It had been like the days before. A strange unintelligible letter and a single stemless rose, delivered by her handmaiden that afternoon. For a moment she thought the letter to be the raving nonsense of a madman. Mostly gibberish interlaced with words that had little relation to one another. But something about it, the way the words left out certain letters, seemed familiar. Intimately familiar to her.

Only on closer inspection did she find it had been written in a code, one she quickly recognized from letters past. The rose, when she honestly thought about it, sealed the deal. She knew her author, clearly and unmistakably, and with it his impish challenge.

Tearing through her library, she dug up old diaries and letters. The cipher. She had the cipher somewhere. It had been a long time, yes, but it had to be here. Soon enough, she had found it, stuck between an old book of poetry and a tome on ancient daggers.

She had not done this in ages. She wasn’t even sure it would work. But once she’d set upon it, after a few minutes of work, the note–broken of its secrets–revealed soft, tender words. Words of deep devotion and love, poured out with care from him. Until at last, it finished with a rendezvous and a wish for him to see her there.

The old game played out again for old times.

She ended the note almost rapturous.

She remembered the way her pulse had raced then, a young girl sneaking out of the castle after every yielded message. How her father would’ve been furious had he known. She reveled in how her lover’s face had felt, that warm crackle of desire against her cheeks, when they had kissed for the first time. A delicate little mystery, tumbling out into the brisk open air.

She had never felt freer than in that first kiss. Or in all the years loving him since.

And though there was no reason to be secretive or stealthy about it now–she a grown woman, he a grown man, the both of them sovereigns to a vast and thriving empire and parents to their beautiful daughter–she still felt the old familiar flutter in her stomach when she slipped out, unannounced, and made her way out to meet him.

Claiming and saddling one of the horses from her stables, she rode out from the castle walls, keeping a strong and steady trot towards the rendezvous.

She spurred the horse hungrily towards the location, only a mile or so from the castle, hoping her rusty decoding of the letter hadn’t cost her precious time. The deeper she grew towards it, that old familiar glen, the more her responsibilities seemed to fall away behind her. Queen. Mother. Wife. Woman. Until all that remained was that silly young girl again, afflicted with insatiable want and incurable affection.

She was anxious to revisit those old thank yous. For remembering.

Once at the glen, she found herself the only soul there. Birds cawed and shuffled among the tree branches. But there was no immediate sign of him, waiting for her.

She dismounted and tied the horse to a nearby tree limb, looking around for a sign of him peeking through the pines, that toothsome grin splashed across his face.

But after searching the woods for a few moments, she realized she had beaten him to the rendezvous. Something she had never done when they were younger. She laughed outloud at this. As mischievous and big-hearted as he was, he had grown old. And fat. And slow. The pranks, hilariously, had outpaced the man. She giggled louder at the idea, swearing she wouldn’t miss this opportunity to tease him about it when she saw him.

She took the rose from her satchel and, looking up again to make sure he wasn’t approaching, played carefully with its petals. The bloom was full enough for both hands. Closing her eyes, she leaned in close, letting herself fall to its sweet perfume. He’d be here any minute now, she told herself.

The snap of a twig popped behind her and the need to taunt him mercilessly rose within her. “You’re late” she scolded, with a smile.

Only once she had turned did she realize how dire her mistake had been. Trusting that note. Trusting that it would be him.

Before her stood four pitch black hounds, as silent and as unyielding as stone. Each waited on muscled limbs, one licking its lips with almost abject disregard. Cold white eyes sought her out as she drew backwards in surprise. Behind them, stood a figure she knew all too well.

A tall, red cloaked man with a stag’s skull for a face.

Death had lead her here. She knew it to be true, no matter how desperately she wanted to fight it. She vaguely felt the rose drop to her feet before realizing she stood there, paralyzed and silenced by the shock. This man, the finality of what he represented, seized her with such panic and with such grim, desperate certainty that it seemed almost impossible to stand. It wasn’t fair. For this collection of her, this closing of her life, to be so pre-determined. So immediate. So quickly and unmercifully decided by another. Inside her, the drive to live grew from a whisper to a raging command.

She had no choice. All of her life, her duty, her hopes to see the man she thought it might be, thinned like water before the horror of this man and his dogs.

She had no choice but to run.

Category: Tisandra

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