightly to his hair. Her gown fell about him, almost hiding him from sight like a veil. He had been waiting for this, she realized. He had been hoping she might fall for him, in Oskar’s continued absence. And so she had done. Who was controlling who, then, she mused? But she didn’t think on it for too long. There was something else that needed attending to, a growing fire beneath her that would need extinguishing before it blazed too bright and too fierce.
“Lay down”, she said, her eyes closed, and he obeyed, mouth staying between her legs until the last possible moment. She hung there over him, enjoying the sensation of power. With Oskar, he had been a wild thing, untamable. She had been as a butterfly in a thunderstorm. But with Faltus—she was an empress.
Oskar had not abandoned her. Not in his heart. But what was in his heart mattered little in the last few months.
Guinevere lived in the tunnels that ran all beneath Druvenlode. There was practically an entire other town beneath the streets, comprised of sewers and underground waterways, natural caverns and ancient, dwarf-cut highways long since given back over to decay. And in a high-roofed cavern, at the waters of one such waterway, a river that ran fast and swift beneath the town, all the way to the ocean, some said, Guinevere had her base.
Undertown, they called it. The compound was huge, constructed entirely underground from whatever was on hand—discarded wood, scrap metal, bits of old mining equipment, broken boats. She hadn’t been the one to discover it, but under her guidance, Undertown had grown exponentially, spreading from a few ramshackle buildings that served as a waystation for a handful of thieves, to a sprawling complex that housed perhaps a thousand souls beneath the feet of the unsuspecting townsfolk. At the center of the town, built high and strong from lashed-together pieces of wood and itself built comprising a long, flat-bottomed riverboat that served as her primary means of transportation below ground, was Guinevere’s house. From it she ruled as queen of Undertown, a matriarchal spider feeling all the vibrations in her shantytown web, brooking no dissent and no challengers.
It was as he was coming in to Undertown, aboard the riverboat that in part comprised her house, that Oskar learned what would be his role in her household. The people survived on thievery, living on the edges of Druvenlode, and while it was a potentially quite lucrative life, it was also necessarily a very difficult one. And they needed something to keep them entertained, lest they grow dissatisfied with Guinevere’s rule and think they could do better. “So she gives ‘em blood, she does”, explained one of Guinevere’s hulking bodyguards, an evil, gap-toothed grin spread across his broken face. “By the gods-damned buckets if it’s needed. Get a good look at it—“ he jerked a thumb back over his shoulder, at the sight of Undertown, approaching rapidly toward them, glimmering with torchlight in the dark underground. “You ain’t never gonna see it again, mate. It’s the pit for you.”
And for the last months, while Alessia had been wondering where he was, he had been fighting in Guinevere’s pit, as a gladiator. And he was good. Damned good.
Armed only with a simple blade, he had been thrust into his first fight only a few days after arriving in Undertown, still aching and tired and hungry from the ordeal of his arrest. He fought against a whip-thin devil-man, wearing dark, flexible leathers and wielding two flashing scimitars. The devil-man had laughed, said something in a language Oskar didn’t understand, and the fight began. Those scimitars nearly cut Oskar to ribbons, and then Alessia would have had her mind put at ease for good—but Oskar was made of sterner stuff.
He fought back, drawing from the fury and rage he felt when he’d first protected Alessia from those wolves in the forest—it felt now like a lifetime ago—and then recently, when he saw Faltus standing in her window, that cruel, sad smile on his face. The devil-man, clearly, had been expecting an easy opponent, and he fell back beneath Oskar’s blade. His fancy flourishes and dashing dives were pretty to look at, but as the burly half-orc swung his sword, it was without art, without complexity—but with strength and skill and killing intent.
Such was his reputation built. Every stroke he made, he made it with the fury of those days. He saw the wolf. He saw Garuk. He saw Faltus. He fought savagely, dancing between the devil-man’s pretty blades, battering them aside and sliding inward, making up the distance before his opponent could react. Though his blade was less wieldy than his enemy’s in close-up work, he had the advantage in raw strength. A hand closed around the devil-man’s arm, wrenching with awful power, pulling the speedier fighter around like a man with a dog’s leash, and while the other scimitar tried to work inward, to pierce the orc’s defenses, Oskar allowed none of it, first dazing his opponent with a brutal headbutt that Gruumsh himself would’ve been proud of, then swinging a savage one-handed chop with his blade that took the devil-man’s legs out from under him. He went down with a cry, more surprised than pained, but Oskar knew from his butchery of his kills as a hunter, even if he lived through today, he’d never walk right again.
The whole fight lasted no more than a minute, but the crowd was on its feet, roaring. Oskar pinned one scimitar to the ground with his boot, and slid the other away with his blade. It span off into a corner of the pit. Then he looked up into the crowd, a cylindrical wall of screaming humanity, roaring their approval, their bloodlust. And at the very top of that cylinder, the top of the pit, was Guinevere. It was at her that Oskar looked, bare-chested, sweat gleaming on him, chest heaving with heavy breaths. He had a few new scars to boast of, if he ever had the chance to boast of them again. And even from this distance, he saw that Guinevere might be interested in more than hearing his boasting.
“Kill him”, she whispered, and even though he never could have heard it over the roar and the echo of the crowd, he saw her lips move, and he heard her voice in his mind.
The blade came down across the devil-man’s throat, and the crowd lost its mind.
That night, Oskar ate well in his cell, and he had a visitor. Still flanked by her bodyguards, Guinevere came to him, wearing a new dress, this one of deep blue—almost green—like the uncaring sea, with a neckline that plunged as deeply as his sword had done through the devil-man. Around her neck she wore a fine gold chain, with a single white stone hanging from a pendant. And still, she looked like a queen; and still, she looked like a crime lord.
“You did well tonight, Oskar.”
“Thanks”, he said, shrugging. He was starving, wolfing down every scrap of food he could get his hands on. That was where his attention lay.
“Oskar. Look at me.”
His eyes rose. And they stayed there. Despite the gnawing hunger still in his gut, his feast was forgotten. “Yes?”
“You did well tonight. Was this your first time?” Her mouth twisted into a small smile.
“No, Gu—“ But as he looked into her eyes, he remembered her words. “No, Mistress.”
“I see great things for you, Oskar.” She drew near to the bars, pressing against them, one hand playing with the pendant around her neck. She regarded him with a burning heat. And as she played with her pendant, as she looked at him and he at her, she seemed to take on some kind of Alessia’s shape. “If only you are willing to do what is necessary.”
He felt his legs rise up beneath him and move him toward the bars. He wrapped his fingers around them, mere hairs separating her from him. The air between them was electric. He felt himself drawing in to her, inexorably, like a leaf caught in a whirlpool, drowning in her eyes. She was like Alessia, he saw now, so like her. “Mistress, I—“
The pendant caught his eye as it flashed in the torchlight, and he looked down, only for a moment. When he looked back, she looked as she had before. He couldn’t understand what had made him think she looked like Alessia—they were almost night and day. “Lady Guinevere, I will do what I must.”
He felt the fury and lust in her gaze as he turned away from her, sat down, and returned to his feast.
Such did his days pass, during Alessia’s slow process of moving on from him. And he moved on as well. Every day he spent in Undertown, he reveled in the glory more. He felt the pull of Guinevere stronger.
Until, one night, her two bodyguards entered his cell. Alone.
“Geddup, Oskar. Lady Guinevere wants to see you in her quarters.”