Continuing Tales

A Forfeit of Dreams

A Labyrinth Story
by KL Morgan

Part 12 of 15

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A Forfeit of Dreams

They spent the following days packing up their belongings. Sarah, who had arrived in Venice little more than a fortnight ago, had no trouble simply re-folding her clothes and putting them back into her brassbound trunks. Nicole, however, insisted otherwise. They needed new gowns, new gloves, new fans, new shoes, new everything. The rest of the week was a blur of shopping and sampling and ordering. Nicole was absolutely giddy. Sarah. wasn't sure what she was.

She had said yes. To a season with the Prince -- in his house, day and night. To his company every single day. She had said yes. Why? Who knew. But she had said it.

She couldn't take it back.

Finally everything was purchased and everything packed. Summer had officially begun: his Highness had already left, along with the nobility who had little responsibility in the city and less inclination to stay. The two cousins traveled from Venice that very day, Nicole blowing kisses behind them the entire way.

After reaching the mainland they climbed into a carriage, with a second one trailing behind for their luggage. The road to the Price's summerhouse was long, but not terribly boring. They passed dozens of mansions and palaces, Nicole naming their owners and any gossip that went with them.

They finally reached the territory belonging to the Prince. Traveling up a long drive of pristine white sand, they watched as they drove by artificial pools of still water and cultivated gardens with pale marble statues. The lawn stretched before them, green as an emerald and almost gleaming in the heady sunlight.

The servants met them at the doors. A veritable army in starched flounces and powdered wigs, they swept in and immediately took charge of the situation. In moments the trunks were unloaded from the other carriage and Nicole's aunt (and tiny powder puff of a dog) were well in hand, being calmly escorted amidst her shrill complaints and protestations to her rooms. Giggling to each other, Sarah and Nicole did the same.

The rooms Sarah was shown were simply amazing. Vivid frescos lined the walls, mahogany furniture filled every vacant corner, and the floor beneath her feet was of delicately veined marble. Breathing in the warm air, scented by a tray of fresh-picked oranges lying on a low table, Sarah flung herself into a high-backed chair and gave a deep sigh of contentment.

The servants trailed in respectively behind her, quietly placing her trunks inside her private salon. With a last bow in her direction, they left her in peace.

Her hand was barely lifted to open a trunk lid when a familiar voice came from the doorway.

"You came."

She hesitated and pulled back, hands straightening her voluminous skirts as she stood. Calmly, she smoothed the rustling fabric as she stood to face him.

He was leaning against the doorjamb, arms crossed thoughtfully across his chest as he watched her with those unnerving, crystalline eyes. Thankfully, there was only a slight edge of smugness to the smile that pulled at his thin lips.

"I had to," she replied steadily. "It was important to Nicole."

"Hmm." He stepped away from her room, still smiling to himself. "Whatever the reason, I am glad to find you here." He held one arm before him, courteously, inviting her back downstairs. "Would you like to see the rest of the house?"

"What about Nicole?"

"I'm sorry to tell you your cousin has already taken off," he replied without a hint of repentance. "Apparently, she felt the need to grace the entire neighborhood with her presence. And she took one of my best carriages."

Sarah grinned, despite herself. "She's making sure everyone knows that you are her host for the summer months."

"I have the greatest faith in her endeavors." He gestured widely again, expectantly. "My lady?"

Wary, she ventured out of the sanctuary of her rooms, to the obvious delight of his Highness. She stepped cautiously out into the hall, which looked over a railing and onto the main foyer. As she moved to peer curiously over the rail, the Prince swung around, forcing her to back up against the wall. He placed his gloved hands against the patterned wallpaper on either side of her - an effective trap.

She glared. "I thought you were going to show me the house."

He chuckled. "I will, Sarah, I will." He grinned, sharp teeth peeking. "I only wanted to tell you," he said softly, "how glad I am that you came."

"I told you," she replied, eyes downcast. "Nicole wanted me to."

The grin widened. "Then I am forever indebted to your cousin." He leaned in closer, and Sarah nervously pressed herself even closer to the wall.

"Let me go! What are you doing?"

"Showing my gratitude, of course."

"I thought you owed a debt to Nicole, not me."

"She has granted me quite a favor," he agreed, mock-solemn. "But it is your presence that makes my heart sing," he continued mischievously, "and so the bulk of my thanks goes to you. Any gentleman knows he must give evidence of his gratitude."

Scowling, she placed both hands against his chest and ineffectually attempted to push him away, twisting in his grasp. "Sarah," he said, sounding a trifle exasperated, "it won't hurt. Just hold still."

He kissed her - lightly, sweetly. This was no casual brush of lips, but a full meeting of mouths with all the tenderness and restrained passion contained therein. Sarah froze, unthinkingly closing her eyes and succumbing to the caress, her fingers curling against the fabric of his waistcoat. He was so close. she could feel his eyelashes brushing against her cheeks.

He broke the kiss after a few moments, smiling gently before stepping away. He turned, practically dancing down the steps - he took them so light and quick.

"I'll be riding out in an hour," he called back, not looking over his shoulder. "Ask any servant to show you the stables."

Sarah stood as if rooted to the spot, watching him as he went down the staircase and turned the corner. After he had gone she let her head fall back against the wall with a bewildered sigh. Silently, she touched her gloved fingertips to her mouth. She could still feel his kiss.

A little less than an hour later, she had fully changed into an old-fashioned riding habit with a divided skirt, hair caught up in a simple twist. A servant, trying to be unobtrusive, was waiting outside her door to show her to the stables as soon as she was finished.

The Prince was already mounted and walking his horse, a dark Arabian, around the grassy padlock. A stable hand was bringing a cream-colored Palomino toward Sarah, ready to ride. She got into the saddle with little help, and gently guided the animal over to the Prince.

"Come," he said casually as she approached. "There's someone I want you to meet."

He wheeled his horse and she followed close behind. There was no talk between them as they rode - the Prince obviously knew where he was going as he wound around sculpted gardens and sparse scatterings of trees, galloping over faultless lawns. Sarah simply tried to keep up.

After a few moments, she could smell a tang of salt in the air. The grass beneath the horses' hooves grew longer and tougher, eventually mixing with silt - and they were on a sandy beach.

The Prince didn't stop, but simply turned so that they walked the horses close to the surf. To her surprise, Sarah spotted their destination: a sturdy shack, tucked against the shelter of a grassy dune.

When they approached the Prince leaned down and rapped upon the door with his riding crop, which had hitherto hung unused from his gloved hand. After a moment the door swung open to the reveal the strangest-looking man Sarah had ever seen. He stood, slightly bow-legged, in the tattered rags of bygone finery: slightly rusted chain mail and tattered tabard, tall boots nearly falling apart on his feet. An incredibly skinny old man, his white hair ruffled in the breeze, but even a jeweled eye patch couldn't dim his keen, one-eyed gaze. Seeing his visitors he saluted smartly, bringing his heels together with a soft click.

"My liege," he bowed deep, voice muffled as he spoke through a thick, drooping mustache.

"Sire Didymus," his Highness returned respectfully, nodding. "May I present to you the Lady Sarah? She is newly arrived at my household."

Sarah dismounted, though the Prince had made no move to do himself. After taking a moment to ensure her footing in the shifting sand, she made a demure little curtsey, which the aged knight returned with an impressively deep bow of his own.

"Verily, 'tis a true honor to meet you, m'lady," Sir Didymus spoke, almost overcome with emotion. "Methinks it possible we are destined companions, for I am abound with such happiness and joy in your presence."

"Flatterer," the Prince muttered.

Sarah ignored him, smiling at the man before her. "As am I, sir knight," she said softly. "As am I."

He blushed under her warm gaze, sun and wind-roughened cheeks coloring. He puffed up with importance, chest swelling beneath the grimy and ancient coat of arms. "I will be thy staunch defender, guardian, and protector whilst thou resides in his Highness's kingdom, m'Lady Sarah." He lowered his voice, leaning in to whisper confidentially. "And, of course, in all lands beyond." He winked his good eye at her.

"Of course," she whispered back.

"Lady Sarah hails from the kingdom of England," the Prince broke in, severing their conspirital connection.

"Is this true, m'lady?" the knight asked, astonished.

"It is."

"Why then, pray tell, how fare the Crusades?" he pursued eagerly.

Sarah hesitated, throwing a confused look at the Prince, who merely shrugged. "The Crusades?"

"Of course! The noble and never-ending pursuit of that most esteemed treasure, the Holy Grail! How goes the search?"

"Ah. it has been, er, temporarily abandoned, sir knight."

His bushy eyebrows drew together in consternation. "Abandoned? This cannot be!"

"I suspect the quest has been postponed only until you are released from your duties here," the Prince smoothly interjected. "After all, feats of your prowess could be nothing but an asset to any Crusade."

Sir Didymus appeared to consider this a moment, then nodded shortly. "This is true."

"But the lady and I must be returning to the house - I mean, my palace. We must beg your leave."

"Of course, my liege," Didymus replied, and he gave yet another sweeping bow. He took Sarah's hand and pressed it tenderly, tears of sentiment coming to his eye. "And fair thee well, sweet maiden. I shall pray our paths cross again."

"They will, Sir Didymus," Sarah promised quietly. She mounted her mare without assistance, and both she and the Prince waved their goodbyes as they rode away from the lone, stalwart figure that stood ramrod-straight on the windy beach.

They slowed their horses to a walk after escaping the treacherous sandy ground, which ended several minutes after leaving the ocean behind. Neither was in any hurry, and simply let their mounts step easily along the lawn as they enjoyed the clear afternoon sunshine. They weaved between orange groves and the small, square pools of water with brightly colored mosaics of tiles beneath their depths, bordered by box-cut hedges.

Sarah, stroking the long, arched neck of her horse, eventually broke the silence. "Has he always been like that?"

"Didymus?" The Prince smiled, looking miraculously confident in the saddle. The Arabian, a stallion with the look of fire in his eye, quieted at his Highness's touch. "Always. Though I admit, it's been downhill since I gave him access to my library. Between Cervantes and Morte D'Arthur, I fear he is spoilt forever."

"Oh, no," Sarah spoke softly. "Not spoilt. Refined."

He glanced at her sideways, eyes curious. "You are happy to see him, then. Good." Nodding to himself, he turned towards his magnificent house. "He insists on standing guard at the beach -- in case of a Turkish invasion. And," he continued loftily, "I believe it is prudent to have such an outpost."

"Of course," she replied, grinning at him.

"But," he said easily, "I see no reason why you should not visit him on a regular basis, as the two of you seem to get on so swimmingly. I shall often accompany you," he added, as if an afterthought. "After all, it is a neglectful sovereign why does not regularly inspect his borders."

She tensed, and the Palomino sensed it, twitching her ears back. "Oh," Sarah replied carefully.

The rest of the ride was conducted in an awkward silence - awkward, at least, on Sarah's part. The Prince, as always, appeared to be insultingly comfortable. He merely guided them both to the stables, the dappled sunlight that filtered down through the trees throwing a shadow across his eyes and turning his hair silver-gilt. He waved away the stable boys, which made Sarah surprisingly grateful. She shied away from their inquisitive gazes, and wanted to do something with her hands as she thought.

They stabled the horses together, unbuckling the tack. Sarah turned away from the Prince so he wouldn't see the agitated flush on her face. Her hands shook as she began to wipe down the leather saddle.

"Why are you pursuing me?" she demanded suddenly.

The Prince, engaged in the same task, raised an eyebrow. "Any reason I shouldn't?"

"Yes, there is a reason! My lord Brian, for one."

His Highness laughed shortly. "Forgive my bluntness, Sarah, but if Brian were cause for any real inhibitions on your part, you wouldn't be talking with me now."

She colored, mouth pressed into a thin line as she whirled to face him, arms crossed tightly across her chest. "My own reluctance, then," she retorted.

"Why should you be reluctant?"

She glared at him. "Contrary to popular belief, your Highness is not my ideal of the perfect lover."

He turned, eyes wide with indignation. "And why not?"

"Your arrogance, for one."

"You prefer false modesty?"

"You are also inconsiderate."

"Only to those that deserve it, love."

"And your utterly incorrigible forwardness!"

"I was merely anticipating your own wishes," he replied in an injured tone, "like any gentleman. And don't you dare," he said, suddenly serious, pointing a gloved finger at her, "say anything about the quality of my kisses. They don't count, because you always refuse to hold still."

She stared, openmouthed at his outraged expression, eyes wide at his exasperated tone. Suddenly she burst out into laughter, tears leaking from the corners of her eyes. With a content smile, the Prince took up a currycomb and began to brush the stallion.

"Why is it," Sarah gasped, regaining control, "that I can never stay angry with you?"

His Highness stood with his back to her as he tended to the horse. "Perhaps because you know that, if you asked it of me," he said softly, "I would turn the world upside-down."

Her breath caught in her throat.

"Although the truth of it is," he continued in a normal tone, "I'm bored out of my mind here, and simply looking for something to do." He waited, briefly, for her outraged response. When it didn't come, he feared he had pushed her too far. "Sarah, you know I --"

He stopped at the sight of her standing with a riding crop -- which she had taken off the wall -- in one hand. Smiling, she swished it experimentally through the air. "I," she announced with dreadful cheerfulness, "am going to hit you."

His eyes narrowed with suspicion. "You wouldn't," he said after a pause.

Her face broke into a wide grin. "Watch me."

He watched her carefully as she began to advance with slow, measured steps. "My lady, if I have given offence, I humbly crave pardon --"

"Try again." 

Desperately, as she neared. "Sarah, I was joking!"


Throughout the stables, and in the surrounding yard, horses pricked up their ears as stable hands paused in their work. The servants smiled as one, as laughter -- the joyful, uninhibited sound of two children playing together - rang out in the languid summer air.


Time passed.

She visited Didymus daily, and spent hours with him on the beach listening to his tales of fierce knights and fair princesses, while sitting in front of a blazing fire on the sands. Ludo had also been a part of the Prince's entourage from Venice, and she passed many a sunny afternoon with him in the gardens. He never spoke, but constantly delighted her with sleight-of-hand tricks and exaggerated expressions. Sarah even had frequent letters from Chaucer, still searching for elusive documents back in the city, and he grudgingly gave her messages from her friend, Hoggle.

The Prince, of course, was still a constant element of her daily life. Just not an overly obtrusive one. Though perhaps not an unobtrusive one. She was having a hard time making up her mind. It wasn't as if he were dogging her footsteps and popping up every time she turned around. She would often go for hours without catching a glimpse of him. But when she did see him - as she would, inevitably - there was always something. He would press her hand with his, or bend too close to whisper something in her ear - he had even, on several occasions, suddenly interrupted her with a full, sweet kiss upon the mouth before turning abruptly away and leaving. His behavior shocked her into a confused kind of stupor. She would flush, and then feel cold - numb, even. When she finally shook herself free of his spell, she would have to check the sudden urge to run after him, shake him, make him explain himself. Make him explain everything.

He made her feel lost and stumbling in his presence, as if she were moving through sluggish waters. At the same time everything felt clearer when he was around: sharper, focused. The world was centered on the Prince.

She didn't know whether to run away, or run to him.

And then Brian came.

It was an innocuous visit. In fact, it was practically expected - after all, he was a childhood friend of the prince, and Brian's own manor was only a few hours' ride away. They had received a multitude of visitors already. Mostly gossipmongers who wanted to see how Sarah and his Highness were getting along. They always left shortly, disgruntled; the Prince could never be found on such occasions, and Sarah immediately managed to escape into the gardens, leaving the unwanted guests to Nicole's tender mercies.

But the Prince was in the foyer when Brian arrived, dusty and slightly disheveled from riding on horseback. With an uncanny lack of surprise, his Highness took Brian's card and tapped it against his lips.

"Right," he said suddenly. "We'll have a picnic. Doesn't that sound lovely, Sarah?" he asked without looking around.

Sarah, who had imagined herself hidden in the shadows, jumped. "Er, yes," she said, a bit flustered. "Very nice."

The Prince smiled at Brian. "Such an enchanting girl," he drawled. "She does love a picnic."

Brian's expressive mouth twisted disagreeably, but he nodded, acknowledging the hit. His Highness smiled widely. Sarah sighed.

It was going to be a very long day.

They set out within a half hour: the four of them, Nicole, Sarah, the Prince, and Brian, with a retinue of servants. After riding on horseback for a while, they found a nicely shaded spot in his Highness's immaculate gardens. The servants spread a thick cotton cloth over the lush grass, placing a low wooden table with stout legs upon the coarse blanket, heavy enough to remain anchored. Nimbly, they unpacked the immense baskets they had carried all this way, throwing back patterned covers to reveal fresh fruit and moist cheeses, warm bread and a variety of sorbet and pâté. A few full dishes had been prepared and transported, and these were brought forth to cries of delight. A barrel of fresh water had also been lugged along. It was opened, and a pitcher dipped inside to pour the sparkling liquid into crystal glasses. They sat - the girls modestly tucking their skirts beneath their legs, the boys lounging carelessly like cats - and ate.

They chattered easily at first, laughing around bites of food as they sipped water and wine in the cool shade. Nicole was blithely unconscious, it seemed, of any lingering tension between her companions. She teased them all pitilessly about previous events - ball, Ascension Day, and duel - interspersing her sly remarks with catty snippets of gossip about others of their acquaintance. Nicole's attitude actually brightened the event, as everyone was forced to laugh and defend themselves against her taunts. On the mild breeze Sarah could catch the scent of both the sea and the orange groves surrounding them. Idly, she wondered if she'd ever been happier.

The touch of soft leather broke her from the reverie, and she started. She looked to see that his Highness had covered her hand with his gloved one. Apparently, from the curious gazes around her, a question had gone unheard.

"I beg your pardon?" she asked.

He smiled at her - a dangerous thing. "I wanted to know if you've ever tasted marchpane." She frowned her confusion. "Marzipan?" he continued. "Pate d'amandes?" He laughed at her bewilderment, drawing forth a small tin box. Taking off the lid, his hand delved between layers of tissue paper so delicate it was almost transparent. He lifted something away, cradling it in his palm before showing it to her. A strawberry - impossible in its perfection, gorgeously flushed from blanched top to ruby tip.

"It's a paste made from sweet almonds," he said. "They sculpt it into fruits in the kitchens and color it with glazes. Here." Her mouth was still slightly open in amazement, and he pushed it gently between her lips. The tips of his gloved fingers lingered fractionally in the briefest of caresses that left behind crumbs of sugar. She licked her lips without thinking, disarmed by a sudden mouthful of soft sweetness. Dimly she could hear Nicole's shocked laughter, could see Brian's expression darken. But all she knew was the mismatched gaze of the crystalline eyes that never looked away from her own.

She swallowed thickly, reddening as she struggled with the marzipan. She ducked her head. "It's nice," she murmured.

"I knew you would like it."

Their easy camaraderie was broken. In stiff silence they motioned for the remnants of food to be cleared and their horses brought to them. In those few minutes, Sarah could constantly feel Brian's eyes on her. The Prince, however, never once looked her way.

As she mounted her horse, she heard the jingle of a harness as Brian guided his own forward. He pulled in next to her.

"Sarah." he began hesitantly.

She didn't look at him, busying herself with the reins. "Yes?"

He drew something from his coat. "I want you to have this." He placed into her hand a thick, cream-colored sheet of paper that was folded into thirds. On one side was her full name and title, and on the other he had fastened the edges with red wax imprinted with his seal.

"Read it," he urged quietly. "Please. I - it's for you."

She made as if to reply, but someone snatched the reins from her listless hands, and a cool, elegant voice said: "Come with me, Sarah. I want to show you something."

She gave a startled yelp as her mount began to trot, twisting her fingers in the horse's mane and holding on for dear life. His Highness, blatantly showing off, had flipped the reins and was leading her Palomino with his right hand, guiding his own with his left. They cantered away from their friends, quickly losing sight of the perplexed pair.

Sarah eventually managed to wrench the reins from his hand and regain control of the horse. She brought the mare to a gentle halt and then wheeled upon her kidnapper, furious.

"How dare you?" she fumed. "Never mind how angry I am at you, right now - was about Nicole and Brian? How must they feel, being abandoned? Did you ever think of that?"

The question brought him up short. For a moment he stared at her in complete surprise, and then burst into laughter. "No," he confessed. "I only think about you."

She stared at him. "Um, well," she said after a moment, tucking an errant strand of hair behind one ear. "Did you want to show me something?"

He laughed again shaking his head. "Not really. I was just tired of sharing you. Come on," he said, ignoring her baffled expression. "I'll race you back to the house." He turned his horse in that direction. "And if I win, I get to kiss you."

"You do that anyway," she muttered darkly.

"Yes, but this time," he muttered wryly, "you have to enjoy it." Without waiting for her response, he urged his horse to a gallop.

She followed; telling herself the beauty of the setting sun was what made her smile.


When Nicole arrived back at the house some hours later, she assured Sarah she bore no ill will against her cousin - though she was resolved to snub the Prince for at least a few days, just so he was aware of her displeasure. Brian, Nicole reported, had been less upset than one might have expected, considering the circumstances. Thus assured, Sarah went to sleep without qualm. The letter from Brian was laid unopened on a table beside her bed. She thought it would be better to read it in the morning, when she felt more refreshed.

Her sleep was easy and dreamless amidst the silk pillows and warm blankets of her bed. She left the window open so that fresh air could move about her room, and awoke to the sound birdsong.

And that of someone reading a letter.

".suppose I have to give him credit for that one, your eyes are rather enchanting. But the next time he tries to rhyme "green" with "seen" I'll have him kicked out of Venice. And, oh look, here he is professing undying devotion again. He does that quite often. one might begin to think he were an abandoned puppy. And this next line is simply atrocious. I refuse to read it aloud. What business does he have looking at your ankles, anyway?"

Sarah's eyes snapped open. By turning her head, she could see the Prince - on the edge of her bed, comfortably sitting up against the headboard with his long legs stretched out on the coverlet. In his hands he held a piece of paper graced with her name and the remnants of a red wax seal.

"What are you doing?" she demanded in a dangerous tone.

He paused, taking a moment to smile at her. "Ah, good, you're up. Cook is adamant in her belief that you will want chocolate. She's guarding the last pitcher with a ferocity I've rarely seen, and don't feel like testing. Get up and tell her you don't want it, so she'll give it to me."

"I do want it," she said, struggling to sit up. "And what are you doing with Brian's letter? Give it back!"

She reached for it, but he sprang nimbly away from her and onto the floor. "But I'm not finished with it," he said mildly.  

"You damn well are," she growled, throwing back the covers. "You have no right to read that, it's mine, and meant for me. Give it here!"

He evaded her grasp again, laughing. She lunged for him, nearly tripping on the edge of her long nightgown. He always kept one step ahead, taunting her with the folded paper, whisking it away just as her fingertips touched it. She stumbled in her bare feet, almost tackling him a time or two in her stubborn refusal to give up the chase. He led her on a merry dance all though her private rooms, and finally edged outside into the hallway, where Sarah knew she couldn't follow for propriety's sake. Desperate, she seized the pitcher of water on her dresser, filled every morning for her to wash her face in. His feet were on the top step of the long stairway when she dashed the water against his back.

He froze, and then spun around to glare at her like a disgruntled (and drenched) cat, wheat-gold hair dripping into his eyes. His face was the perfect expression of wry defeat, and she couldn't help laughing as she leaned against the doorway.

"Now," she gasped out, "will you kindly return my letter?"

He did so, courteously, and she broke into giggles again at his apparently unshakable composure.

"Do you know," he said suddenly, intently, eyes locked on her face, "how beautiful you are when you smile? Or when you laugh," he continued, oblivious to the look of shock that slipped over her features. "There's a. a glow to your face, to your skin - a new grace in the way you move." From the step below her, he lifted a hand to softly trace the curve of her cheek. "As if you were lit from within. You conquer a room with that smile, Sarah." His hand dropped. "You conquer me."

Without another word, he turned on his heel and walked down, taking the steps two at a time. Thrilled and lost, she watched him go.  


Nicole had discovered a tiny bouquet of wild violets by her breakfast plate, and was immensely mollified by their presence. She was sunny and gay that morning, with not an ill word to be had for the Prince.

"It's just a shame," she kept saying, "that he didn't come back to the table after he left to fetch you, Sarah. I hope I wasn't too cold to him. maybe he thinks I hate him, and is avoiding my company. I'll find him after breakfast."

And Sarah smiled as she sipped her chocolate.

After her meal she went into the library to curl up before the fireplace. Contrary to expected August weather, it was cool that day. A heavy fog blanketed the ground, and the chill leaked through even the thick house walls. She shivered in her thin summer dress, and drew a blanket over herself.

At one point, she looked up to find the Prince watching her from the doorway.

"How long have you been standing there?" she demanded.

"Come riding," he said, ignoring the question. "I'm getting restless, staying inside like this. I want you to come with me."

She cast another glance at the window, the view still obscured by thick fog. "But the weather's terrible."

"So? It only looks terrible from the outside. It's beautiful when you're out riding in it." He walked over, catching her hand and giving it an impatient tug. "Come on, Sarah."

She made a face, reluctantly getting up from her warm chair. "I'll catch a cold," she grumbled.

"You won't. Trust me."

It was gorgeous to be out riding in. The fog washed everything pale and ghostly, the sun breaking through in luminous beams from the cloud-filled sky. Wisping tendrils clung to anything that moved through it -- a tree branch waving in the breeze, a horse's hoof, Sarah's arm as she tucked her hair out of her eyes - leaving beaded droplets of cold water in its wake.

"I'm getting wet," Sarah muttered, petulant. "I'm going to get sick."

The Prince gave a small sigh of exasperation. "I promise that you won't. And if you're getting wet, it's because you deserve to be after dumping a pitcher of water on my head."

She grinned at him. "Really? It's worth it, then."

He gave her a mock-scowl. "Wicked creature."

She laughed, and they rode comfortably for a while longer. Sarah had her eyes on the ground, making sure she was guiding her horse safely through the treacherous fog when his imperious voice lanced through the silence:

"A question."

"A possible answer," she replied, voice deliberately light to counter his serious tone. 

"Your father has never remarried."

"That's true."


She blinked at him, a little startled. "You ask as if. well, as if I had something to do with it. Which I haven't - I'm not that well acquainted with my father's personal life."

He nodded shortly. "But you are glad he has never taken a second wife. You prefer it that way."

She gave him a sidelong glance. "To be perfectly honest. yes. Am I so transparent?"

He made a faint grimace, still looking studiously away from her face. "Call it intuition. Why do you prefer it? Surely you wish your father to be happy?"

"Of course I do," she replied, a little indignant. "And I never directly prevented him from getting remarried - I'm just glad it never happened."

"I repeat: why?"

She drew a long breath, frowning in thought. "Well, for one thing, a second marriage is always hard on the children from the first. So self-preservation, in part."

"What do you mean?"

She hesitated. "Growing up, girls adore their mothers - they worship them. They watch their mothers get dressed for parties, beg to put on the same makeup, mimic them in each and every way possible." She laughed a little. "To a young girl, a mother is a fascinating creature: always laughing, kissing her father, accompanied by some delicious scent. I never knew my own mother, of course. But if I had.  If a man remarries, choosing another woman after his previous wife, he throws off the hold his dead wife has on him - relinquishes her love, in a way. He loves someone else, you see. And if the little girl has spent her whole life trying to be exactly like the woman her father now strives to forget, and begins daily to sees her dead mother's face reflected back at her from the mirror. the daughter begins to wonder if she still has her father's love."

The Prince was unusually subdued, answering. "You know that's not true, Sarah."

She smiled to herself. "Of course. But the head and heart speak in different tongues, and things don't always translate well. Thankfully," raising her head up, "I've never had to deal with that problem. But I imagine it must be hard. Especially if - for example - the second wife is the exact opposite of his first: fair where she was dark, stern where she was always teasing." Suddenly, her breath caught, as if she choked on her own unexpectedly vehement words. The world swam, dark and bright colors bleeding together into chaos. She ducked her head, gloved hand coming up to shield her closed eyes. 

"Sarah?" A soft touch under her chin, forcing her to raise her face under the scrutiny of that unnerving gaze. "Are you alright?"

She breathed deep, if a little unsteadily. "I'm fine," she protested. "Just a little dizziness - really, very strange, but I'm fine now." She smiled wide to prove it. "Perfectly fine."

His dark eyes were strangely sad, and he angled his gloved hand to caress her cheek. Oddly tired, she let herself lean into his hand - letting him support her briefly, relaxing into that gentleness - before her horse sidestepped, and she had to snap to attention to control her animal.

"Besides," she continued lightly, fussing unnecessarily with the reins, "I admit to a childish wish for a love that can outlast death."


"Mm-hmm." She threw him a teasing look. "I know it's a silly fantasy, but I can't give up the idea."

"Really. Care to explain further?"

She shrugged nonchalantly. "Oh, the usual adolescent's dream of a soulmate, that sort of thing. As long as my father remains unmarried, I can believe my mother was his true love - that he is sustained by her memory and needs no one else to fulfill his life." She was silent for a moment as they rode through the ghostly surroundings. "I want to believe such love exists."

"I see." He nodded gravely, eyes on their path. "But surely such love becomes rather. oh, oppressive, after a while?"

"Oppressive!" she retorted, stung. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, soulmates are more trouble than they're worth." He dismissed them with an affected wave of his hand. "There are always so many challenges to face and obstacles to master before you can be with them, for instance. And even if you can be together, the love of a soulmate is such a serious thing. Eternal, everlasting, and so very meaningful devotion." He made a face. "So very permanent."

She laughed at his distaste. "Quite a difference to your usual flings, I expect."

"Quite," he drawled. "And don't try to tell me you wouldn't rebel under the weight of such intentions, either."

"Of course I wouldn't."

"Really? This from the girl who scorned poor Paris for throwing his country into war - out of love for a woman, may I remind you. The unfortunate thing is that desperate love is often coupled with desperate actions, for which you have a marked distaste."

"True," she replied after a moment. "I refuse to accept the perpetration of such events - even in the name of love."

He raised an eyebrow like an upswept owl's wing. "And the love itself?" he asked, voice light, but with the ring of challenge.

She smiled serenely, holding his eyes with her own. "The love itself," she replied softly, "is always accepted."

He looked away first.

"So," she resumed, "I have been very forthcoming in answer to your questions - may I pose one of my own?"

"Of course."

She grinned at him. "What is it like to be the so-called 'Prince' of Venice - with all the wealth, power, and control that comes with that title?"

He was quiet for a very long moment, finally letting his eyes fall shut before answering: "Lonely."

She started, and her horse flicked her ears back at the unorthodox movement. "You can't be serious," she said, frowning.

"Can't I?"

"You have the whole city at your feet! How can you be lonely?"

"Perhaps the whole of Venice is not the company I seek."

"And what is wrong with the people in the city?"

"You don't understand." He sighed briefly. "I am. I am the Prince, there, Sarah - and no one else. I will never be anyone else. Not to them, at least. And being the Prince is a role with certain. obligations."

"And you find them taxing?"

"No. No. In fact, I found them rather enjoyable, until --" He shot her a look from beneath half-lowered lashes. "The truth of it is, I don't know if they are, or not. Because I have never been without them. The court games you despise so much - the power plays, the manipulations, the schemes - I have never lived any other way. I know nothing else, Sarah."

She watched him as he brooded, his face dark and turned slightly away from her. She spoke, softly, as if she didn't quite realize what she was saying: "And if you had one wish - one dream - it would be to be free of them. To live like any other human being."

His head whipped around, eyes wide with shock. And the naked pain and vulnerability of his face almost made her gasp.

With obvious effort, he shut his eyes against that terrible truth. "How did you guess?" he asked, sounding slightly strangled.

She suppressed a smile, letting her mare step lightly ahead of his mount. "I told you before," she said lightly. "I know you." She cast him a backward glance, dark curtain of hair falling over one shoulder. "Even if you didn't believe me at the time."

"Well," he spoke mildly, rapidly regaining his composure, "I can't always be right." He scrutinized her carefully, raising an eyebrow at the shivers she didn't bother to suppress. "Ready to go home?"

She trembled in the damp fog. "More than ready. I just know I'll wake up with a cold tomorrow - my clothes are soaked through."

"You won't get sick, Sarah. Will you ever learn to trust me about these things?"

"Not as long as I draw breath," she muttered, and his burst of laughter was lost in the ghostly expanses around them.      


"You're sick?"

She glared at him from where she was propped up on a chaise lounge. She had refused to stay in bed, but was too miserable to do anything but curl up with a book and a steady supply of hot chocolate. The servants had made sure she was comfortable, bolstered by mounds of soft pillows and a heavy blanket tucked around her. It was a trifling thing, really - just a few sniffles and a headache, not even a real fever to worry about. But it made her decidedly cranky - and the look of utterly incredulous disbelief on the Prince's face wasn't helping.

"How did you get sick?" he demanded, as if her present condition was a personal insult.

"I think being dragged out into the damp weather had something to do with it," she replied waspishly. "Don't you?"

His eyes narrowed, as if he suspected her of faking it. "That's not possible," he proclaimed.

"Of course it's possible!" she replied hotly. "It happens all the time! And I knew I would catch a cold, riding out in that stuff," she seethed. "I just knew it."

He stared at her, mouth falling open slightly in shock. "It's you," he breathed. "You did this."

"I did not," she grumped, rooting herself further down into her burrow of blankets and pillows. "Well, I suppose it's my own fault - but it's more yours!"

He laughed, delighted, and she gave him a puzzled look. He stepped into her rooms, still chuckling and shaking his head. He knelt easily beside the chaise, smoothing dark hair from her forehead with a gloved hand. "Ah, Sarah," he sighed. "You are a constant wonder." Confused, but pleased, she smiled back at him, childishly happy to have him near. Suddenly he frowned, getting to his feet and regarding her with a highly suspicious air. "It's not catching," he demanded, "is it?"

She threw a pillow at him.

He returned, after having made a discreet exit amidst insults and plush airborne missiles, a half-hour later. He knocked softly and on the door and opened it just a bit, peeking in. He held something behind his back.

"Pax?" He asked, wary of her reaction.

"I suppose so," she grumbled. "No one else has come to visit me, anyway. Where is Nicole?"

"Gallivanting," he replied, stepping inside and closing the door behind him. "The weather's cleared, and I'm afraid a sick cousin can't compete with the prospect of visiting the neighbors. However, I've brought you a present."  

"Why thank you, your Highness," she grinned impishly at him. "Your patronage is much appreciated."

He hesitated a moment, steps pausing as he walked towards the chaise. "Sarah," he said, suddenly serious, "why is it you always use that silly nickname? Don't you feel comfortable using my real name?"

She frowned. "It's not that," she began slowly. "It's just. I know someone told me your true name, I just. I can't seem to remember it." She winced abruptly, dizzy, her head throbbing, and she dropped her face into her hands.

The Prince strode over to kneel quickly by her side. He took one of her hands in his own. "Sarah," he asked urgently, "Sarah, are you alright?"

She shuddered briefly, and then looked up, blinking. "I'm fine," she spoke softly. "I'm sorry, I suppose I'm a bit sicker than I thought. what was I talking about?"

He dropped her hand. "Nothing," he said shortly. "Nothing important." He picked up her present -- a book -- from where he had laid it safely on the floor. "Take this."

She held out her hands, and in them he placed the large, leather-bound volume. She dropped it into her lap, greedily opening up the ornate cover, a look of delight spreading over her features as she glimpsed the title page. "La Reine Margot! I've heard of this one - how did you get a copy so soon?"

"I have a friend in the French court," he said, watching her thumb idly through the pages. Her face fell.

"It's an original copy," she said, subdued.

"Is that a problem?"

She flushed slightly. "I can't read French - I know, I know I should have learned, but good tutors were often hard to find."

"You can't? Pity." He clasped his hands behind his back, contemplating the frescos on her walls with the look of greatest innocence. "I can."

"That's all very well for you, I suppose," she sighed, reluctantly closing the book, "but I am still at a loss."

"I could read it to you."

She hesitated. "What?"

He smiled benignly. "I could translate as I read, and read it aloud to you. Here." Without further ado, he stood up and lifted her - book, blanket, and all - into his arms. Ignoring her gasp of surprise, he adroitly carried her over to the other side of the room, where a broad couch rested beneath a wide window that let sunlight wash into the room. Swiftly, he put her down upon it, managing to position both her and himself so that - in a manner of minutes - Sarah found herself sharing the couch with him. He angled himself so that he was sitting against one of the plush arms while she was stretched out on the cushions, her head resting on his chest. She immediately struggled to sit up, but his arm snaked around her waist and he held her fast.

"I thought you wanted to hear the story," he remarked mildly.

"Yes," she muttered. "But this is - this is not --" With a sigh of defeat she gave up, head falling onto his shoulder. "Never mind."

"Good." Releasing her, he opened up the book. "Now, hush." With his rich, sonorous voice, he began to tell her the story of the beautiful, reckless, doomed queen.

Sarah was strangely content listening to Dumas' tale told in the Prince's cool, cultured tone, feeling the rumble of his voice deep inside his chest against her cheek. Her fingers curled against the velvet softness of his waistcoat, a beautiful midnight blue shot with silver threads of embroidery. Smiling to herself, she closed her eyes.

She must have fallen asleep. She knew she had - but it was a strange sort of sleep, dreamless and drifting. Sometimes she was half-awake, listening to the sound of the Prince reading to her, conscious of her head tucked beneath his chin and the movement of his chest as he breathed deep. Other times all she knew was darkness, and the gentle drift of the breeze and the sound of the Prince's voice - singing to her, a half-whispered melody that she could almost. remember.

She awoke several hours later; she could tell by the angle that the sunlight slanted through the window overhead. She breathed deep, utterly relaxed and happy. She could feel that the Prince had placed his arms loosely around her shoulders.

"Sarah," his voice came, pitched so low that, even in the empty room, it barely reached her ears.

"Mm?" She closed her eyes again, reveling in his warmth.

"I want you to marry me."

That brought her fully awake. Her head jerked up, and she half sat up where she lay, supporting herself on her arms so that she could look him full in the face. Her eyes were wide with shock, but his own face was immeasurably calm, as if he had made a statement about the weather or something just as inevitable.

"I can't," she protested faintly. She made as if to lift herself away from him, but his hands came up and circled her wrists, not letting her go.

He raised an eyebrow. "And why is that?"

She opened and shut her mouth a few times in aborted attempt to reply. "You're uncle is the Doge of Venice," she began finally, plainly - speaking as if these things should be obvious to him. "I come from a good family, but yours - they would want you to marry a foreign princess, make an alliance. You can't just throw yourself away on an ambassador's daughter."

"Sarah, I want you to do me a favor." He spoke easily, lightly, as if the subject was of little overall importance - but the grip on her wrists tightened with bruising strength, and the dark intensity of his eyes unnerved her little. "Pretend this is all a dream. Pretend none of that is true - your family, my family, what you will. Pretend that we can do whatever we want." She opened her mouth to make some protest, but he let go of her wrist to press a finger firmly against her lips. "Would you marry me then?

"Sarah," he continued in a harsher tone, as she made no move to answer. "I don't have to ask this. To be perfectly honest, I never intended to, because there was no need for it. But now. now I am asking. Because I want to."

He took away his hand, and for a long moment she simply looked at him, eyes searching his stark features for some hint of mockery, or teasing. She found none.

She let herself fall back onto his chest, listening quietly to the sound of his heartbeat beneath her ear. She closed her eyes against the almost unbearable happiness that was born within her own heart. "Yes," she said softly. "I'll marry you."

He made no answer. But he entwined his gloved fingers with hers, bringing up her hand to press his lips against it in a gesture of wordless love.


They managed to keep the engagement a secret - not an easy task with someone like Nicole in the house, who obviously sensed that something had changed between the two of them. But although she gave them both long, hard looks and a couple of pointed questions, Nicole seemed thwarted in figuring out their mystery. And so they safely returned to Venice, undiscovered, a few weeks later.

The days passed in a whirl that Sarah could barely keep straight. It seemed a blur of events and faces: greeting her father, who had finally come home; opening up their old house; telling him of the engagement, and all the procedures that entailed. So much fussing. Her trousseau, so carefully kept and added to over the years, was shipped in from England. Her father had to meet with the Prince's in order to discuss dowry arrangements and draw up the marriage contract. She never actually met the Prince's family. She never understood how he got them to agree to this unorthodox arrangement. all she knew was that she was happy.

The day after the public announcement, Sarah was in her room (just waking up) when her cousin threw open the door with a bang.

"You!" Nicole screeched. "You little." she advanced, grabbing pillows from chairs and couches and lobbing them at her dark-haired cousin, who yelped and ducked, as she went. "I will never forgive you! THREE WEEKS! Three! And you never said a word!" She lunged, finally catching Sarah by the shoulders and managing to give the girl a good shaking, despite her diminutive status. Finally, she stopped, dropping down onto the bed. "Why didn't you tell me?" she wailed.

Sarah laughed and fell back into a chair, a little breathless. "We didn't want anyone to know until the summer was over," she explained gently. "And Nicole, I love you very much, but you can't keep a secret."

"I could have, this once!" Nicole pouted.

Sarah laughed again, joyfully throwing her head back. "Alright, I promise that next time I'm engaged to the Prince, I'll tell you right away. Is that okay?"

"I suppose," Nicole muttered.

"Right." Sarah nodded, standing. "Now, will you help me get dressed for the betrothal? I can't bring myself to deal with servants, right now."

"Of course," Nicole said. "Why do you think I came, you silly goose? And Lucien will be over in a moment for your hair. Now," she said greedily, climbing to her feet, "where's your dress?"

The betrothal ceremony was a simple one, mainly concerning the male members of both families, but the bride-to-be did play a small part. After the Prince arrived with his retinue of friends and family, Sarah would have to descend, dressed in white, and present herself in the portego. She would circle the room, allowing herself to be viewed and inspected, and then respectfully withdraw. It was, she and Nicole agreed, distastefully like a horse fair - but it had to be done.

Lucien - full of murmured praise and warm wishes - had just finished plaiting her hair, which hung loose to her shoulders, with the traditional gold threads and twists of red silk when Nicole rushed breathless into the room again.

"The Prince is here," she said urgently, taking her cousin's hand and literally pulling her out of the chair. "He's waiting in the foyer while his father and your father talk for a bit - he wants to see you, go, quickly!"

Sarah let herself be firmly pushed out the door and onto the stairway by her cousin, laughing a little. Finally, waving Nicole away, she descended, feeling strangely shy. She hesitated when the Prince finally came into her view. He was waiting, impatiently, at the bottom of the staircase, one hand on the railing. He was distracted, staring into space, and she had to lightly touch his gloved hand to make him look up.

But when he did, the look in his eyes made her breath catch.

"You're beautiful," he said quietly after a moment.

She smiled. "So are you." He was also dressed in the traditional garments for a betrothal - his coat, waistcoat, and breeches were all a dark, rich red.

He let himself look at her a few minutes longer, gloved fingers lightly tracing the back of her hand. She shivered.

"I want you to have something," he said abruptly, and he caught at her hand. Before she could react, he had slipped a ring of diamonds onto her finger: the ricordino. She held her hand up to the light, and it sparkled with cold fire.

"You shouldn't give me this, yet," she whispered. "Not until the second reception."

"I know." He climbed the few steps needed to match her height, and gave her a quick, fierce kiss - almost savage. "I wanted you to have it now." He walked down the stairs and to the doorway of the portego, casting dark eyes up at her. "Run upstairs again," he told her gently. "I'll see you soon."

She did so, ringed hand clenched tight against her heart.


And then they were married.

She could hardly remember anything between the betrothal and the ceremony - honestly, Sarah could barely remember getting married. Just flashes, heart-pangs of joy and splendor revealed before her eyes. They were married on a Sunday at church, since her own house was seemed insufficiently grand to hold the ceremony in. As custom dictated, the ceremony was held at dawn. The only guests present were their families, due to the restrictions of sumptuary laws. She recalled so little. not the faces of the people surrounding her, not the words of the ceremony itself, not even her own words. All she could remember was the blare of trumpets and the singing of the flutes as they entered - also, the steady, reassuring presence of the Prince, constantly at her side.

The banquet afterwards, however, she would never forget.

It was held in the Prince's palace. They arrived together in a private gondola, newly married, and Sarah was reminded vividly of the first time she ever ascended these steps. Smiling at her, as if he knew her thoughts, the Prince led her inside.

As soon as she stepped through the doorway, the whole world exploded into light and music and shouting. Blinking to clear her vision, she saw that the main room was ablaze with sunlight streaming from the high, wide windows, scattered torches chasing away shadows in even the remotest corners. An orchestra was placed to the side, already entertaining guests with joyful music, and tables overflowing with fruit and meat and dishes covered half of the reaching floor.

And the guests - as soon as she stepped into the room, she was nearly lost to sight in the melee of hugging, laughing, crying friends. Her hands were grabbed, her cheeks kissed, and she was held so tightly she could barely breathe. Highborn and lowborn, all of her friends were there: Nicole, Ludo, Hoggle, Brian, Chaucer, and even Didymus, with new chain mail and a spotless white uniform for the occasion. She had so many shouted congratulations her ears rang.

Finally, everyone calmed enough to sit down to eat. Sarah couldn't bring herself to eat much, really. But she laughed, and chattered incessantly. The bright crimson of her wedding dress was beautiful against her pale skin and pearl-studded dark hair. The Prince, garbed in traditional black, never ate or spoke at all. He simply sat, smiling quietly. His eyes never left her face.

Finally, someone (a member of the Ardent, who had all been invited to the feast) began calling for toasts.    

Hoggle stood first, a tankard in one hand. The multitude of guests quieted as he climbed to his feet, standing on the bench so that his small stature wouldn't keep him from being seen. Hoggle nodded towards the Prince and spoke to him directly.

"I've never liked you," he said bluntly. The last of the whispers died, and every face looked, wide-eyed, toward the gnarled gondolier. "In fact, I don't think I ever will." Hoggle shifted, turning his gaze to the woman at the Prince's side. "But I love her," he continued. "And I always will. So, if she chooses you - that's good enough for me." Without another word he sat, raising his mug to hide the tears that threatened to fall from his eyes.

"Ahem." A rail-thin, stooping figure climbed to his feet, wine in hand. "At the risk of following that eloquence," Chaucer remarked dryly, "I shall make my own toast. To my Lord and my Lady," he said, raising his glass high. "Two hearts and minds who have managed to find each other in an increasingly misleading world." He was silent a moment. "Knowing you both," he continued softly, "I cannot but be happy at the rightness of your union." He nodded to them. "Sometimes, we frail mortals actually manage to get things right. This is one of those rare - and most joyous - times." He sat, blinking rapidly.

Before she could open her mouth, Sarah found that Ludo was standing quietly by the Prince's side. When his Highness nodded his permission, the large man performed: showing his empty hands to the assembly, and then blowing softly on them, rubbing his huge paws together. and then producing, as if from thin air, a delicate gold circlet set with three black pearls. Gravely, the Prince bent his head forward, allowing Ludo to place it across his brow. Then the buffoon moved over to stand beside Sarah, going through the same motions - and gently placing a band of white gold, set with rose-colored pearls, across her own forehead.

"Thank you, Ludo," Sarah whispered. He smiled at her, bending down to hold her tightly for a moment before stepping back to his place at the table.

Sir Didymus rose as soon as his large friend sat, the leather of his brand-new boots breaking with the movement. Tears were already streaming down his face, and for several minutes he struggled to find the words. Finally, his shoulder slumped in defeat, and he shook his head. Swiftly raising his glass into the air, he roared, with a powerful voice that should have challenged mythical beasts and commanded entire armies, hoarse with emotion: "Long live the Prince and Princess!"

The room erupted into cheers.

As if this was their cue, the musicians immediately began to play. Turning, Sarah found a familiar face standing expectantly at her side.

Brian bowed. "A dance?"

They were graceful together, sweeping across the dark boards with the perfect ease of friends. He held her lightly and she smiled up at him.

"Let me guess," he said only for her ears as he returned the smile: "The poetry was a mistake."

She laughed outright, and his grip tightened to keep her from falling. "No," she said, still giggling. "Not a mistake, exactly. It was very good, but perhaps --"

"Perhaps I should try it on a girl who isn't in love with someone else, hmm?" He asked, a bit wryly.

She blushed slightly. "I wasn't in love with him, then."

This time, he laughed. "And if you believe that, kitten, I'm happy to see your pretty illusions haven't suffered in this hard, cruel world."

"Be nice."

"Why should I be nice?" He grinned cheekily. "I'm the loser in this little game; don't I get to throw my weight around a bit?" She pinched him - perhaps less gently than she should have - and he released her, still chuckling. "Such violent, unwomanly behavior - his Highness can have you."

"I do have her." An arm reaching around to drape across her waist, his presence beside her. "But I don't need your permission."

Brian stepped back, holding up his hands defensively. "I wish you both all the happiness in the world," he said, honestly.

"I know." Her Prince's mouth quirked. "That's why you're still alive."

"Ah." Brian nodded wisely. "And here I thought it was my good looks." Grinning, he left them alone.

"I have something for you." His arm fell away, but he took her by the hand.

"You're going to spoil me with all these presents."

"Just one more." He led her out onto a balcony that looked down on the canals below and across the buildings beside them. She could see women drying their hair on the rooftops, children running through the streets below.

Smooth silk slid against her neck, and she turned away from the view. He was standing behind her, fastening a necklace of some sort - she picked up the pendant at one end, the better to inspect it. It was huge - the size of her palm - and very, very old. It was crafted from pure gold, the soft metal almost bending under her light touch: a sculpted owl, its outstretched wings circling behind its head to touch and meld. The silken cord passed under those delicate wings to tie around her neck.

"It's beautiful," she said. "Where did you get it?"

"It's something of a family crest."

She released the pendant, letting it fall against the fabric of her dress. "But I've seen your family's crest, and this --"

"A different part of the family." He held her from behind, draping his arm across her shoulders. "I want you to have it." He kissed her, bending his head to touch where the curve of her neck met the line of her shoulder. She watched the feast inside, silently, eyes on her friends as they moved through shafts of sunlight, dancing between glittering dust motes. She listened to the sound of their laughter, their talk, leaning back against her new husband. She was so happy; it was a physical pain - a tremor and an ache of the heart that made her gasp.

And she knew.

"This isn't real, is it?"

The music halted. Before her, the dancers paused - freezing in place like abandoned marionettes. Their laughter, their talk all died in the air, the silence vibrating like a plucked string. But Sarah hardly noticed. All her attention was on the Prince.

His mouth stopped. He paused, and then drew away from her. "What did you just say?"

Her eyes stung with tears, but she continued. "This isn't real."

He took a step backward, and then another. "You always surprise me, Sarah," he said, sounding as if from very far away, "with your commendable level of perception." And another step.

"No!" She whirled, the weight of her swirling skirts slowing her only marginally as she reached for him. She wrapped her arms around him, pressing her cheek to the rough fabric of his waistcoat. "Please," she whispered softly. "Don't leave me."

He felt like stone beneath her touch. "How much do you remember?"


"How much?"

She squeezed her eyes shut at the raw pain in his voice. "Nothing," she whispered. "But I know this is a dream."

"How?" he asked, the question like a stinging lash. "How could you know? Was this world still not up to your impeccable standards? Hmm? Weren't the courtiers adequately noble? Weren't your surroundings dazzling? Weren't the stars fucking bright enough?" The torrent of words ceased, and he became deadly calm. "Or was it me?" he asked softly. "Will I never be enough for you?

"Answer me, Sarah."

She breathed deep, taking in the dark, delicious scent of him. "It's too perfect," se said quietly. "Too wonderful. No one has this much happiness - so pure and perfect, untouched by pain. It can't be real."

For a long moment, he was still. The he sighed, and the tension flowed out of his body - he became human warmth again. His hands reached up to cup her face, and he leaned his forehead against her own.

"It can be, for us," he breathed. "We can have this kind of happiness. Here." His thumbs caressed her cheeks, running along her smooth skin. "How did you know I was doing it?"

Sarah laughed lightly. "Because you're the center of the world - my world," she admitted candidly. "Who else could it be?"

"Wicked child." He smiled. "Stay here with me."

"I can't."

"Love --"


"Sarah." He sighed, wrapping his arms around her. "Reality is harsh, and hard."

"But it's mine." She pulled away from his embrace, and that stubborn streak of independence held her head high, made her eyes flash. "And I won't be cheated of anything. Not even by you."

He gazed at her solemnly. She realized that the sounds of the celebration inside had long since faded away, and that the ballroom was echoingly empty. Indeed; the whole city surrounding them was eerily quiet, with no other person to be seen. The only sound came from the water rushing through the network of canals.

The Prince walked past her to the deserted ballroom. She followed him, watched him throw himself into the chair he had used during the feast. He leaned his arms on the table, hunching over in a strangely defensive posture.

"I don't want to let you go."

"You have to," she responded simply.

"Give me one good reason."

"Because I will hate you if you keep me," she said. "And you will hate yourself."

He drew a gloved hand over his eyes. "That last is inconsequential," he murmured. "As for the former - in your precious reality, you hate me already."

"I don't believe that."

"Don't you?" His glare pinned her to the spot. "I am cruel to you, Sarah," he spoke evenly. "And you fear me for it." His wandering gaze took in the splendor of their abandoned surroundings. "This is the only place I am not afraid of loosing you. Here, I am not ruled by petty passions." He laughed, and it sounded too close to a sob. He ran his hands over his face. "Fear, jealousy, pride - they make me a monster." He took his hands away, and his eyes burned in that too-pale face. "And I will let them, Sarah. It is the only way I can fight for you."

Sarah could do nothing but shake her head, helplessly.

"And I am cruel." His voice was dark, insidious - the danger that lies in wait, tempting its victim to step just a little closer. He climbed to his feet. "Do you know why I brought you here in the first place?" he asked, the words treacherously soft. Sarah looked up, fear in her eyes. "To buy time. There's for your sense of romance, Sarah - it was a cheap trick, a dirty way of playing the game." She winced at the self-loathing in his voice, watching him pace the wooden boards. "All of it. The glory, the beauty, the sheer magnificence - all of it. " He laughed, and it sounded painful. "I even brought your dear friends into the web, to make it more enticing. I gave them back their former sense of self, let them assume human bodies again and trespass into my perfect world. I shared you." He lashed out, suddenly, kicking a chair so violently it splintered, and Sarah jumped. He restrained himself after that first moment, pulling back, his breathing harsh. "And for what?" he asked himself. "For nothing. Just another shattered illusion.

"Because that's all it was, Sarah - or at least what it was meant to be." He looked at her, and there was an unspeakable weariness in his eyes. "You were winning a game I wanted you to lose," he explained patiently. "You had an advantage I didn't expect. I needed to rob you of that."

She swallowed, mouth suddenly dry. "What did I loose?"

He looked away. "Enough for my purposes."

"Then let me go."

"No!" he shouted, whirling towards her. "I want you here!"

"I can't stay."

"Yes, you can," he spoke through tightly clenched teeth. "Here, you have everything you could possibly want!" He strode over to her, catching both of her hands in his own. She tried to pull away, but he only held on tighter, insisting she listen, that she accept his words. "Why wouldn't you want to stay? Why wouldn't you want to live in a place where you are happy, your friends are happy, the entire world is at your feet --"

"A place where I can't even remember your name!"

Her words, her last desperate defense against his temptation, rang through the empty room. He stilled.

"You will remember," he promised, voice sounding empty. "Eventually."

"When?" she demanded, the tears that had threatened to choke her spilling unheeded down her cheeks. "I've already pledged my entire life, my soul to you! What more can I give?"

He pulled her to him, burying his face in the darkness of her hair, and her fingers dug into his arms. "And if I stay any longer - even just for a few more days," she whispered brokenly, "I don't think I could bring myself to leave. Ever."

His hold on her tightened. "It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters!" She tore away from him. "These thing don't just happen, they mean something!" Her shoulders dropped, and she looked away. "Don't try to deceive me," she said quietly, "when you can't even lie to yourself." 

He shuddered slightly at her words, falling back. Behind him, a strange kind of mock-throne shimmered into existence. Its half-circle shape, draped with purple silk, was insistently familiar to Sarah. He dropped into it, swinging his leg over one armrest and leaning his back against the other, staring into space.

She sank to the floor a few steps away from his throne, crimson skirts billowing around her. For a long time, she contemplated the hands that lay listless in her lap.

"I want the reality," she finally said. "I prize it higher, with all its sweetness and stings, than any sugar-spun fairytale you can create." She lifted her eyes to his. "I want you. Every part of you - not just who you are when things are easy to bear. I will not forfeit that. Even if you are cruel to me."

He looked at her, expressionless. "You didn't always hold your dreams so cheaply."

"Dreams must be achieved. They must be worked for, earned through sweat and tears. It's what makes them so precious. They cannot be simply bestowed - that is what makes them cheap." And then, with a flash of unthinking insight: "You never understood that."

His eyes were faintly curious. "And you did?"

She smiled wryly to herself. "Not until just now." She rose to her feet, if a little unsteadily. "Let me go. Please."

His eyes were a brilliant sapphire blue. "Don't leave me, Sarah. Don't leave me alone, with nothing left of you but a memory." He let his head fall back, shutting his eyes and speaking so softly, she almost didn't hear it: "Not again."

She bit her lip against the urge to promise him she wouldn't, promise anything he wanted. After she had regained her control, she went to him, stepping up to the dais and bending over her Prince. She kissed him on that tattered throne, her dark hair falling past his face like a curtain. He took her into his arms, cradling her close to him like something precious. She broke away from the kiss, curling up against him.

"I won't let you win," he said. 

"And I won't loose," she replied simply. She turned her head, dark eyelashes brushing against the base of his pale throat. "But you have to let me go."

He seemed to slump in the chair, the resistance leaving his tense frame. "As you wish."

The ballroom melted away, its empty glory fading even as she watched. Flaming torches gave way to dripping wax candles, unlit and dusty in the thin, watery sunlight. Wide windows became half-circles cut into thick stone. The scent of incense and myrrh faded, was replaced by dirt and dust and feathers.

And she was alone.

She sat up stiffly, muscles protesting as if she had been lying in the throne for hours. She stretched cautiously; examining the strange, rough clothing she suddenly wore. Feeling bewildered, she climbed to her feet and moved over to the window. It looked out - not onto a beautiful floating city - but onto a dusty sprawl of houses, a forest beyond, and ever farther the twisting, treacherous passages of.

The Labyrinth.

Her name was Sarah Williams. Her father. and her mother. and then Karen, and she had been here before, she remembered, she had tangled with the Goblin King (Jareth, some corner of her mind whispered) and she had to rescue her baby brother Toby - no, wait -


It all came back to her in a rush, a bewildering barrage of memories: Brian, seeing Jareth again, Chaucer, Hoggle, Didymus and Ludo, the dragons, the stone garden, the naiads, the pendant, the moat, the Portrait Hall, eating the peach.

Of course, she wasn't just standing there as she was flooded with forgotten knowledge. No, she was moving, scrambling around the room, searching desperately for something she knew was here -

There. She could see the shape of it, hiding - someone had thrown a dirty sheet over it: a clock of thirteen hours. A clock that would tell her how much time - how precious little time - she had left. She threw back the sheet, coughing at the dust it kicked up and squinting to see the clock face.

She stood staring for a moment. Then she dropped the sheet, racing for the door with all the strength left in her body.

She had less than half an hour to save everyone - Brian, her friends, even herself - from the man she loved.

A Forfeit of Dreams

A Labyrinth Story
by KL Morgan

Part 12 of 15

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