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Chapter 210:  His Final Resting Place 

So the Seer had been keeping secrets from him. She was a clever little bitch when he got right down to it. She’d kept this secret because she knew that he might have been resistant to it in the beginning, perhaps fought her, and tried to find another way around it. But now that he was only a few months away from his Curse being enacted, she knew he hadn’t a choice but to trust her and go along with her path. She told him things when he needed to know them. And to think that sometimes he thought he was gaining control of her.

It wasn’t hard to find this location. Not with his magic, though, it was odd how his magic reacted to it. A month or so after he’d gotten the news, when he noticed that the Charmings, Cinderella, and her Prince Thomas were beginning to exchange more messages, he felt ready to see it, accept it, and make the appropriate plans. So he’d pictured it in his mind, the image of the future the Seer had once given him of Snow White standing in a dark place some distance from him, completing her deal to tell him the truth if a question was ever asked of her, and then he went there. But his magic didn’t bring him to that place, to where he wanted to be. Instead, he arrived in a wooded area within King George’s Kingdom. He inhaled through his nose and smelled dwarf as well as…fairy magic.

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Chapter 209:  The Swan’s Confirmation

The girl of ash was pregnant.

Her debt to him was secured.

Snow White and Prince Charming were probably pregnant.

The firstborn of Princess Cora had his Curse in hand as well as the ability to cast it.

And people said that villains never won…

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Chapter 208:  Two Mothers, Two Children, Two Worlds

It had been a dull two months. Work, work, work…he’d taken to seeing some people again and dealing just to quell some of his boredom. The truth was that at the moment, there was really nothing that he could do except to keep himself busy and watch. Regina was working diligently on the Curse, with a passion for the magic he’d given her as he’d never seen before in the girl. That was good. She was depending upon it; she had faith and a heart in what it was and what it would bring to her. That was very good for him. Since acquiring it, she’d barely been back to her castle, just a few stops inside to gather a couple of dresses and ingredients from her stores, but she soon discovered that the Curse, while simple to create, was not simple to assemble. That was how she’d been spending her time, analyzing the ingredients and gathering them together so that she could create the Curse that would allow her to destroy the happiness of Snow White.

But while Regina was fretting about trying to end that happiness, he had the very distinct feeling that the Queen’s happiness was only growing. He hoped that soon enough, something else would be growing too, if not already. Snow and David had enjoyed a very extended honeymoon. With the dwarves placed in charge of the Kingdom in their absence, they stayed at the Summer Palace for the last two months, on their own, usually wearing very comfortable clothes and sometimes wearing none at all. When he caught them in those moments, he was always sure to look away, but the sight of it was enough to give him a small thrill as he wondered if that was the time that they might conceive the Swan. 

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current obsession: Spinning Silver (2018)

last week it was The Picture of Dorian Gray, the week before it was the House on the Cerulean Sea; hopefully I can continue this trend of reading more outside of the MLM/LGBTQ genre, but honestly it’s very hard (note to self: write a scathing review of the 2011 “Midnight Riot” as a weak, contemporary adult urban fantasy that tries desperately to be like Percy Jackson but fails utterly).

In any case, this book quite caught me in surprise. At first I thought I was just getting a typically fantasy book with traditional medieval elements of princesses, magic and self-discovery woven in, but man, was I wrong. I downloaded this book’s sample onto my Kindle a while back, so I had quite forgotten what the plot was supposed to be when I eventually came around to reading the thing.

“By the time I got to chapter 3, I knew I had been wrong. The “real story” mentioned back in chapter 1 is a more grounded, less fantastical retelling Rumpelstiltskin, but even then it still went over my head–

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Chapter 207:  After the Wedding

He hadn’t planned on going anywhere after the wedding and Regina’s pronouncement. He hadn’t figured he would need to go anywhere. Snow and David, after their wedding and a conversation about Regina, had gone on their honeymoon. They’d left that evening so that they could get to the summer palace by morning. He didn’t bother to watch them navigate in the dark. There was no point. He knew them well enough to know that if they had waited this long to consummate their marriage, they weren’t about to pull over on a dirt road and do it. No, the King and Queen would wait until they reached the palace. They’d make sure there was a bed for them to sleep in, and knowing them, there would probably be a fire and wine and cheese and fruit and maybe even a picnic beforehand. They’d romance one another, then fumble awkwardly with clothes and hand positions, blushing as all virgins did their first time. They’d take things slow…as if they hadn’t gone slow enough already.

There was no point in watching Snow and David, but Regina, on the other hand…she provided him plenty of entertainment and allowed him to collect something that he simply couldn’t let pass him by.

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Historian Emma Wilby identified recurring motifs in various European folk tales and fairy tales that she believed displayed a belief in familiar spirits. She noted that in such tales as Rumpelstiltskin, Puss-in-Boots and the Frog Prince, the protagonist is approached by a supernatural being when they are in need of aid.

wishingwellfairytales
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Chapter 206:  Wedding of the Century

He knew that people were calling it the “Wedding of the Century.” He was no expert on weddings, barely remembering his own, but as someone who had lived for well over a century and a half, he expected that it was a fair assessment.

It was a simple but still grand affair. The pair were to be married in a round room in the palace, the base of one of the towers in King George’s Palace, the place they had chosen to inhabit permanently. The windows were stained glass and had recently been cleaned to let an optimum amount of light in at sunset, no less, creating a colorful scene, but not one that would detract from the bride and groom. A platform from an old well had been salvaged for this wedding, salvaged and restored so they could marry upon it. The well had not been saved, obviously, but at least it carried on the dreadful tradition of marrying in front of a well in some way. Simple but grand. However, he knew that it wasn’t the grandeur that made people say it was the Wedding of the Century; it was the people. It wasn’t just the fact that the King and Queen, those who had fallen so hard at the cost of their parents and risen back to greatness, were the bride and groom. It was the guest list.

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Chapter 205:  A Father’s Love

Regina was a tricky little devil. He was partly to blame for that, but he wasn’t willing to excuse the fact that Cora was her mother or that she’d been brought up as a spoiled little girl by her father either. When he’d first met her, she’d been innocent and naïve. Now that she knew what the world around her was capable of, he knew there were times to excuse himself from her presence. After the fiasco with Count Edmund, for example, he found himself purposefully staying away from her to the extent that when she’d come to his castle one night, screaming his name, demanding to know what he’d done, he’d made himself invisible and stood in a corner, tolerating her destruction of his things, knowing full well that the important things were safe from her. It wasn’t that he was scared of her, not by a long shot; no, he had more power than Regina ever would. But he recognized that from now on, he had a tricky role to play in her life. After what happened with the Count and Charlotte, he had appeared before her as an enemy, but he was ever aware that there was time she would need him to be her mentor, still, and other times that she’d need him to be her friend. He’d hidden from her that day because he knew that if she found him, that might be the end of it. When the Count hadn’t shown up, and Snow and David continued to live, it hadn’t taken her much to put two and two together, and she was so furious that if she got her hands on him, she would have severed their bond so that he would never have been able to appear before her as a friend again. By hiding and letting her take out her anger on his objects, he allowed her to vent her rage towards him at having failed, then go home to wallow in her despair, a place that he would still be able to reach her.

Soon enough, he’d sensed, probably from the Seer, she would let him into her world again. This time when he explained the loophole to the protection spell he’d placed on the Charmings, she would be receptive. She would listen. And the divide would be crossed once more. So he kept up his watching, kept himself fully tuned into the future in his head, and waited to be called to go to her. But he didn’t expect it would happen as it had.

In the early morning on the day Snow and David were to be married, he received a summons, one he probably would have answered out of boredom even if the Seer hadn’t pressed him to go, but it hadn’t led him to Regina, at least not directly. Instead, it took him out into the courtyard where the former queen kept her apple tree, to a man he’d seen several times in his life, who practically had haunted him, and yet he’d never had a conversation with.

Henry.

Cora’s husband.

Regina’s father.

He wasn’t ashamed of his past. He simply preferred not to acknowledge it. Everything he’d ever done, good or bad, was to get back to Baelfire. If he let himself wander too far from that truth, his past sins might kill him. But Henry…

Henry always made him uncomfortable. The idea of talking with him now, standing before him as he was, made his heart race, and he struggled to keep the mask of the Dark One in place before him. Sometimes he thought it might have been the old man’s age. He’d already been well over one hundred by the time he’d pursued Cora, and he hardly ever felt his age or even felt like all those years had gone by as they had, but when he looked at Henry, he felt like he could feel every last year he’d ever lived. He was white-haired and wrinkled, a far cry from the handsome young Prince he’d once been in so many ways. When he looked at Henry, he felt like he should have been food for the worms, old and buried by now with his son next to him as his grandchildren brought them flowers for their graves. He’d tried, ever since his indiscretion with Cora, never to pay Henry much attention for that reason. Why he’d summoned him for a face to face meeting now, after all these years…it was a mystery to him.

“You?” he laughed, trying to pretend like he didn’t care. “Well, there must be a mistake. Surely you wouldn’t summon me. Your daughter could give you all you want!”

“It’s not about what I want; it’s about what she wants. What can you do for her?”

“I’m sorry, who?”

“Regina!” he stressed, stepping closer to him. There was an old weathered piece of paper in his hands. He kept running his fingers over it, pinching and releasing it, changing his grip on it over and over, nervously. What was it? “I know I don’t look like much, but I’m smarter than I appear. I know about you and Cora, just as I know you’ve taught Regina to be as her mother,” he admitted extending his hand so that he might take the paper.

Damn it. It was a letter, one that he’d written to Cora long ago. It had started with “My Love.” He regretted those words now. Looking at them made him sick, especially when he thought of what he still felt for Belle. How could he ever have confused what he felt for Cora as love?

“I don’t care who you’ve taught her to be. All I want is my daughter’s happiness, for her to live in peace. If you can do something to help her, I’ll gladly pay the price.”

He believed that. Truly he did. But this wasn’t something that involved him. At least not until it came time to cast the Curse.

“I’ve already done something to help her,” he explained, folding the paper and sticking it into his pocket. “She wouldn’t take my help.”

“Then convince her!” Henry begged. “I fear for her if she doesn’t find help. Cora belonged to you, no matter what she said-”

“-Cora belonged to her magic-”

“-but Regina is all I’ve ever had in this world,” he stated, ignoring his correction. “She’s all I ever wanted and all I’ve ever had to be proud of. I can’t stand to see her in this state.”

He smiled and took a step closer to dear Henry. It was ironic. He couldn’t stand to see his daughter in this state. He didn’t have much of a choice. If his vision of the future was right, his sacrifice was going to be what it took to get her out of this state.

“And…you would be willing to…die for her…if that were the cost of her happiness?”

Henry’s eyes went wide as dinner plates, and he flinched, considering his words and what he’d just said. If he truly was smarter than he appeared, he would know what those words meant. But would he be willing?

Henry nodded. “If that is the cost,” he vowed.

Poor old man.

He laughed and tapped his fingers together. “Well then…let’s go see, Regina!” he declared.

With another nod, Henry turned to lead him to wherever Regina was.

Oh, he could see what he meant. When Henry walked into her chamber and proclaimed, “You have a visitor,” he made quick work of the situation and appeared behind her so that by the time Regina snapped “who?” and her father turned to usher him in, he was already there, watching Regina stare into her mirror.

“You need to ask?” he questioned, drawing her attention away from the mirror. His appearance didn’t change her mood, not that he’d really expected it to. It was a perfectly lovely day for a wedding. He doubted that she’d see it that way. Perhaps this wasn’t such a bad idea. There was, after all, one little thing in his plan he didn’t always account for. Whats and whos and whys were important, of course, but when manipulating a situation, when trying to force the hand of someone who didn’t want to be forced, whens could also have their own power. “What other friends do you have, dearie?”

“You’re no friend,” Regina snarled as her father made his way out of the room. “Have you come to relish my suffering?”

“I thought you’d want someone to help raise your spirits. Especially on a day like today!”

“What’s so special about today?” she questioned as he got to his feet. He beamed…as if she had no idea.

“Snow White and Prince Charming’s wedding, of course. Didn’t you get an invitation? Me neither.” Which was sorely unfair considering how much of a hand he’d had in their union. He’d go so far as to say that without him, none of this would be happening. Such gratitude… “Still, nice to be able to see them declare their twoo love in front of their entire kingdom. A happy ending after all.”

“And, because of you, there’s nothing I can do to stop it,” she spat back at him before heading to her vanity. “‘No way to harm them in this land ever again!’”

He fought an urge to roll his eyes. She thought she was so brilliant, and yet she hadn’t figured out the biggest loophole of all, the only chance that she had for revenge. She just had to be humble enough to follow the plot that he’d laid for her.

“Yes. Yes, I suppose that’s true…in this land,” he said carefully, emphasizing the last bit so that she would hear a hint of hope in his voice. He’d told her this before, he’d told her about taking them elsewhere…but she’d been stubborn then, filled with hope that the Count could do what she could not. He hoped she just needed reminding.

It worked. The Evil Queen stopped where she was and turned. “What?”

“The deal I made was explicit. You can never harm them in 'this’ land. Now, were you to bring them to another land…well…” he smiled at her and watched as understanding finally perked her up. Her chin raised, she smiled, and a spark of light lit up the black behind her eyes. Amazing what the brain could forget when revenge ran wild, amazing how just one little reminder could bring it all back.

“Told you I was your friend,” he muttered before disappearing. He had a wedding to watch after all…and Regina had a curse to usher in.

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Chapter 204:  Love that Counts

It was only back at his tower that he recognized the smell on Regina and where he had smelled it before. It was the smell Jefferson reeked of. It was the same smell that came from every object in the bag that Jefferson had left him. Suddenly it was all clear. Last he’d checked, the Enchanted Forest didn’t have any Counts, certainly none that wanted revenge. Somehow, that little witch had gotten Jefferson to take her to another world and plucked the Count out of obscurity to come here and do her bidding. Jefferson had helped her?!

He sneered as he approached his cauldron and summoned an image of Jefferson, set on going to him and questioning him over this nonsense, but-

Odd. No picture formed in the cauldron.

He moved to the mirror and waved his hand over it, using the reflective surfaces he knew of in Jefferson’s home to see into it. The magic worked this time, and there it was, the little cottage that he was raising his daughter in, the same one he’d gone to when he’d sworn never to use magic again.

It was empty inside. No Jefferson, no Grace, and a layer of dust on every surface, suggesting no one had been there for some time.

He glanced back over at the cauldron, suddenly suspicious of its inability to pull from it an image of Jefferson, then back to the mirror and into the home where Jefferson wasn’t. Something felt wrong. Sometimes, if there was an enchantment, a person could hide from such things as the cauldron, just as the Apprentice had. Perhaps that was the deal that Jefferson had struck with Regina, that she would hide Jefferson and the girl from him if he took her to the other world. That was one theory. There was a way to test it.

He reached for the crystal ball, the very one that Jefferson had brought him back in order to see around those kinds of enchantments. He sought to summon an image of Jefferson and his daughter in the crystal, expecting to see them living a rich life in a lavish palace or perhaps protected from him in a new cabin. Instead, the girl appeared, a stuffed bunny in her hands as she tugged at the sleeve of an unknown man. She wiped a tear from her eye when a woman appeared and knelt in front of her before pulling her into her arms and hugging her—no sign of Jefferson.

That was odd. Very odd. Perhaps, if Regina had arranged some kind of deal with him, he was in another realm somewhere, searching for something or completing the transaction? Doing work for Regina…but, not for him…

With an angry wave of his hand, he dismissed the image of Grace. What did it matter where Jefferson was. Something was going on, the Former Queen had Jefferson’s magic on her, and somehow she was responsible for the Count being here in this world trying to kill Snow White. He wanted to speak to Jefferson, wanted to get details from the man, and throttle him for turning to Regina but not him after he’d vowed never to do so again, and he’d kept his promise to leave him alone, but harsh words could wait. Snow and the Count could not.

Regina claimed that she’d cast a protection spell over the Count to prevent him from harming the man. It could be a lie. That was an interesting piece of magic, and he didn’t know where she would have gotten hair or blood or skin or anything else that would have told the spell who to protect him from. She could have been bluffing. He wouldn’t have smelled the lie on top of the smell of realm travel, but…perhaps he didn’t need to test it in that way.

The Count had already seemed unhappy with going after “the Charmings” as Regina had put it. He was motivated by revenge of some kind. Naturally, Regina would have hired someone who wanted revenge, thinking it was powerful enough a motivator, but there was another feeling stronger than revenge. Love…

And as David existed as a loophole for Regina, something she hadn’t yet figured out…perhaps there was one for the Count as well that Regina hadn’t planned for.

Setting it up was easy. As the Count rode back to the castle, he used magic to write a letter in the hand of one of Charlotte’s sisters, informing her that her mother was sick and she had to come home to help care for her at first light because no one else had the skills she did. He knew that Charlotte would eat that up. Her family wanted her to be a handmaiden, not a doctor. They’d rejected any kind of interest she ever had in medicine. For them to write her and tell her they needed her skills, well…he knew that she’d be insistent they let her go. He had Pirithous deliver the letter. He knew the Charmings. He knew they’d insist she go in the morning, they’d probably send her off with a carriage and gifts too, but not before they invited her to dinner.

As he waited for the time to be right, he summoned from the bag of items that Jefferson had given him a key. It smelled like Regina and Jefferson, but the key was unlike the other items in the bag. He didn’t even know if Jefferson knew what he had when he’d given this to him. It wasn’t a portal that would work once to take an individual to the room of doors, but rather a magical object that he’d figured out early on could be used to open a door to a very special place, a very special world…one where dear Charlotte could be saved from what was about to afflict her. He’d already used the key once for Dr. Jekyll. Perhaps, if this played out the way he thought it would, the pair of them could pass on his compliments.

His suspicions were confirmed when he spied on the Charmings through a mirror. At the Seer’s assurance, he stayed where he was in his tower and watched as the Count poured the venom into the crystal pitcher of wine. He poured it for David and Snow that evening, only to be stopped dead in his tracks when he was told another guest was coming to dine. None other than Charlotte. Snow explained that her family was in need of her, and she would be leaving in the morning. Together they were celebrating for her last night. The Count, Edmund, according to Charlotte, had hesitated before offering her wine from the pitcher. When questioned about it, he’d answered that it was her eyes “again” that had stopped her. Snow White smirked, seeing the same thing he had seen. He eventually poured her a glass, but before anyone could drink, he stopped them all, claiming that he had another bottle in the cellar he wanted to share with them. Charlotte’s glass was the first one that he took.

Love…he could work with love.

As Count Edmund stormed away to fetch the mythical bottle of wine, he waited. After dinner, when Charlotte had excused herself to pack, the Count retreated, looking terribly torn apart by the fact that she’d soon be leaving. In the palace cellar, he sat atop a barrel of something waiting for his moment when the Count appeared. The Poor Man didn’t notice him, merely slammed the pitcher down on the table so hard he was shocked it hadn’t broken. He wasn’t surprised to see him with the pitcher of wine; he’d barely let it leave his sight since he’d introduced the potion to it, eliminating any chance that someone might accidentally take a sip. He took the vial that held the poison from his pocket and looked it over—sentiment and love…his two favorite materials to work with.

“Having second thoughts?”

The Count startled when he saw him and moved to pull his sword, but just as it was drawn, he’d summoned it into his hand. When the Count stopped his advance and looked properly shaken, he dropped it.

“No need for that, dearie. Tell me…why didn’t you poison Snow White and Prince Charming?”

The Count swallowed nervously. “I was prepared to poison them, but…I saw Charlotte, and she reminded me of…”

The Seer blessed him with an image of the girl, of Charlotte.

He saw her face clearly, but before his eyes, he watched as her face morphed, the bones changed, all but the eyes. The eyed stayed the same on her, the one trait he’d been confounded by. How interesting. He saw the pair in a field, laughing. He saw them at a river, her reading poetry in a familiar language as he ate grapes in a sickening idyllic scene, the pair of them kissing in what appeared to be a dark barn and then…a coffin. Dressed in black, he stood beside her coffin. Her eyes were closed. And then the girl morphed and changed again, back into the figure of Charlotte; every detail was different, except for the eyes. The eyes remained the same. Closed, as venom from the Agrabah Viper claimed her body.

When the Seer brought him out of the past and the future, the Count was still stuttering. He might have been too if he hadn’t gotten over such things years ago.

“Your fiancée?” he guessed. The Count’s eyes and silence answered for him. “Yeah, yeah, I-I-I can see that. I mean, before she became a rotting corpse. Your love and-and the handmaiden share the same je ne sais quoi, n'est-ce pas?” he taunted, using the language he’d seen in the book. The Count did not appear impressed.

“She didn’t deserve to die,” he argued. “And if I had killed her just to get my revenge, I’d be no better than my enemies.”

“Yes, yes, but…but Snow White and Prince Charmy-warmy, you gonna try again?”

The Count paused, then, slowly, his eyes began to fill with tears before he finally shook his head. “No,” he whispered. “They don’t deserve to die either.”

Well, that was refreshing to hear, but unfortunately, he’d seen that look of resistance before, when he’d been visiting Regina. All it had taken was one promise of revenge to get him to do what she’d wanted. He needed more than just words. He needed the Count gone, and he needed Regina to learn…there was no fighting him.

“Hm…” he snapped his fingers and summoned Charlotte’s body, unconscious with a bit of his magic, into the room with them, hiding her behind another barrel for the time being so that he could explain. The sudden thud on the floor did not go unnoticed by the Count. Did they have magic in whatever world he’d come from? Did it really matter?

“What was that?”

“My insurance policy,” he explained, taking the long way around the table as he summoned the last dregs of the poison from the bottle and used his magic to place them on dear Charlotte’s tongue…that should do.

“Let’s just say in order for my plan to work, I need Prince Charming and Snow White very much alive and procreating. Sorry for bluntness, but I need what I need. So that means I must make sure that you’re never tempted to kill them ever again. Boop!”

He used his magic to make a noise in the place that Charlotte was hidden. Predictably the boy turned his back, went to investigate the spot, and gasped as he knelt by her side.

“Charlotte?” he laughed as he examined her. What he’d find was the black poison of the viper already doing its damage. It was a quick poison when it wasn’t diluted. A full bite could take a few seconds, but with what she’d had, it might take up to five minutes. They had some time, but not a lot.

“Why?” he roared. “If you didn’t want me to kill them, kill me, not her!”

“Would that I could, dearie,” he muttered, rounding the table once again. “Where’s the antidote?!” the Count demanded, getting to his feet and storming after him.

“Antidote?” he laughed. “There isn’t any. There’s no cure for this poison.”

“No, no, no,” he cried, returning to her side in a panic. Oh, he did have a sense of morality this one. That was good. He might not be in love with her, not yet, but he’d take his deal just to keep her alive. He felt responsible. He could work with that just as he could love.

“But it can be stopped,” he countered, removing the key from a pocket and showing him.

“A key?”

“This isn’t any old key,” he explained. “This is the key to the land where all stories come to a screeching halt! Including Charlotte’s story…you know the one…where the poison reaches her heart!” he used his hand to mime poison flowing through her veins and strangling her, but the Count once more was not amused. Instead, he looked from him to Charlotte and then back at the key.

“I go through there, she lives?”

“Indeed!” he squealed. “As long as you remain there. If you should ever leave, her story and the poison shall r-r-resume. And I hate to spoil the ending,” he whispered, recalling the image of Charlotte dead from the poison. That was decades down the road, long after the Curse was broken…what did he care. “But it’s really quite tragic…”

Again the Count stared at the key in his hand, he looked at the door behind him, but finally nodded. By the look of Charlotte, it was none too soon.

“Then it’s settled!” he proclaimed, turning to collect the girl. He turned his back and used the magic of the key to open the door behind him, not into the wine racks but into another world, one he would not be going to. The Count said not a word as he hoisted Charlotte into his arms and stepped through the portal with her. He laughed when it closed, and the smell Jefferson had on him permeated the room. He couldn’t wait for Regina to learn how she’d failed so miserably. Student surpass the teacher…there couldn’t only ever be one Dark One.

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Chapter 203:  Disillusions of a Former Queen

Damn nobility and their noble intentions. Or perhaps he should damn the farm boy who respected such traditions of public love that kept him from sleeping with the Queen!

He tried to even the odds. After seeing Cinderella to the ball and taking his final wand home with him, he’d gone to great lengths to ensure when Snow and David finally set out to return they were stuck in the woods together, alone, on a chilly night, with several blankets and plenty of kindling for a fire. He’d practically spelled it out for them. Still, it hadn’t worked. They’d made a fire and a shelter, then hunkered down and slept together but with hands in respectable positions and clothes securely fastened to the body. That night he’d surrendered to the fact that until they married in front of others, they would not consummate their marriage.

Wedding planning was good, as asinine as he thought it was, at least it excited him that they would finally be beyond silly human expectations. The biggest problem that faced them now was that Snow and David were not the only ones planning. Regina is up to something too.

After being exiled by Snow and David, she’d returned to her palace. She’d gathered together a few who were faithful and loyal to her, mostly members of her private guard who she’d always treated well. Her father had taken on the duties of running the household. How they managed to pay everyone eluded him, but that wasn’t the part that he really cared about.

What he minded was the moment that he’d lost track of her. On the evening that he’d tried to get Snow and David together, Regina had mysteriously and without explanation vanished. He’d searched the realm for her but came up with nothing, not until morning when she reappeared and what he saw her doing…it made little sense to him.

He saw Regina chasing villagers out of a small town, all but one; one that she’d brought with her; one she talked to and seemed to know well. It was someone he’d never seen before.

After she finished burning the village to the ground, she talked to the man again, and he sat down against a wall as if he belonged there. He was tempted to follow Regina when she left, but instinct told him it wasn’t her he needed to watch, but him. They were planning something, something she wasn’t going to do but rather use him to do. So he kept his eyes on the man and the town, watched as he just sat there with his chin to his chest. He was pretty sure that he had fallen asleep at one point, but then, maybe a few hours later, Snow and David rode in and made contact with the stranger, after Charlotte saw to his hand, with an awkward pause between them if he’d ever seen one, they took him back to their palace. They gave him clothes and a bedroom and showed him the wine cellar. The entire time he kept glancing at Charlotte. And he kept talking about the attack on the town. But…

No, that wasn’t right. He spoke of how Regina invaded, how she burned everything that he’d own, everything that he had! But he knew that wasn’t true. He knew it because he’d seen her bring him with her. He hadn’t lived there as he told the King and Queen. Why would he say he had? Unless he was a plant. Regina had left him there for a purpose, this purpose. She knew her step-daughter and the King well; she had to have known that she would take in a stray dog.

That evening, when they finally left him alone for a time, he snuck out of the palace. He wasn’t surprised to see him ride a horse into Regina’s palace grounds. Curious and unwilling to let her get her way by working around a loophole, he made himself invisible and appeared in her bedroom. He cocked his head to one side at the sight that met him.

Regina was in her room, but she wasn’t lounging or reading or even having her way with the hunter she still kept in her possession. She was fighting—sword fighting. A member of her guard was facing off against her. Was…past tense, for no sooner had the stranger showed up did he watch her run him through, and the guard’s heartbeat stopped. The guard died, fell to the floor in a heap with Regina grinning like a fool. The man, the fighting, the disappearance…what was she doing?

“Impressive, Your Majesty.”

He looked up to see the stranger standing there in the entryway to her bedroom. He stood tall, properly. He was dressed well in the clothes that the King and Queen had given him, there was a scar over his eye, and now that he heard him speak, he had to admit that it was eloquent. Who had she hunted down? And for what purpose?

“Well, what can I say?” Regina smiled, running her fingers over her blade and smelling the blood of her guard. Sometimes he thought she grew crazier every day. “You inspired me. Perhaps you can give me a lesson. Or two.”

So he was a swordsman. Not a Viner as he’d told the King and Queen. But with everyone in her private guard, what did she want with him?

“As much as I’d enjoy that, I can’t be late for my first meal with Snow White and her prince,” he reported with pride.

“So they believed you,” Regina squealed, laughing in delight as she went to her vanity and fetched something from a small box. “I knew their insufferable kindness would be their downfall.” In her hands was a vial, small and dark blue. She worked her way slowly across the room, maintaining her eye contact before giving it to him. “Venom of the Agrabahn viper. A bitter draft…slow and painful.”

Fuck.

So that was her play. She could no longer touch the King and Queen, so she was going to use a third party to do it instead of just getting the Curse that he’d already gotten to her. Foolish little girl, how many times did he have to go through this with her?! He was so angry he was ready to reveal himself, to use his magic to fling the man across his room and out the window, so he cracked his head on something hard, and Regina could no longer use him. But one look at the Count told him he didn’t have to, not yet. He was timid, eying the vial she’d placed in his hands questionably.

“Is there a problem, Count?” Count. Not an ordinary man, but a Count. That explained the accent and how he spoke so well, but it didn’t explain who he was or where he was from.

“What did they do to deserve this?” the Count asked. “They’ve shown me nothing but kindness.”

“Don’t tell me you’re starting to grow a conscience.”

“Call it professional curiosity.”

Regina sighed with irritation. “Well, what they did doesn’t matter. Only one thing should be on your mind right now…how badly you want your revenge,” when she turned, he saw a small piece of paper rolled up in her hand. The Count’s eyes narrowed at that paper and then widened with desire. Suddenly his demeanor changed, and without further question or even finishing their conversation, he turned and left.

Regina laughed. “I thought so,” she snarled, clearly celebrating her victory, but he had already put enough together to want nothing of her celebration. The Count, whoever he was, wherever he was from, was here to do her dirty work. Revenge motivated him. He’d made a deal with her to get that piece of paper. Whatever it held was probably related to his revenge, perhaps a name or location.

“Names…” the Seer whispered helpfully in his head. That was something to know, but it didn’t help him now. Only Regina could do that. Not a poor deal, not another who was good with a sword, it had to be Regina! Why did he have to keep going over this?!

“Well, this is very disappointing,” he drawled, letting his invisibility spell vanish so she could see him appear. Foolish child had been too busy fighting when he’d arrived to notice the extra magic in the room; that was a mistake her mother and sister wouldn’t have made. Sometimes it surprised him how far she had come while standing still. “I mean…I didn’t spend years training you so you could spend your days fencing and get someone else to do your dirty work.”

“Oh, you know exactly why I’m doing this,” Regina said, turning back around to face him. “You put a spell on Snow and Charming so I can’t hurt them.” Technically it was only on Snow, but he was content to let her think that for the moment until the pair were married and pregnant. After that, she could do whatever she wanted with David so long as the child and Snow were fine…until they wouldn’t be.

“Yeah. And then I gave you the Dark Curse so you could take them somewhere where you can,” he pointed out.

“I don’t care. I’m going to get what I want, and I’ll get it without you!” she snapped so quickly he wasn’t even sure she’d heard the lifeline he’d just offered. The childish fool didn’t need a road map. She just needed to shut up long enough to listen to his suggestions.

“Oh! Are you sure about that?” he questioned, taking another step closer to her. She smelled strange. Her magic smelled…different. Why did it smell so…alluring? And familiar at the same time…

“If you think you can stop the Count, think again.”

“Is that a threat?”

She made a sound of confirmation, but he barely heard because she’d turned in just such a way that he’d caught another whiff. He knew that smell. It meant something. It was important to all of this. What was it? What was he missing?

“It’s a fact.” She stuttered as he moved in closer, put his nose nearly up against her flesh, and inhaled the familiar scent hoping to give himself a hint. Yes, familiar, but not a scent that he’d ever smelled on her. Something he’d smelled somewhere else; on something else. Who? Where did he know it from? “That protection spell you put on the Charmings…” He backed away as her tone suggested menace. “I put the same enchantment on the Count to protect him from you.”

Now that had him draw a breath and take a few steps back as she chuckled. Was that true?

“Looks like the student has finally outgrown the teacher,” she laughed gaily before puckering her lips in a mock kiss.

He knew what he wanted to do to those lips, to the smirk he saw on them. He’d be happy to wipe both off her face. If she knew what he’d been through, the lengths that he’d gone to so that everything would run smoothly up to this point…she’d understand that no one, not even Merlin, would ever surpass him. If he had to force her to see that the hard way, then so be it.

“We’ll see about that, dearie,” he threatened before waving his arm and vanishing from her sight.

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