Chapter 1: Death of Summer
The stars in the sky were twinkling, as one by one, they faded away.
Tearing his gaze away from the sight, Cerron gave a pained sigh. He wasn’t worried, though. He hadn’t been worried since that fateful night all those years ago.
Cerron shook his head lightly to rid his head of thoughts about that night. Some things had better remain in the past, after all. He knew all too well how thoughts could poison one’s mind, until there was nothing left but a cold shell.
At the thought cold, a fresh memory from only a few hours prior flashed at the front of Cerron’s mind.
“Please, your Majesty, you can’t do this! Not now, at the brink of Winter!”
“There is no other choice.”
Cerron’s grip on the railings tightened. He saw now, of course, that there were other choices. Why hadn’t he seen them at the time? If he kept up with this, his people might decide that he was too bad of a ruler. Maybe they’d dethrone him – and what would Cerron do, then?
There was nothing else for him. If he were dethroned, he would have no choice but to –
No. He would not think of such things, not right now.
The air turned ice cold against his cheek, prickling his skin much like a thousand silver knives would. Cerron’s next breath turned to mist in front of his face, and with a disgruntled huff, he made his way back into his rooms.
The balcony doors slammed shut behind him, and he turned around to clasp his hands behind his back. All the stars were gone, at this point. Winter truly had settled, then.
After a few moments of heavy silence, there was a soft knock on the door. “Dinner is served, your Majesty,” Dinna called out, her voice just as soft as the knock had been. Cerron could barely hear her through the thick wood.
“Very well,” he muttered to himself, and turned to face the door. A quick look in the mirror hanging by the fireplace told him that his robes were fine enough to dine in, and with a curt nod, Cerron strode over to the door. “Thank you, Dinna,” he said, as a greeting, when he opened the door.
Dinna gave the bow of a servant, one meant for a King, and backed out of the way so that he could walk out of the room. Cerron nodded absentmindedly as he strode passed her, delving into his thoughts as he walked down the well-known corridors. There was no need to focus on his steps; he could travel through these halls of stone with his hands cuffed and his eyes blinded.
Cerron’s thoughts strayed towards his past actions once more. There was that man he had refused shelter to; the woman with seven children that hadn’t had enough money to pay taxes; the young lady that accidentally took more Hell Liquid than she needed.
And Cerron had treated them unfairly – or, perhaps, too fairly. Every single one of them. It frightened him, that he could only think rational thoughts whenever he was alone in his own quarters. The times he made good decisions as a King were very rare, so he would honestly not be surprised if he were dethroned sometime soon. His spies had reported to him of muttering among the villagers; and those mutterings were the most dangerous of all.
The King’s attention snapped back to the present when the sound of someone running echoed through the hallway he was walking down. He straightened his back and masked his expression into one of calmness – and just in time for a man bearing the blue uniform of a messenger to tumble around the corner. “Your Majesty!” he cried out, nearly stumbling in his own feet in his haste to get to Cerron. “The – the Human Princess! She’s at the Gates, asking for entrance!”
Cerron raised his eyebrows and hummed. The Human Princess? Whatever was she doing here? “Is she alone?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” the messenger nodded, after gulping down air much like a drowning man would.
“No weapons to speak of?”
“No, your Majesty.”
Cerron nodded his head solemnly. “Let her in, then,” he said. “And lead her to the Dining Hall. I shall join her soon.” The messenger nodded, and set off at a frightening speed to relay his King’s message. “Dinna,” Cerron called out, and the plump girl took a step forward from her place in the shadows. “Tell the servants to ready the table for one more, will you?”
“Of course, your Majesty,” Dinna bowed, before hurrying off to complete her task.
Peculiar, to receive a guest at this time of the year. And the Human Princess, at that. Well, at least he didn’t have to think about what a horrible King he was. He had far more pressing matters at hand.
The Human Princess… their two Kingdoms had been at odds for some time. Not quite at the beginning stages of war, but not at complete peace, either. Why would the Human Princess be at the Castle Gates, and alone, at that?
The rest of the walk was uneventful. No more surprise visitors, no more running messengers, no more, no more, no more. Cerron wasn’t sure if he should be relieved or not.
When he finally arrived at the doors to the Dining Hall, Cerron schooled his expressions into a calm and mild look before pushing them open. The sight that greeted him was a welcome one: there was a fire crackling in the fireplace, and on the table, there were plates with steaming dishes. The darkness on the other side of the large windows at the back wall was so pressing, so utterly void of light, that it seemed that the sun would never rise. The room itself would have suffered from the very same darkness, had it not been lit up by candles and chandeliers.
Cerron wasn’t interested in the fine interior of the room, however. His gaze slid over to the long table, where a pale figure was shivering slightly in her seat. “Your Highness,” Cerron greeted, addressing her formally as it was the first time he had seen her in person. “Welcome.”
The Princess – Maria, if his memory was to trust – looked up from her empty plate, supporting a started expression. Cerron blinked, surprised at the resemblance to his Mother in the soft face. Her almond-shaped eyes were dark, and it took Cerron a moment to remember that it was a natural darkness. Her hair was just as dark as her eyes, flowing down her back with a distinct water-like feeling. “Y- your Majesty,” she stuttered, and even her voice was quiet and soft. She stood up to bow down, far lower than a person of her status needed to. “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Cerron hummed in appreciation of her politeness, and slowly walked over to the table to take his seat. “It is no problem at all, my Lady,” he offered, reaching out after the potatoes. “It would not do any good to leave you out in the harsh Winter, after all.”
Maria seemed surprised, but for what reason Cerron did not know. “R-right,” she said, her voice shaking slightly. After a moment in silence, she reached out after the salmon to help herself to a piece.
Ah, so she did eat. What a relief. Cerron’s lips twitched in a smile. “However nice a visit like this is,” he said, after a few moments in thick silence. “I must ask: what are you doing here? No offence meant, my Lady,” he hurried to add when the girl shot him yet another startled look. “I simply wish to know why you have chosen to come on a surprise visit. We have no rooms worthy for royalty ready at the moment. Had you given us a warning, we could have prepared.”
Maria returned to picking at her food, and did at least the decency to appear a little sheepish. “Apologies, your Majesty, but I had thought my dad had informed you of my visit, and the reason behind it,” she said meekly. Cerron wasn’t sure whether to believe her or not, but decided to give her the benefit of the doubt.
“Alas, he has not,” Cerron reminded her, and grinned when she gave no immediate reply. “Would you be so kind as to inform me?”
“O-of course, your Majesty,” Maria stuttered, stumbling over the words in her unease. Cerron’s grin softened and he looked down at his food. This was exactly what he had been thinking about just minutes prior. Could disrespecting the heir to the throne of another country end in his people choosing a new King?
Cerron swallowed. He would treat Maria with the respect she deserved, if he so had to force it down his own throat in the process. “I have come to learn of Demon Customs,” Maria said, wrenching Cerron back to the dreadful dinner. “Dad deems it irresponsible of me to not know of all the Customs in Undera.”
“Well, of course,” Cerron said, hiding his surprise underneath a mask of politeness. Morris had told his daughter to learn of Demon Customs? The old goat had changed quite a lot since they last spoke, then. But of course; if this was his way to offer peace, who was Cerron to deny him? “When you return to your home you will be one of the most educated Humans Undera has to offer,” he claimed, noting that Maria didn’t seem very happy about these news. Had Morris sent her against her will? When Maria merely inclined her head, Cerron hummed quietly. “The matters of your education can be discussed tomorrow. You look exhausted, my Lady. I would not be surprised if you fell asleep on the spot.”
Maria gave an undignified huff, but didn’t protest. Her nod was a bit happier than her last one, Cerron noted. She must have been travelling for a long time.
“Dinna,” Cerron called out, and the young girl once more walked out of the shadows. “Please prepare a room for the Princess.”
Expecting Dinna to bow out of the room, Cerron did a double take when she frowned and stayed. “Which one, your Majesty? The diplomats from Atta left this afternoon, may Gera bless their souls – their rooms are available and have been cleaned.”
Humming, Cerron considered this for a moment. The Weres rooms had been small, but cozy and decorated to resemble a home. However, the plain guest rooms close to the library were large and more fitting royalty. The downside was that there was nearly no interior; indeed, most of them had only a bed, a desk, and a chair. Still, Maria was a Princess. “The guest rooms,” he finally decided. “The ones near the library. Make sure to light the fireplace.”
Dinna bowed gracefully. “Of course, your Majesty.”
She disappeared out of the room, and Maria cast him a curious look. When Cerron raised his eyebrows at her in a silent question, her cheeks reddened, and she hurried to look away.
They finished their meal in silence
The next day, after eating breakfast, Cerron brought Maria into the study. “So,” he began. Maria shifted in her seat, looking mildly uncomfortable. Cerron ignored her for the time being. “You said you were here to learn of Demon Customs.”
“That’s right,” Maria agreed, with a small nod.
Cerron also nodded, stapling his fingers together in front of his face. “I must apologize; we do not have any books on Demon Customs lying around in the open at the moment. Had we been given a warning, we could have found some… but it is too late for that.” He cleared his throat, and reached over for a pen and some papers. “What do you wish to learn first?”
Before Maria had the time to give a coherent reply, the doors burst open, and both Cerron and Maria started in their seats. Cerron turned on the intruder, bearing a sharp frown. It was common knowledge that one was supposed to knock on the doors before entering a room.
There were some exceptions to this rule, however. Among a few others, messengers could enter a room if they bore important news that could not, or should not, wait.
And this woman bore the blue clothes of a messenger.
Cerron stood up, fighting the worry that engulfed him at the sight.
“Your Majesty,” the messenger panted, falling to her knees to show utmost respect. “Your spies have received word from the Human Kingdom. King Morris is spreading the news that his daughter, the Princess, has been kidnapped. Your Majesty…” she trailed off before shaking her head lightly. “King Morris says that she has been kidnapped by you.”
Cerron gaped, for a brief moment, before he pulled himself together. “Lies,” he snarled.
The messenger, not quite sure if Cerron was talking directly to her or to the message she was relying, continued bravely. “He also says that whoever gets her back will win her hand in marriage,” she said, voice unwavering just as she had learned to keep it. “We believe you are being used as bait, your Majesty.”
Something dark flashed in front of Cerron’s eyes, as if someone had thrown a black veil over his face before pulling it back again. “He dares use me as bait?” he roared, snarling much like he had seen his father do so many years ago. Maria’s eyes went as wide as saucers, and she was shaking like a Duleddy in her seat. Forcing himself to calm down, Cerron turned back to glare at her. “Why did you lie?” he asked her, his voice as soft as ever, although the darkness was still lingering around the corners of his vision.
Maria turned terrified eyes to him. “Father’s orders,” she whispered. “Please don’t hurt me!”
The anger disappeared as fast as it came, and Cerron blinked at her. “Why would I hurt you?” he asked, and the confusion was not a feigned. Fine, he was perhaps a bad ruler at times, but he had no reason to hurt Maria. He had the right to be mad, but that did not mean he could harm her.
Maria seemed to be just as bewildered as he was. “You’re evil?” She said it as if it were supposed to be a statement, but her voice tilted at the end and made it into a question.
Some of Cerron’s anger returned. A curse on the stubbornness of Humans and their dirty hands, teaching their young ones that anyone different from them were evil! “I am a Demon,” Cerron corrected her, voice as cold as the air outside of the glass windows. “No one ever said anything about evil.” Then he remembered her earlier statement. “Besides, women cannot cause any major harm, anyway. It would do no one any good if I were to hurt you.”
Maria spluttered something, but was clearly too frightened to complain or argue.
“My Lady, please leave the room,” Cerron requested, as calmly as he could. “I need time to think.” Maria didn’t need to be asked twice; she was gone from the room before you could say ‘Undera’.
Cerron sunk into his chair with a soft sigh.
Maria had lied. She was not there to learn about Demon Customs.
Morris was not trying to make peace with the Demon Kingdom.
Cerron had taken the role of bait. Of bait!
The furious King found himself marching towards the throne room before he could stop himself, just barely remembering to dismiss the messenger before he left the study. Dinna followed closely at his heels, her brow wrinkled in worry. She hadn’t been inside of the room, and alas, she had not heard more than Cerron’s furious shout – but that had been enough for her.
“Dinna,” Cerron snapped sharply, as she sped up to keep up with his long strides. “Fetch me the Head of Guard. I shall be waiting in the throne room.”
Dinna nodded, and with a mumbled “your Majesty,” she took off at a run. She rarely ran – she was a servant, after all, not a warrior – but it was obvious that whatever Cerron needed the Head of Guard for, it was urgent.
“You must strengthen our defenses,” Cerron commanded the moment the doors opened and the Head of Guard hurried in. Cerron knew that his hair was a mess and that his crown was tilting dangerously to the side, but he could not find it in him to care in the current situation. “We have reason to believe that Human knights will soon attack the castle – or at the very least, threaten everyone that lives within it.”
The Head Guard bowed as low as he could. “Are we at war, your Majesty?” he asked, in the general direction of his shoes.
Cerron frowned. “Not yet,” he said. “Listen closely. When the first knight arrives, make sure that he lives. Inform him that Princess Maria is merely a visitor, and that she may go home whenever she wishes. If a second knight arrives…” He took a deep breath and released it between clenched teeth. “Then we are at war,” he said softly. “Make sure that the rest of the Guard knows.”
The Head Guard, who recognized a dismissal when he heard one, rose, nodded solemnly, and left the room.
Cerron took a deep breath and rubbed his temple. “Dinna,” he called softly, and the redhead stepped out of the shadows, as serious as ever. There was a twinge in his heart - a twinge of regret - at the thought of doing this. However, to make his plan work, he had to let go of someone – and Dinna would have to be that someone. “From this day on, you are no longer my personal servant.”
Dinna’s mouth fell agape, but she snapped it shut almost immediately. “Your Majesty,” she said, choosing her words carefully. “I have served you since I were fourteen, and you have never seemed unhappy with my work before. If I have wronged you, somehow, then please accept my humblest apologies.”
Cerron smiled. “No, Dinna,” he reassured her, pleased to see her shoulders sag in relief. “You have not wronged me. I merely wish for you to be Princess Maria’s personal servant instead, since I know that you are excellent at that job.”
Dinna blinked. “-thank you,” she said, softly, when she realized that he had complimented her – and, at the same time, honored and trusted her greatly. “Your Majesty,” she added hurriedly. “It would be an honor.”
Cerron nodded, but it was nothing like his usual, sharp nods. No, one could almost call it friendly.
Almost a whole moon passed. Cerron saw little of Maria, and she refused to speak to him. He had resolved himself to think of this as the way things were going to be. Maria, brooding somewhere in the castle, and he, going on about his Kingly business as if nothing had ever changed.
Maria, however, proved him wrong, a morning at breakfast, by gathering her courage and speaking up over a bowl of boiled eggs. “So…” she muttered. “Has anyone tried to rescue me yet?”
Cerron nearly choked on his ale. After a week of awkward silence and an endless, cold shoulder, Maria decided to speak up – with those words. Why on Undera would she do that?
Perhaps she was simply tired of the cool atmosphere surrounding them, much like he, himself, was. With that thought, Cerron decided to humor her, and answered in a playful tone. “Oh, you mean those pitiful knights? Six of them have already tried, and failed, to breech our defenses. Indeed, we have been at war for a few weeks already.”
The fork clattered to the floor, and a servant hurried forward to pick it up and replace it with a new one. “What?” Maria gasped, forgetting her not-so-great manners. “Pardon?” she added, when she realized what she had just blurted out.
Cerron laughed. It was a cruel laughter. “Your father has lost you, child,” he informed her, far giddier than an adult should ever be when informing someone of something. “He chose the wrong Demon to pick on.”
Maria glared, but it was weak, and had no effect on Cerron other than amusing him. “I am no child,” she said flatly, drawing out the words like one would do when speaking to a kit.
Raising his eyebrows in true surprise, Cerron tilted his head slightly. He had thought she was – she didn’t seem to be more than a few years older than Dinna. “Truly? What is your age, then?”
Maria scowled. “I’m 27.”
Cerron raised his eyebrows even further. “Is that so?” he muttered, mostly to himself. While he had enjoyed making fun of her earlier, he would have to be more careful in the future. If Maria was as old as she said, then she had to be treated in a way she deserved, and not like a pouting kit. “I thought for sure you were a teen.”
Maria stood up and slammed her hands onto the table with a furious glare. The sound wasn’t loud, nor did it feel threatening, but it was the angriest Cerron had seen her since she arrived four weeks prior.
She must be quite self-conscious about her age, as she left the room without another word. Cerron watched in silence, and counted to ten after the doors slammed shut before speaking once more. “Corel,” he said, loud enough for all the occupants in the room to hear. The servant he had assigned to Dinna’s former position took a step forward. “Is what Princess Maria says true?”
“Yes, your Majesty,” Corel nodded. “The Princess is 27 years old, and her birthday was a moon ago or so. Do you wish for me to fetch a history book from the library, to stake up my claims?”
“No,” Cerron dismissed, waving his hand as he picked up his fork to resume eating. “I trust your word.”
Corel nodded again, and took a step back into the shadow of Cerron’s chair.
As Cerron resumed eating, a small grin light up his face. Surely, if Maria had decided to start speaking to him, things would soon turn interesting.