The faint glow of morning light seeped in through the single east-facing window of the bedchamber. By this hour, the clouds had rolled in and dulled the sky in its usual manner. Ellie opened her eyes to see Janus’s form silhouetted by the light, his lips barely parted as he slept on the side that faced her. With a smirk, she shuffled closer and leaned her face beside his, prepared to steal a kiss until the sound of his voice gave her a slight jolt.
“Now what you could be scheming so early in the morning?”
Janus smiled at her as his eyes opened gently, bearing a satisfied glint at his successful attempt at startling her.
“I think you know perfectly well what I’m scheming.”
The two shared a chuckle as their lips met in a soft kiss.
“Have you been awake long?” Ellie asked.
“I’ve only just woken. Your movements stirred me from my sleep.”
“A light sleeper, eh?” Ellie sighed happily and moved her arms around Janus in a close embrace.
“Did you sleep well?” Janus asked, returning the hold.
“Gods, yes. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well in my entire life, especially with how unbelievably comfortable this bed is.” She bounced her hip on it a few times for emphasis.
“You can stay in my chambers from now on, if you desire.”
“Tempting, but I admit that I’m rather fond of my little room.”
“Well, regardless of where you choose to stay, you’re always welcome here.”
“Ooo, be careful. I may just visit you every night with an invitation like that.”
“And I’d be honored to entertain you nightly.”
Ellie breathed a small laugh as she burrowed further into Janus’s embrace, but soon after began stirring with annoyance at the pang of hunger tightening in her stomach.
“Ugh, I can’t take it anymore, I have to go find something to eat. I barely ate yesterday.”
When she sat up and began scooting toward the opposite side of the bed, Ellie felt Janus’s hand clasp her own longingly.
“Just a few more minutes,” he begged.
“I’m going to start gnawing on you if I don’t go now.”
She parted her fingers from his and emerged from the warm blankets into the cold air permeating the room. Ellie hustled around to the other side of the bed and snatched her robe from the floor. As she tied the sash around her waist, Ellie glanced at Janus and quirked her brow when she saw the fascination with which he watched her.
“What’re you smiling about?”
“Call me a hopeless romantic, but merely gazing upon you has me smitten.”
Ellie scoffed and leaned down beside him.
“You’re a hopeless romantic.” The two exchanged a quick kiss before she stood upright. “But I could have suspected as much, given that every single novel you recommended had a moment of heated romance.”
“Ah, I suppose that is a trend in my tastes, isn’t it?” He bit his lip nervously before reaching for Ellie’s hand and holding only a moment before she backed away.
“I’m going to wash up and dress before I go downstairs,” she said.
“Then I’ll see you there shortly, as I’ll do the same.”
Ellie had only just started toward the door when Janus summoned her back to his side. In his hand sat the book that she loaned to him that day in the library, which he had fetched from its place atop the bedside table.
“Here, I finally completed it. Though I admit it took me far longer than it should have.”
A grin formed on Ellie’s face as she admired the familiar cover of ‘Feyland Tales’.
“Did you enjoy it?”
“I did, but I still can’t believe how it ended. The faerie tormented each of these poor souls, and in the end they all exacted their rather… colorful revenge. A prime example of ‘what goes around, comes around’, I suppose.”
“I agree. Let’s talk about it more in depth later, but I do have another I’d like you to read that I’ll bring by tonight. I’m curious if you’ll feel the way that I did about the ending.”
“I look forward to it.”
Though they exchanged smiles with one another, Ellie’s expression rapidly changed to one of worry as she began bouncing on her toes.
“Okay. I have to go now. I’m going to start eating the bedpost.”
“Weren’t you going to wash first?”
“I’ll just eat a couple of dates beforehand,” she called back as she darted to the door.
“Disgusting. I’ll see you soon, my dear.”
The door closed behind Ellie with her token, unintentional slam. She muttered an apology—of which was replied to with a muffled laugh—and started down the corridor at a quickened pace. The sooner she got to her bedchamber and washed up, the sooner she could barge into the kitchen with ferocious hunger.
Ellie gripped the door handle and readied to throw it wide and thrust herself into the washroom.
“Good morning, Ellie.”
The brief, high pitched yelp that emit from her could have been mistaken for a startled rodent. Ellie whipped around to find Elise directly behind her, of whom she was certain would have worn a raised brow at the squeak were she not comprised entirely of bone.
“Good morning, Elise,” Ellie whimpered. “Please don’t sneak up on me like that.”
“Out for a morning stroll?”
Ellie only nodded in response.
“In your night robe?”
“It’s… more liberating.”
“I’m sure. Does it also make for a more pleasant reading experience?”
Ellie followed Elise’s bony finger as it pointed to the book clutched in her arms.
“It most certainly does…”
“In any matter, I came to inform you that breakfast will be ready in twenty minutes.”
“Oh, that’s perfect. I’m positively famished.”
“I imagine so! Especially since you hardly touched last night’s dinner.”
“Did you… already stop by?”
“I did. Late last night. You didn’t respond, so I invited myself in. The meal was cold as stone and you were nowhere to be found.”
Small beads of sweat had already formed on Ellie’s forehead through the conversation. She was terrified how Elise might react if she knew precisely what had happened between her and Janus the night before, though she was beginning to suspect that she already knew.
“Sorry, it was already cold by the time I woke up.”
“It’s fine. Just make yourself presentable and come down to the dining hall.”
Ellie watched Elise turn on her heel and started back toward the Great Hall. With a quiet sigh, she entered her bedchamber and promptly began making herself ready.
A light knock at the far door jostled Janus as he neatly aligned the cuffs of his coat sleeves. His brow furrowed at the back entrance, knowing full well that there was only one person who could approach that door without alerting Janus through his acute hearing.
The door gave a slight creak as it opened. Stepping in from the stairwell beyond was none other than the shade, who bowed his head respectfully in his lord’s presence.
“Good morning, Lord Janus. I apologize for such early disturbance.”
“It’s quite alright.” Janus smoothed out the collar of his waistcoat and tucked in his cravat. “The change in your demeanor when you step outside your domain never fails to take me by surprise.”
Rehor’s silence told him all he needed to know about the shade’s humor that morning.
“Is there something you need?” Janus continued.
“Access to the transmutation room.”
“Of course, but why?”
“There’s been a… peculiar development with the afflicted. They’ve grown quite restless and I would like to create more sedative.”
“Certainly, I will unlock the door for you on my way out. Any suspects as to the cause?”
“It’s possible that they’re merely riled up from yesterday’s trauma. But there is something else that may be affecting them.”
“There was a peculiar spike of energy emit from the thorn that Elise retrieved from your wound. The afflicted throughout the entire asylum began acting strangely mere moments after.”
Vivid images of Janus’s assailant lingered on Rehor’s words as he pondered the possible connections between the two.
“Will the sedative be enough?”
“I believe it will keep them rested until Nairi and I can ascertain what’s happening with the thorn.”
“I understand. Please keep me abreast of any further developments. If it’s alright, I will stop by later to assess the situation for myself.”
“Of course, Lord Janus. Thank you.”
With a swift turn, Rehor departed the bedchamber and returned to the stairwell from where he came. Janus then promptly twirled his caped over his shoulders and fastened the chain in place before following suit.
Delighted chuckles rumbled from Ellie as she squished her cheek against the surface of the dining hall table. An empty plate sat before her, barely a scrap remaining as the fork rattled against the porcelain with every small vibration. So content was she after having her meal that Ellie’s consistent giggling wouldn’t cease even after Janus entered the room with a concerned brow.
“Either you ate too fast, or I took longer to arrive than I anticipated.”
She pointed to him in objection. “I most certainly did not scarf the whole thing down in just a couple of minutes, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“She most certainly did.” Elise pushed through the serving room door and placed a bottle of blood and a crystal glass before Janus at his seat. “You’re going to feel awful later, you know this.”
She placed her empty plate into Elise’s outstretched hand, then watched the amused tremble of her bony shoulders as she returned to the serving room. Cackling quietly, Ellie leaned back into the corner of her chair and—with a downward motion of her arms—gestured to her graceless form.
“You sure you want to be with this mess?”
“My dear,” Janus said, delicately taking her hand. “You would be beautiful to me even if you were covered in mud and had hair more wild than the time Gerald was shocked by the lightning magic of an irate local wizard.”
“You really are a hopeless romantic.”
“And you best grow accustomed to it. I’ve had centuries to read several times the novels you have and remember clearly all of the now-relevant details.”
A sincere smile painted Ellie’s face, but an ever so slight twinge of regret lied behind it. She knew how much more difficult her departure would be for the both of them, but there was little she could do but enjoy the here and now.
She sat upright and forced the ill feelings to evict from her mind as Janus began pouring blood into the glass. The corner of Ellie’s mouth then tightened quizzically as she lightly touched the bite on her neck.
“Was I not enough?”
Janus laughed nervously and brought the glass to his lips. “Trust me, you were. However, I would like to avoid the awkward conversation that would come after Elise asking why I didn’t need the blood today. I’ll drink a little, then tell her that I don’t have much an appetite and will have the rest later.”
He took a quick drink before glancing at Ellie from across the rim.
“Your bite seems to be healing remarkably. Should be completely faded by tomorrow.”
Ellie gave a small, understanding nod until her body ran cold and prompted her to slap a hand over the bite with a dramatic gasp.
“What’s wrong?” Janus asked, shifting in his seat at her sudden motion.
“It was completely exposed when I bumped into Elise in the corridor. She was so suspicious of where I had been, but I think she already knew and that probably just confirmed it.”
Janus winced. “Well, there’s no helping that now. She was bound to find out, anyway, especially considering how visible it is right now.”
“You’re probably right. Would she have any reason to be upset about this?”
“Oh gods, no. The only thing we have to fear is how she’ll use this to tease us. Wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if she was cackling to herself in the kitchen as we speak, pondering a flustering remark for when we least expect it.”
“Is she the type to go around telling others?”
“Not as though she were gossiping, but certainly by dropping it in casual conversation. Then when the person she’s talking to seems confused, she’ll say something like ‘Oh, you didn’t know?’”
“Wonderful.” Ellie leaned against the back of her chair and gazed up at the third floor balcony. “In any case, what do you have planned for the day?”
“I need to meet with Rehor, but otherwise my schedule is rather open. If it stays that way, I may visit Haven to see how they’re faring.”
“Um.” Ellie leaned forward and tucked her hands timidly between her knees. “If you have time, I’d still like it if you taught me how to fence.”
Janus smiled softly at the request. “There should be plenty of time for that. In fact, I can give you your first lesson before I go to Haven.”
Ellie nodded with delight. She could picture herself now; a graceful weapon in one hand, poised and perfect in form. In the other arm, Janus held close to her by the waist as she stared down her imaginary opponent. But the heroic image was shattered at the dull thud of Janus’s glass against the table, tearing Ellie from her daydream.
“May I ask a favor of you, Ellie?”
“While I’m meeting with Rehor, could you see how things fare in Rat Town? I’ve been worried about them, but I must tend to my business in the asylum.”
“Sure.” She scratched at the back of her head. “Is this business a bit more private?”
“Ah, sharp.” A nervous chuckle parted his lips. “Only for the time being.”
“I understand. I don’t mind checking on them, since I’ve been worried, too. In fact, I may just go do that right now.”
Ellie pushed her chair back with her body as she stood, then leaned forward as she clutched her stomach with a pained groan.
“Oh, Elise was right.”
“Are you alright, Ellie?” Janus fought back an amused breath.
“Yeah,” she grumbled. As the pain subsided, Ellie stood beside Janus and leaned down as he finished a sip of blood. “I’ll see you soon.”
Planting a small kiss on his cheek, Ellie then traced her fingers down along his arm before stepping behind the chair and making her way toward the corridor.
“I’ll come find you when I finish,” he called to her, a contented smile on his face.
Ellie gave a confirming hum and closed the dining hall door. Unable to wipe the grin from his face, Janus swirled his glass gently between his fingers and mulled over how quickly their relationship had changed from host and ward to romantic partners, quite literally overnight.
The mysterious glow in the tunnel was washed away by the bright light of Rat Town the moment that Ellie emerged in the cavern. Though most of the rats were still in the farmlands with the other evacuees, the streets were alive with the commotion of numerous small, fuzzy workers as they went about cleaning up and making repairs. Hapi stood nearby and leaned on the handle of his shovel while pointing a forceful finger at a few rats peeking out of piles of dirt.
“Please focus your efforts into one spot! If you just kick it back carelessly, then you only end up making a hundred smaller piles that I’ll have to scoop up.”
The rats blinked, then dug back into the dirt and continued kicking it out with little care. Hapi sighed and shook his head in defeat as he began scooping up the small piles one by one. It was no use wasting any further effort on getting the burrowers to listen to him if they wouldn’t the first dozen times.
“Anything I can help with?” Ellie asked sympathetically as she approached.
“Oh, Ellie, I didn’t notice you there.” Hapi raised a dirt-caked finger to his chin in thought, then tightened the corner of his mouth in uncertainty when he noticed her attire. “Well, I would love some assistance with all these little messes, but I’d hate to see you ruin your pretty dress.”
“Oh, it’ll be fine.” She outstretched her arms and looked herself over. “I’ll be careful.”
“Well, alright, but if you ruin it, then I had no say in the matter if Elise starts demanding answers.”
Hapi grabbed a nearby shovel and gave it a gentle toss to Ellie before directing her to a series of small piles down the street parallel to where he was working.
“Keep an eye out for burrowers,” he warned.
Ellie leaned over and analyzed each of the small piles before scooping them up one at a time. Once the blade was full, she shuffled over to a nearby wheelbarrow and dumped the contents into the bed. When that was also full, Ellie then dumped the accumulated dirt into a large pile near the entrance. It was mundane work, but she enjoyed it as it reminded her of working the garden back home.
“There sure was a lot more dirt that fell down than I thought,” Ellie said to Hapi from a few houses down.
“Yep, they’ve got a higher roof now.” He leaned back and stared at the cavern ceiling. “Only by a half foot at most, maybe. Should be fine unless we get a bunch of tremors again. Good thing for it, too, since the castle’s foundation isn’t much higher than that.”
“Really? What part of the castle is up there?”
“Mostly the eastern corridor. Those natural pillars you see around here help keep everything stable, but the integrity of a couple weakened after all this business.” Hapi pointed to the eastern wall to a neat row of tiny holes. “The rats have all these little passages that go out toward the shore that they now have to dig back out and replace the doors on.”
“The tunnels have doors?”
“Sure do, tiny ones. Helps keep out snakes and other predators that may try to sneak in.” A chuckle rumbled in Hapi. “They have little soldier rats wearing armor and brandishing spears that patrol the tunnels to keep them safe. Oh, they’re a real sight.”
The pair carried on in conversation for some time, with the rats eventually joining in as they elaborated on everything from the history of the cavern to rat cuisine. Ellie had become so involved in the discussion that she hadn’t the faintest idea how much time had passed. As it was, she just barely noticed when Janus stepped into the cavern and began looking out over the town. She raised her hand to him with a smile, scooped a few more piles into the wheelbarrow, then bustled to the entrance.
“I didn’t expect you here so soon!”
“Soon?” he chuckled. “It’s been two hours. If anything, I took far longer than I estimated. But look at you; I merely ask you to see how the rats were faring and you dove right into the dirt.”
“It was no trouble, I was happy to help out. How did it go with Rehor?”
“As well as expected, which is to say we’re both equally as puzzled about our little dilemma as we were when we started. I do apologize for how long I took.”
“No no, that’s fine.”
Janus beamed as he looked Ellie over. “I take it you’re not too tired to have your first fencing lesson?”
“Not in the slightest! I have plenty of energy left to spare.”
“Wonderful. Then I’ll fetch the practice blades while you finish up. Meet me in the western courtyard clearing.”
Ellie watched Janus return to the darkness of the tunnel and disappear with eager steps. With her own excitement propelling her, she trotted back to where she had been working and dropped a few more shovels full into the wheelbarrow before pushing the load to the main dirt pile. She bid Hapi a farewell—who in turn thanked her for her help—and started toward the courtyard.
The cool air swept over Ellie the instant she emerged from the tunnel, a welcome change from working up a sweat in the underground chamber. Thoughtfully, she stepped up to the boxwood hedge that lined the small clearing looking down over the plaza and watched the water flow from the fountain.
It was not long before there was an audible click from the Great Hall door opening. Ellie grinned when she saw Janus return with a pair of wooden rapiers, one in each hand. Nearly forgetting to close the door behind him, Janus made his way over to her with an awkward smile.
“Apologies, I had a difficult time remembering which storeroom they were in.”
“Did you sprint there? You weren’t even gone that long.”
“Oh, believe me; if I sprinted, I’d be the one watching the fountain longingly as I waited.” There was a painfully apparent sense of pride in his statement. Was Janus trying to impress her? Maybe she would have been, but unless she saw it for herself, it sounded like nothing more than empty flaunting. Ellie was uncertain if she found this charming or simply amusing.
“Now then.” Janus handed her one of the wooden rapiers, then gripped the other in his hand. “Let’s begin with with the basics. Hold the rapier in your hand like so.”
He suppressed an awkward laugh and took it upon himself to position her fingers properly. Ellie’s inner brow perked in embarrassment at just how poorly she had imitated his hold.
“Now let’s work on your stance. Position your body like so.”
Ellie examined Janus’s pose and posture, attempting to form the mental checklist of what she she should and shouldn’t do. Feet planted equal distance apart? Give or take. Weapon at the right angle? She was more liable to stab herself. Body positioned correctly? If a worm were attempting to fence, perhaps.
Noticing her struggle, Janus set down his rapier and placed his hands on Ellie’s hips and positioned her correctly to better help her understand. The moment between them left her unable to stop from chuckling and bobbing the rapier in her hand.
“This reminds me of Lillian.”
“Oh?” Janus retrieved his rapier from the ground and stood across from her. “How so?”
“Lillian is always playing around with wooden swords and talking our brother Irwin and I into mock battles. I never got the hang of it and would run off when she’d start flailing wildly, but Irwin usually stands his ground. Needless to say, that usually gets him into trouble.”
“Oh dear,” he laughed, idly tapping the tip of his rapier against hers. “Even wooden swords can be dangerous, though.”
“That’s why my dad wrapped cushions around hers.”
“I’m surprised your brother bothers indulging her in these mock battles at all.”
“Well, when Irwin gets his hands on one of those fighting manuals, he tries to copy the stance and technique to see if he can throw her off guard with a counterattack. Of course, he’s never, ever prepared when she goes crazy like that. Not sure where she gets that from, since the rest of us are relatively sane.”
As the topic wound down, Janus continued teaching Ellie the hold and stance until she got the hang of it, then engaged her in practice matches. It came as no surprise to either of them that Janus would come out victorious each time, but Ellie learned from her mistakes and listened carefully to his teachings. Despite this, she still struggled to fully grasp the fundamentals and began circling Janus in frustration.
“Ellie, I don’t believe this was part of my lesson,” he muttered.
With a fierce thrust, she threw her rapier like a javelin into the ground behind him. Janus was so taken aback that he couldn’t help but follow the weapon as it flew past him, leaving himself fully exposed to Ellie. One leap was all she needed to jump onto his back and cling her legs around his waist. Janus began sputtering as he struggled to react to Ellie’s sudden assault, and could only drop his own rapier before instinctively wrapping his arms beneath her legs for support.
“Ellie, what in—”
“I’ve got you now, rebellion boy! I may be bad at fencing, but I’ve learned how to fight in other ways from my crazy sister!”
“Rebellion boy?” Janus stammered.
“You heard me! I haven’t forgotten what Bedelia said and I will get that story out of you.”
“Alright, alright,” Janus laughed along with her. “I promise I will tell you all about it one of these nights. But for now—”
Janus let go of Ellie’s legs, causing her to tighten her grip with a desperate squeal as she attempted to keep herself from sliding off.
“—I must reprimand you for performing such a graceless attack during an elegant form of combat.”
“Nooo!” Ellie slipped down the length of Janus’s body and fell to her backside with an audible ‘oof’. The two burst out in laughter as he extended a hand to help her back to her feet.
“Relatively sane, indeed!” Janus scoffed. “And you say you wonder where your sister got it from.”
“It’s just as well,” Ellie said, dusting off her backside. “I don’t think I have the knack for fencing.”
“On the contrary, you’re learning far quicker than I anticipated.”
“Is that so?” Ellie proudly placed her hands on her hips. “Well, my professors would used to tell me that I excelled in the things I cared about and met the bare minimum for those I didn’t.”
Janus raised a brow at the prideful tone she used even for the second part of her statement.
“Were you not the most academic of students?”
“I never had perfect marks for all subjects, but the ones that I did excel in made up for the ones that were lackluster.” She yanked her wooden rapier from its makeshift sheathe in the ground. “What about you?”
“Adrianus and Naenia attended an academy, but my parents insisted that Cecil and I receive a home education. I never gave it much thought before, but I imagine they wanted to keep us close due to the rise in cultist activity.”
Ellie bit her lip. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to bring up the past.”
“It doesn’t bother me, Ellie. I’ve had years to both dwell and reflect on it. I just want to find a cure so that they can start their life anew.”
She gave a solemn nod, then smiled in reassurance when she saw how softly Janus looked at her. They stepped closer to one another, but were quickly interrupted by the call of a familiar voice from around the corner.
Gerald waddled past the hedge and across the grass with a rolled up bit of parchment tied neatly to his back.
“Where did you come from, Gerald?” Ellie asked.
“The Great Hall.”
She huffed an exasperated breath at the response.
“What’s that tied to your back?” she asked, her tone now weighted in annoyance.
“Looks like a missive,” Janus said, kneeling down.
“It’s from Mayor Bedelia!”
Gerald giggled as Janus unintentionally tickled the rat as he untied the string, then scuttled out of the way of it as it dropped to the ground. Ellie watched Janus unravel the parchment and begin reading it over.
“Is everything alright?”
“Seems so,” he said. “However, Bedelia has summoned me to Haven at my earliest convenience. It’s just as well, since a trip to town was already in my plans for the day.”
Janus rolled the parchment back up and dropped it into an inner cloak pocket.
“Why write a note instead of having you relay the message verbally?”
“Oh, excellent question, Lord Janus,” Gerald nodded. “Mayor Bedelia said she didn’t want me forgetting it, so surely having a piece of parchment tied to my back was the better solution.”
“Have you been forgetful lately?” Ellie asked.
“A little! I’m quite tired with all the work on Rot Town.”
“See? Quite tired.”
“I apologize,” Janus said, turning to Ellie. “I should make my way to Haven now rather than later. We can continue your lesson tomorrow.”
“That’s fine, Janus.” Ellie scooped the other wooden rapier from his grasp.
“If I’m not needed, then I’m going home for awhile.”
Janus nodded. “Of course, Gerald. Thank you.”
Ellie and Janus chuckled as they watched Gerald’s wobbly shuffle toward the tunnel entrance. After he was gone, she turned back to him and held up the two rapiers.
“Is there anywhere in particular that I should put these?”
“You can set them just inside the garden storeroom.” Janus motioned to the far southeastern door.
She’d only just begun walking in that direction when Ellie was pulled back by Janus’s light grip on her forearm.
“Ellie.” He smiled gently when her eyes met his. “Let’s spend some time together tonight.”
“I’d love that.”
Slowly, Janus tilted Ellie’s head up by her chin and leaned forward for a light kiss farewell.
“I’ll return soon.”
Ellie nodded and watched Janus depart from the courtyard into the Great Hall. With a sigh, she retrieved the string from the ground and started once more toward the garden storeroom, her heart fluttering in anticipation for the night to come.