THE PEASANT QUEEN: Alternate Ending

After finishing The Peasant Queen, one character continued to torment me. He would not be satisfied until I created a story for him. Thus, the alternate ending was born. Hope you enjoy it.

Alternate Ending: Gregory’s Satisfaction

By Cheri Chesley


From CHAPTER 31, The Peasant Queen

Krystal felt utterly disconnected from the scene as she stood in the throne room next to Gregory, where he waited to accept the crown of Fayterra. The somber expressions on each face she looked at did little to ease her worry. She knew how they felt. She felt empty inside. Her fate would be sealed the moment they placed the crown on Gregory’s head.

As she waited, she turned her gaze to the colored tapestry that hung behind the thrones. It had been beautifully made. Krystal found herself tracing the threads with her eyes. She gazed at the tassels that hung down the left side when suddenly she saw them flutter. Krystal thought nothing of it. A breeze could have caused the movement. Still it caught her attention. She did not listen as the Grand Minister droned on. The tapestry moved again. A glint of steel flashed. Someone in the crowd gasped audibly.
Jareth stepped from behind the tapestry. Calum, Voltimande, Count Alexander, Alana and her brother Andrew followed him. All of them save Alana had drawn swords. Damen followed them out from behind the tapestry and flanked Alana. He took a protective stance between her and King Gregory’s guards. The princess sought out Krystal with her eyes before backing away. Damen followed Alana into a corner and stood protectively between her and everyone else.

 Krystal could not take her eyes off Jareth. The young prince had locked eyes with his uncle the moment he stepped into the room. Krystal had never before seen such fury as what lit Jareth’s face. It hypnotized her.

 King Gregory wore no weapon other than a ceremonial sword. He signaled to a guard near him and took his sword. Then he faced his nephew.

“You’ve gotten our message, I see,” he said to Jareth. Gregory indicated Alana.

 “If you’re referring to the nonsense Alana tried to feed me, you can save your breath,” said Jareth. “I will never believe Krystal chose you.”

 “She decided to send Alana to you.” Gregory’s calm voice sounded almost surprised. He took Krystal’s hand and pulled her to him. “Why can’t you just accept she preferred a life with me?”

Jareth glanced at Krystal. “I’m sure she thought of a way to keep Alana safe from you. I doubt she intends to be shackled to you for the rest of her life.”

 King Gregory kissed his wife. Surprised, Krystal did not struggle against him. “I wonder how you’d feel, Jareth, even if you get what you want. Krystal has been my wife for a week now. How could you live a life with her knowing I had her first? What say you to that?”

 The prince’s eyes narrowed to mere slits when he replied. “I say Krystal will make the most beautiful widow this kingdom has ever seen.”

 Krystal’s heart warmed. Gregory had spun a very convincing story, but Jareth truly knew her heart.
He had seen through her ruse to get Alana out of the castle. Hope flooded her.

She pulled herself from Gregory’s grasp. He looked at her, astonished. Krystal shook her head at him and continued to back away. Her husband’s countenance lost its calm and rage overcame him.

“I see,” Gregory spat at her. “More lies. I should have forced you to give me your word.”

“I didn’t lie to you,” she said. “I would have lived my life with you. But I realize I can’t deny my heart’s desire. I can’t stay with you. I’m sorry.”

“You may not love me yet, but you will.” He raised the sword with a yell. Krystal thought for a moment he’d aimed for her, but he lunged at Jareth instead.

The clang of steel reverberated throughout the silent hall. Guards surged forward to attack Jareth’s followers. Krystal found she could not focus on one single fight. Gregory matched Jareth but Calum, Alexander, Andrew, and Voltimande engaged the guards in a half circle between the crowd and the dueling royals. She couldn’t help but be impressed by her brother’s skill.

Alana stood across the room. Krystal went to her. As she passed him, she stroked Damen’s head. He licked her hand.

They clutched hands, but did not speak. Krystal felt Alana’s grip tighten each time Jareth or Gregory came close to injuring each other. Krystal’s mind raced from one impossible scenario to another. Either Jareth or Gregory would die this day, and she was powerless to stop it.

“I’ve never seen Jareth so furious.”

“I don’t know that anyone has.” Alana broke off as Jareth forced Gregory to stumble. Her grip on her friend’s hand became painful, but Krystal didn’t notice.

She saw the concentration on Gregory’s face and knew he’d underestimated Jareth’s skill. No longer did man fight boy. The prince had become a man, and Gregory was caught unprepared.

Her husband turned to look at her. He began to fight his way to her. He let Jareth back him up so that the only thing between him and his wife remained her great black dog.

“You can have your crown!” he said. “I’ll take my wife and be on my way!”

Jareth brought his sword up. “You’ll die first!”

He advanced. Gregory blocked him. Damen’s hackles raised and he began to growl.

Krystal saw Damen crouch to spring and suddenly she couldn’t stand to see any more bloodshed. She pulled away from Alana and grabbed Damen by his scruff with both hands. At the same time she yelled, “Enough!”

Her shout stilled the room.

Gregory and Jareth both looked at her. Gregory’s eyes darted from Damen, now at his heels, up to Krystal, and she knew he recognized she’d saved his life.

Damen had quieted under her hands. She glanced down at him and said, “It’s all right. Go to Alana.”
When he’d moved safely back, she looked at the two men. She knew what would end this war, what would keep it from continuing from generation to generation—or prevent it from ending in blood this night.

“I ask you to stop,” she said. “I beg you to end this. You have to know this is fruitless.”

“Krystal,” said Jareth, indicating his sword. “This is the only end we have left.”

She shook her head at him, sorrow shining in her tear filled eyes. “Gregory gave you another solution just a moment ago.”

She watched his eyes as he searched his mind, and nodded again when he shot her a stricken look.

“No,” Jareth whispered, agonized.

“Yes,” she said. “It has to be.”

Gregory said, “You can’t have it both ways, Krystal. Tell me what I want to hear.”

She didn’t take her eyes from Jareth when she answered him. “I swear, Gregory. I promise I will keep my vows.”

He reached for her hand; she touched his fingers and he pulled her close. “I will take my bride and return to Demarde,” he said. “You can have Fayterra. I will not return.”

Jareth still shook his head. “I can’t let you go,” he said to Krystal.

“You must,” she said. “It’s the only way to truly end this war.”

“Well?” Gregory pressed. “Will you sign a treaty?”

Krystal watched Jareth, agonized as the prince in him warred with the man who loved her. At last, he looked at his uncle. “You will never set foot in Fayterra again, nor send any of your people. And I will never enter Demarde; nor will my people.”

“Agreed,” Gregory said. “Ready the treaty. We will pack our things and leave the moment it is signed. But I warn you, Jareth. Come near her again and our peace is over. I will destroy you and everything you hold dear.”

Jareth’s eyes had returned to Krystal. He nodded.

Gregory turned and pulled Krystal from the room. She called Damen to her; the dog followed them down the hall to her chambers. Gregory shut them all inside.

“I will send someone to help you pack,” he said.

“I can manage,” she said in a bare whisper.

“We leave within the hour,” he said. “You can’t do this alone.”

Krystal nodded; if she spoke, she’d surely shatter.

Gregory took her shoulders and stood before her. “Thank you.”

She looked up at him through her tears. “For what?”

He indicated Damen with a tilt of his head. “I’d be a bloody mess on the finely polished floor in there if you hadn’t stopped him.”

“I couldn’t . . . .” Krystal dropped her head and continued. “I couldn’t watch him kill you. That’s all.”

“Your choice means the world to me,” he said and kissed her head. “Pack quickly; take only what you cannot live without.”

She only nodded. Her choice.

“Don’t leave this room,” he said as he released her and turned toward the door. “I will return for you once the treaty is signed.”

Alone, Krystal sank to the bed, but missed and slid to the floor. What had she done? Why not just let Damen have Gregory’s throat? Damen came to her and placed his head in her lap. She dropped her forehead to his and sobbed.

A knock at the door brought her to her feet. She crossed the room and opened it. Andrew stood there. Krystal fell into her brother’s arms.

“Don’t do this,” he said. “You don’t love him.”

“But I am his wife,” she said. “It’s a most advantageous arranged marriage.”

He winced as though her words stung him. “I was wrong.” He pulled back to look down at her. “You can’t go through with this.”

“I have to,” she said. “Gregory’s focus has changed. I have the power to give him what he wants, and in exchange buy life and freedom for the people I love best.”

“But at what cost?” Andrew gripped her shoulders. “He’s near madness now; I can see it in his eyes. Marriage to him will destroy you.”

“It won’t. I’ll see that it doesn’t.” Perhaps, if she said it enough, it would be true.

“I will follow you,” he said. “We will go to Demarde together, and I will look out for you.”

“None of my family must ever go to Demarde. Promise me! Even as Queen, I could not stop him from killing you. Swear to me you will go home and tell everyone I am well. Tell Mother I married a king; that should please her.”

Andrew sighed. “I want to order you to come with me. But somehow, I think I lost the right to tell you what to do.”

“Don’t worry for me,” she said. “I can’t bear it. Just go home and live your life. I’ll write to you when I can.”

He kissed her forehead. “Be safe, Sister.”

Alana entered then, without knocking. “Oh,” she said. “I expected you to be alone.”

“We’re just saying our farewells,” said Krystal. “Good bye, Andrew.”

He nodded once to her and left the room. A maid entered after him, Meaghyn, and set about packing Krystal’s things.

Alana took her hand and pulled her away from Meaghyn. “Why are you doing this?” she asked in a fierce whisper. “You’re breaking Jareth’s heart.”

“I’m buying Jareth’s life.”

“With your own.” Alana sighed. “We’ll never see you again.”

“Perhaps time will soften Gregory,” Krystal said. “Then he will let you visit me.”

“I don’t want his forgiveness.” Alana’s face drew into harsh lines. She softened immediately. “But if it means seeing you, I’ll do it.” She pulled Krystal into a hug. “I just don’t want you to go. I’d rather you return to your brother’s farm than go to Demarde as Queen.”

Krystal embraced her. “I will miss you.”

Alana looked at her face. “I’d hoped for a sister, not an aunt. Be well, my friend.”

“And you,” said Krystal.

They helped Meaghyn pack Krystal’s few belongings. She wouldn’t allow the maid to pack more than a few dresses and shoes, and the gifts Gregory had given her. Alana and Meaghyn took her things to the waiting carriage; Krystal closed the door behind them and resigned herself to wait for Gregory.

A knock sounded again. This time Jareth stood at the door.

“You shouldn’t be here,” she hissed.

"I can’t let you do this,” he said, moving inside and closing the door. “I won’t let you become the sacrifice.”

Krystal stepped away from him. She knew if he touched her, then her resolve would fail. “I’m his wife, Jareth. I have to honor that bond.”

“He tricked you into marriage. You don’t have to honor anything.”

She shook her head. “Gregory and I made a bargain, and you heard me promise to uphold my end. I have to stay true to my word.”

Jareth sighed. “Why did you stop Damen?”

“I couldn’t stand another death,” Krystal said. “I didn’t think; I just reacted.”

He reached for her hand, but she pulled back. “What about us? What about the promises we made to each other in the forest?”

“My marriage to Gregory ended our engagement,” she said. “Now I have to answer for my choices.”

 He reached for her; Krystal drew back once again. “I’ll never stop loving you.”

“You must,” she said. “You have a duty to your kingdom and your people. Forget me, Jareth.”

“Forget about the bravest, most stubborn woman I’ve ever known?” He laughed harshly. “Not likely. I could never find anyone like you.”

“You must.”

Jareth growled in frustration. “How can you do this to me, to us? How can you be so reasonable? Don’t you feel anything?”

The dam broke, and Krystal threw herself into his arms. “Don’t be angry!” Her tears fell freely onto his tunic. “I couldn’t bear it if you were angry with me.”

Jareth wrapped her in his arms and pressed her tightly to his chest. “I could never be angry with you,” he said against her hair. “I only wish you could be a little less noble. I want you to choose me!”

“I’m married to Gregory. The time to choose has passed.”

“I could kill him in his sleep.”

She pulled back and looked at him. “No, because then you wouldn’t be who you are. If Gregory had died tonight, by your hand or Damen’s teeth, his death would always be between us.” Krystal brought her hand up to his cheek. “I married him; that changed everything.”

Jareth opened his mouth to argue; Krystal put a finger to his lips. He kissed it. She drew back, remembering herself at last.

She stepped away from him and wiped her eyes. “You must go now.”

“You’ll outlive him,” Jareth said. “If marriage doesn’t kill you, that is. When you’re a widow, I’ll still be here.”

“No,” she said. “You’ll be a contented king with a wife and many children. Forget me, Jareth, for your own sake.”

He snatched her hand and kissed it. “Never.” He slipped through the door without looking at her again.

Krystal dried her eyes and sat on the bed. It took all her willpower not to dissolve in helpless tears. Damen lay across her foot with a canine sigh. His presence comforted her.

Gregory returned for her. “It’s time to go.” If he noticed she’d been crying, he didn’t remark on it.

She stood; Damen rose by her side. “Yes.” She looked at everything as they walked out to the waiting carriage, wanting to soak as much memory in before leaving Fayterra forever.

He noticed her look around. “He won’t be here. They kept me waiting in the study while they crowned Jareth King. After he signed the treaty, he told me it would please him to never see me again.”

Krystal turned back to the castle. “Do you think they’re watching us?”

Gregory put his arm around her. “What does it matter? We’ll be in Demarde before dawn.” He gave her a hand into the carriage and leaned inside. “I won’t stop until Fayterra is far behind us. I’ve sent a rider ahead to warn Demarde of our arrival.” Damen leapt into the carriage and Gregory closed the door.

Of course he would not ride with her, Krystal reasoned in the dark confines of the carriage. Gregory would want to ride out of Fayterra on his own terms, not hiding in a carriage like a coward. She told herself it didn’t matter, even as she coaxed Damen to sit with her on the seat. He must have missed her, for it didn’t take much before her giant dog started behaving like a small, lap animal.
Krystal did not see her husband again until nearly dawn. The carriage rocked to a stop and Gregory appeared at the door before she reached the handle.

“Welcome to Demarde,” he said. “We crossed the border a short while ago. One of the men spotted a cottage up ahead and we will make use of it to get some much needed rest.”

“Is it abandoned?” Krystal asked.

"I’m sure the occupants will not mind surrendering their home for a few hours in the name of their king and queen."

As much as a bed tempted her, Krystal did not like uprooting strangers just to suit his whims. He moved from the window and the carriage started rolling again. The cottage must have been close, because they stopped again after a short distance. She frowned at Gregory, but accepted his hand and stepped out of the carriage.

He leaned down to her. “You needn’t frown so at me. It is an honor I give these peasants. They will be able to boast that we slept here for generations to come.”

Strangely, the family standing outside the cottage did indeed seem honored. The lady of the house fussed over Krystal, offering all the comforts her home could offer. Her husband bowed to Gregory so many times Krystal thought his back might snap. Their children looked on with wide eyes.

A fire lit the hearth, and Krystal paused there to warm herself before moving further inside. Gregory remained outside a few moments to give his men instructions, and then entered the cottage. Krystal’s hands stayed on the clasp of her cloak a moment too long. He crossed the room and reached up to assist her with it.

His presence suffocated her. Krystal’s brain stopped functioning. Her eyes darted around the room. The children’s sleeping mats had been piled into a corner, but there was only one bed. The family had taken a tent outside with the soldiers. They were alone.

Gregory spoke softly to her, as if he sensed her fear. “I haven’t had a chance to examine your wound since before the coronation. I’ll help you out of this gown and have a look. I don’t want this journey to jeopardize your recovery.”

She nodded woodenly. His hands moved like lightning. She stood nearly bare to his eyes in moments.

He pulled her toward the fire. “You’re shivering,” he said, his voice husky.

Krystal didn’t bother to explain it had nothing to do with the cold. She closed her eyes and let him complete his examination.

“Gerta is a miracle worker.” His breath tickled her left ear. “There’s a scar, of course, but you look to be as good as new. Now let’s get you into bed.”

She let him maneuver her to the side of the bed and crawled in when he pulled back the covers. Gregory smoothed the blankets over her and kissed her forehead. Krystal stared at the ceiling when he moved away to douse all light but the fireplace, but shut her eyes tight when she heard his boots and belt hit the wooden floor.

The bed sagged to her right when he climbed into it. Krystal prayed he’d think her already asleep, prayed she misread his intentions, but her eyes flew open when he reached for her.

“Don’t, please, not now,” she whispered.

Above her, Gregory frowned. “I’m not accustomed to being denied. You are suitably healed. I will be gentle.”

“But here, in a peasant’s cottage? Why not wait until we reach your home?”

He actually smiled then. “This may have escaped your notice, but I have thought of almost nothing but this moment since you arrived in Fayterra. You needn’t fear. I’ll take good care of you.”

She sought his eyes with hers. “I beg you to wait.”

His brow furrowed into the briefest of frowns before he reached up to stroke her cheek. “You are my wife. Don’t fight me. You will learn to like it.”

Exhausted, emotionally drained, Krystal couldn’t summon the strength to fight him. This was her new life. She closed her eyes and prayed it would be over soon, desperately trying to block out the feel of his hands and his mouth, the whispers of her underclothes leaving her body.

Later, as he held her against his body, his earlier possessiveness returned. He entwined his fingers with hers. “I confess, at times, I wondered if Jareth had taken advantage of his opportunities.”

Krystal’s cheeks were wet with tears she hadn’t known she’s shed. “You can’t know him at all if you’d even think he’d dishonor me in that way. He’s a gentleman.”

Gregory lifted his head and pinned her with his emerald eyes. “He’s a fool,” he said on a laugh. “But I’m not complaining. Now you are wholly, utterly, mine.”

He arched up to kiss her, and then rolled to his side. Krystal didn’t win her freedom, however. Gregory simply took her with him and pulled the blankets back up around them. He tucked her head under his chin and wrapped his arms around her. A few moments later, she heard him start to snore and tried to wriggle out of his grasp. She had to accept defeat, though, and closed her eyes, praying sleep would erase the memories.

They awoke at nearly the same moment a few hours later. Krystal heard his heartbeat quicken just after opening her eyes. She was slick with sweat where their bodies still touched; cocooned together they’d created a good deal of heat.

He let her pull away enough to look at her. “Good morning, my queen,” he said and bent to kiss her lips. Krystal allowed the kiss at first, but when he rolled on top of her and deepened his assault she fought him. She twisted out from underneath him and slid out of the bed.

“No more,” she said, holding up a hand to ward him off. “I can’t stand it right now.”

Gregory turned on his side to face her and rested on his hand, the blanket low over his hip. “If you want to discourage me, you’d better stop looking so enticing.”

She pulled one of the blankets free of the bed and wrapped it around herself.

“It’s a bit late for maidenly shyness,” he said with a smile.

“I’m not shy,” she said. “I just can’t do this. It’s too soon, and I never thought it would be so difficult to turn my back on everything. I beg you to leave me alone.”

The king rose up to his elbow. “It’s too late for second thoughts. You swore you’d be my wife in every way. You could well be carrying my son even now. We both know you aren’t going anywhere.”

At the word “son” Krystal’s hand moved protectively to her belly. She sighed; he knew her too well. She wouldn’t jeopardize even a theoretical child over a moment of panic. And she couldn’t go back on her vow.

Still, she argued. “You can’t know that; it’s too soon.”

Gregory’s smile widened. He reached for her. “Come here, Krystal,” he said in a throaty voice. “You don’t need to fear me.”

Some time later, they continued on their way. Krystal nestled in the dark carriage and stroked Damen’s back. He’d prowled the forest during the night, but had been there the moment Gregory had opened the cottage door. Krystal didn’t know if she’d have made it this far without his comfort.

Late that afternoon Gregory paused near the carriage to tell her they were almost home. Krystal poked her head out of the window for a look. Demarde castle struck her as a vast fortress. She marveled at the sheer size of the structure and the beauty of it. Alana had grown up here, she remembered. She ached with missing her friend.

“I will present you to the people as their queen once we are settled in,” Gregory said. “For now I am exhausted and want only a warm bed and my bride at my side.”

She shivered, both at his tone and at the heat in his gaze, and slid back inside.

The carriage rolled to a stop in the courtyard, and Krystal waited this time for Gregory to open the door. He stood back while Damen bounded out, still clearly uncomfortable being so close to her pet. Krystal let him have her hand as she exited the carriage.

Gregory’s castle was every bit as grand up close as it had looked from a distance. Despite what he’d said about putting off introductions, a small crowd had gathered. He did not let go of her hand as he led her inside, essentially ignoring the onlookers. Krystal sighed softly.

That night, as they lay in bed, Gregory said, “I propose we agree never to mention my nephew’s name again. It would be best for us both not to dwell in the past.”

She nodded against his chest and tried not to cry.

***

Four months of heaving up her guts convinced Krystal she did indeed carry Gregory’s child. As soon as the morning sickness subsided, she had to be refitted for looser gowns. Gregory seemed to find her rounding body even more enticing; he’d pull her into his arms every night. In time, she stopped shying away.

The change in Gregory came slowly, but Krystal began to see him relax and even take pleasure in simple things. He would ask her to walk with him after he finished in his study each day. His favorite place, by far, were his mother’s gardens—neglected in Alana’s absence, though he never mentioned that. Unlike the garden of Fayterra’s castle, these lacked enchanted soil and relied on the seasons to bloom and ebb. When the first glimpse of spring began to show through winter’s bitter cold, Krystal felt Gregory’s enthusiasm to be genuine.

“You will love the gardens in full bloom,” he said, squeezing her hand affectionately. “There will be plenty of time to enjoy them before the baby comes.”

Krystal put a hand on her barely rounded belly. “If my calculations are correct, I’ll be at my most uncomfortable in the heat of summer.”

“Summers here are much milder than . . . .” he glanced at her sharply. “Other places. It won’t be so bad.”

She frowned up at him, but in good humor. “That’s easy for you to say.”

Gregory pulled her into his arms. “Are you nervous?”

Krystal let herself lean into his chest. “A little.”

His grip around her tightened. “I don’t want you to be afraid. What can I do?”

Friends, she thought. Friends would be nice. Like Miraya. Or a healer I could trust. Gerta.

She knew her hesitation would make him suspicious. “Is Claren the only healer in Demarde?”

“Claren Holdyn is the son of the healer who cared for my mother,” Gregory said. “I’ve always trusted him. He’s a good man.”

“But he isn’t Gerta,” she said.

Gregory let out a sigh. “So that’s it.”

“I’m sorry."

He tilted her head upward. “Don’t be sorry. But do trust me. I wouldn’t trust your life to just anyone.”

“I know.”

Gregory looked away. “There is something I should tell you. I’ve been considering the best way, but perhaps that’s just been a delay tactic.”

She frowned. “What is it?”

He took a deep breath. “I have a son.”

“We don’t know for sure what the child will be,” Krystal said.

Gregory shook his head. “You misunderstand. I have a son, a grown son. He’s a few years older than you are.”

“What do you mean?” she asked. “You were married before?”

He smiled. “No. She was a witch I met while searching for information about my mother.”

Krystal nodded. He’d told her about his mother.

“I turned to magic, though I knew my father abhorred it,” he said. “But I was headstrong, stubborn and ambitious.” He laughed shortly. “My son is remarkably similar, actually.”

“What’s his name?”

“Donovan. I’d invited him to the coronation that night, and planned to introduce you, but things didn’t work out as I’d intended.”

She didn’t bother to respond to that. “Where is he now?”

“Who knows? I received a messenger from him today. He called me a coward for abandoning my claim on Fayterra for a woman.” Gregory smiled ruefully. “He doesn’t understand how the love of one woman can change a man.”

“Why are you telling me now?”

Gregory sighed. “Donovan is my first born son and my heir. Though he and I are estranged, there may come a time in the future when that will change. I don’t want that to affect your position as my queen, or our children.”

“I don’t see how it can’t,” said Krystal. “Any children we have will always be second in line to him.”

He shook his head. “It doesn’t have to be that way.”

“But if he’s ambitious, as you said, he won’t sit still for that. You’d be pitting our children against each other.” She shook her head. “I won’t stand for that.”

She had moved away from him; he pulled her back into his arms.

“I will work something out,” he said. “I don’t want our children to be uncertain of their future.” He put a hand on her belly. “Any of them.”

As always, before they parted, Gregory kissed her.

***

Prince Jason Vincent Gildresleve was born with a tuft of his father’s hair and his mother’s blue eyes. His robust cry echoed throughout the chamber, bringing tears of joy to his mother’s eyes and a hearty laugh from his father.

The arrival of her son helped Krystal’s heart reconcile itself to her fate. She began to see a future with Gregory and Jason. She buried her love for Jareth deep within, and opened her heart to her darling baby.

Damen also settled into life in Demarde, once bringing another dog to visit Krystal, and then later, little Damen-like puppies that Krystal let roam freely through the castle. As the baby grew, he became particularly attached to one of Damen’s puppies, who quickly grew larger than that baby and stationed himself in the nursery at nights. Krystal felt it an appropriate legacy for her children.

Surprisingly, without threat of invasion, Gregory turned out to be a very good king. He was also happier, and more relaxed, than she’d ever seen him. He’d stopped brooding long into the night and didn’t drink as much wine as he had in the past. His eyes brightened and his face regained some healthy color. Krystal came to appreciate the sound of his laughter, for it came from joy and not torment.

As time wore on, her affection for her husband grew. The memories of his tyranny and evil were difficult to reconcile with the man who played on the floor with his baby son. Their subjects seemed loyal to them, and genuinely glad to see them when they would leave the castle. If anyone had been cruelly or poorly treated by the king, the queen never heard of it.

A daughter, Princess Isabelle Falina Gildresleve, arrived one bright, summery morning when Prince Jason was three. Baby Belle became the joy of her father’s heart, while Jason remained his pride. From infancy, the little princess could bat her large blue eyes at her daddy and wrap him around her finger. Her soft, golden brown hair came in curly, and grew to long ringlets as she got older. Gregory spoiled her shamelessly, but thanks to the balancing influence of her mother, Belle became one of the most generous little girls of her age.

Krystal received her first letter from Alana while Belle was still a baby. She read it thoroughly twice, then tossed it in the fireplace and stirred the logs until the ashes could not be detected. Alana had married Count Alexander and they had a daughter. Krystal smiled at the idea, though thinking of Alana made her heart ache.

She had talked to Gregory before of forgiving Alana, or at least allowing her to visit. Gregory would usually grunt noncommittally and then change the subject. Once he told Krystal he did not want to think of his niece, but he did allow the letters through.

Prince Jonathan Gregory Gildresleve was born just after Prince Jason turned six. At his birth, Gregory vowed to Krystal he had to be the most contented king in history. Jon grew to have his father’s eyes and hair, though he looked remarkably like his mother. From the moment he could walk, he became Jason’s shadow, adoring his older brother and mimicking his every action.

When Princess Samantha Elyce Gildresleve came along, three-year-old Jon nicknamed her Sam, for that was all he could pronounce. Much to Krystal’s annoyance, the name stuck, and soon even she called her youngest daughter Princess Sam. The baby’s hair came in black as night and straight as a board, but her eyes never lost that infant deep blue color. They were even a deeper blue than her mother’s.

As he grew, Jason exhibited a great talent for the bow, and Krystal and Gregory both encouraged him to develop it. By the time he turned ten, he could ride his horse almost as well as his father’s men and he could shoot straighter than half of them. Jon favored the bow as well, and showed signs of eventually besting his brother. Belle could ride nearly as well as her brother, though almost half his age, but she didn’t care to try the bow at all. Krystal and Gregory had their first real argument over training the young princesses to use weapons. Krystal favored their knowledge of at least some way to defend themselves, but Gregory held firm to a more traditional belief.

“My daughters are princesses,” he said in a tone that would permit no argument. “They will behave as princesses.”

Krystal folded her arms across her chest. “Oh, yes. Just as I have always behaved as a princess and queen.”

He threw up his hands. “When will you accept yours is an unusual case? These girls have been princesses from birth. They have a responsibility to uphold the nobility of that position.”

“I’m sure that will be easy, especially with a mother who couldn’t embroider her way out of a well-lit room,” she said. “There is nothing wrong with a girl learning how to defend herself. Wielding weapons won’t make them any less ladylike.”

“And if I allow weapons training, then what? Will you be putting them in trousers and teaching them to ride horses like men?”

“It would be far better than that silly sidesaddle method!” she said. “We have bright daughters, Gregory. Don’t limit them because of their gender.”

He crossed the distance between them in two long strides and took her arms. “Like I limit you? Isn’t that what you mean?”

Krystal shook her head. “No. That isn’t what I meant at all.”

His eyes lost some of their emerald fire. “I simply want my little girls to be girls. Please don’t fight me on this. Your childhood wasn’t what it should be. Neither was mine. I want them to have what we didn’t have.”

She sighed and relaxed against him. “All right.”

***

Gregory fell ill that winter with a chest cold that stayed with him for almost two full months. Krystal remained close to his bed side. Claren Holdyn worked night and day to see the king well again. When he did recover, the incident left him with a persistent cough that would become worse on wet days. Krystal worried for him, but he insisted he would be fine.

When Princess Sam was a year old, Gregory granted Krystal’s desire and sent a letter inviting Alana and her husband to visit them for a week. Krystal watched the road that led into the castle for days until she spotted the carriage bearing Fayterra’s colors. She practically flew down the steps and outside to the courtyard to greet them, embracing first Alana, then Alexander, then Alana again before cooing over their beautiful little daughter, Alexandra Lianne.

Alana had been cautioned not to mention her brother’s name, and it seemed to Krystal she chose her words most carefully that night at dinner. “Did I tell you I’m to become an aunt?”

Krystal felt her husband look at her. “Is that so?” she asked, slowly putting down her fork.

“Yes, Fayterra is all abuzz about it,” Alana said. “We’ve waited so long; some had begun to question whether this day would ever come.”

Krystal recalled Alana mentioning the new queen of Fayterra in a letter some years ago. “Please offer our congratulations when you return,” she said, and picked up her fork again.

Alana looked across the table. “I must say, Uncle, your children are marvelous. You both should be congratulated on my precious cousins.”

“Your daughter will break many hearts,” said Gregory. “I hope you are prepared, Alexander.”

Alana’s husband inclined his head. “I sharpen my sword daily.”

That night, she told Gregory she wanted to check on their guests. He protested, but she reminded him they’d never had guests before. He let her go with a caution to return quickly, saying he’d miss her.
Krystal knocked on the door of the guest chamber. Alana opened it.

“I wanted to make sure you had enough blankets,” she said by way of greeting. “The spring nights can be cold.”

Alana pulled her into the room and shut the door. Alexander sat in a chair by the fire, but rose when she entered. “Krystal,” Alana said, pulling her into an embrace. “I’m so glad to see you at last. I can’t tell you the nights I’ve stayed awake wondering, and worrying, about your welfare.”

“I can attest to that,” said Alexander. “How are you, Queen Krystal?”

“I am content,” Krystal said when Alana released her. “More so than I would have thought ten years ago. Gregory is kind to me, and the children are a wonderful comfort.”

Even in a private chamber, Alana did not use her brother’s name. “He mourned you,” she said. “He resisted the prodding of the Grand Minister to take a wife for five years. Though he never said, I know he was hoping somehow you’d return to him.”

Krystal shook her head. “I told him not to. He needed to forget me. Please tell him I am content. Tell him I have a good life here.”

“I will tell him,” Alana said. “The new queen is kind and thoughtful. She’s gentler than I would have expected, but has a genuine heart.”

“She’s good for him, then,” said Krystal. “I should go now. Gregory will wonder about me.”

“You can tell him we have plenty of blankets,” Alexander said.

Krystal looked at him, confused. “Excuse me?”

“Blankets,” he repeated. “That’s why you came, isn’t it?”

She smiled at him. “I’d forgotten.”

Alana kissed her cheek. “We noticed.”

The week passed all too quickly for Krystal, and soon they were alone again. She did not beg Gregory for another visit, nor did she consider suggesting a trip to Fayterra. It would be a waste of time.

***

Late in the summer, Gregory began to complain of an ache in his back. At a loss Claren Holdyn called in some of his fellows to consult, but none of the healers could find a cause. Gregory’s pain persisted. By the time the leaves outside turned brown, the king had taken to his bed.

Krystal felt the awful gloom of death and prayed she was mistaken. She received a letter from Alana that the queen of Fayterra had died giving her child life, and for a time convinced herself that was the death she’d felt. But it did not last. Then, at last, her beloved pet succumbed to old age. Krystal buried him, but felt he lived on in the generations of Damen-like pups that had become such a normal part of her children’s lives.

Gregory had not attained a great age, being fifty-three, but years of hard living had taken their toll. When a famed healer, one of Gerta’s former apprentices, finally answered Krystal’s summons and arrived to diagnose the king, his illness was too far progressed for anything to heal him. The healer mixed thick concoctions that Gregory had to swallow three times a day to keep the pain at bay. Without them he moaned and groaned in misery.

“My time is growing short,” he told Krystal one night after they’d sent the children to bed. “I want you to know your position is secure.”

“You’re speaking of Donovan,” she said.

He nodded. “He and I never reconciled. He never once showed an interest in seeing you or meeting his siblings. I have cut him off. Jason possesses far more qualities that will suit the future ruler of Demarde.”

“Can’t Donovan raise an army against us?”

“I have confidence he won’t,” said Gregory. “But, even if I am wrong, you won’t be without allies. Our people love you, and they adore Jason as their crown prince. And I have made it law. There is nothing that Donovan can do to change that fact.”

She wanted to throw herself on his chest and cry, but knew it would probably hurt him. Instead she took his hand. “Will that be enough?”

“I’ve never told him he was my heir, though until I married you it was understood. He’s never given me any indication he would want to be king. Perhaps I misjudged his ambition all those years ago.”

“As long as our children will be safe,” she said. “That’s all that matters to me.”

“I know,” he said. “Tell me, my love, have you been happy with me?”

The turn of topic startled her. “What do you mean?”

Gregory smiled. “I’ve been your husband for almost thirteen years. Are you happy? Are you content?”

She smiled tenderly at him. “You have been good to me, Gregory. I have a beautiful family, and am a powerful queen of a prosperous kingdom. I have no complaints.”

He touched her cheek. “You wouldn’t have, perhaps, preferred another life?”

She knew what he asked. “No. I have a good life. You gave me that, and I am grateful.”

“A man may not want a grateful wife,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “Do you regret marrying me?”

Krystal looked at him, at his shimmering emerald eyes, graying beard and hair, and lifted his hand to her face. Slowly, she kissed each finger, then pressed the palm of his hand against her cheek. Then she looked into his eyes.

“I regret nothing.”

He let out a sigh. “Thank you. My biggest fear was that you would resent your life with me.”

Cautiously, she slid closer to him and leaned against his chest. “Have I given you any reason to worry?”

“No, but you are a complex woman. I haven’t forgotten that.”

“I love you, Gregory.” She couldn’t stop the tears that filled her eyes. “I can’t consider a life without you.”

He stroked her hair. “You are young, still. Have you considered what you will do when I am gone?”

Her throat constricted, but she managed to say, “No.”

“Demarde will be known far and wide for having the most beautiful—and widowed—queen in memory,” he said. “Suitors will come, likely before I am cold in my grave. I have grown to accept the idea that you will remarry. I only ask that you take your time and choose carefully.”

Krystal already shook her head. “I will focus on the children. There is no reason for me to remarry.”

He tilted her head to look at him. “You will become lonely. I understand that.”

“Let’s not talk about this, please,” she said. “I don’t want to think about it.”

“I want you to understand my feelings,” he said. “You have my blessing to move on with your life. It would sadden me indeed to think of you as a shell of yourself.” Gregory leaned down and kissed her. “Curse this wretched body of mine. These pains prevent me from loving you as I wish to. It tortures me to have you so close to me.”

“Should I go?”

He tightened his grip on her waist. “Never.”

***

The king had weeks to live. He called his children to him in turn and gave them his final blessings and guidance. Afterward, Krystal held each of them and comforted them while they said their last goodbyes.

Gregory drew his last breath on a bright, sunny day that was unseasonably warm for so late in the fall. Krystal mourned him deeply. He had given her a good life; he had loved and cared for her and worshipped her in his way. Then she turned her focus to her children, to help and guide them through their great loss.

Prince Jason could not yet become king according to Demardian law, so Krystal accepted the responsibilities of ruling until he came of age. She involved Jason in all her decision making, carefully weighing out all options and discussing them with him. She considered it the best way to teach him how to rule, and he took to it splendidly.

When spring came again to Demarde and the ground thawed, Krystal sent a messenger to her brother Andrew. She simply wrote: I am now a widow. Several weeks later an answering message arrived, carried by her brother Douglas. She threw herself in his arms with a glad cry, and spent weeks acquainting him with her children and her kingdom.

Douglas had news of his own. Their mother had died two years before, and Andrew had married and now had three children. Douglas had also married and lived on his own farm, and had a son. Will and Kayne were still single, but had gone in together and purchased land for a farm not far from home. According to Douglas, Will was eying one of the women in town with serious intent.

Sadly, Krystal realized she felt no connection to her family. She loved having Douglas visit, but he felt more like an old friend than a brother. When he said farewell to her and the children to return home, she almost felt relief. She didn’t understand what had changed.

Alana returned for a visit after receiving Krystal’s news of Gregory’s death. “I’m sick of seeing mourning wherever I go,” she said after comparing their nearly identical black gowns. “Fayterra is so gloomy now. For a while, we worried the princess might not survive. But thankfully, she’s thriving. Julienne had just weaned her child and was able to be the baby’s wet nurse. I know it saved her life.”

“Your brother must be heartbroken,” Krystal said.

Alana put a hand on her arm. “Gregory is gone, Krystal. You can call him Jareth.”

Krystal gave a shuddering sigh. “After all this time I’m not sure I can.”

Alana nodded. “I understand.”

“How is he?”

“He’s holding up well. I think his daughter keeps him steady.” She frowned. “Though he did tell me he expects the pestering to begin soon.”

“What pestering?”

Alana waved her hand. “He resisted marriage for so long, and then when he did finally marry, it was years before they conceived, and now this. Because of the turmoil the kingdom has seen, his ministers won’t be happy until he has a son.” She wrinkled her nose. “Bah! All this worry about boys. Even Alexander has started hinting. If he knew I was carrying he’d never have let me come.”

Krystal’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re pregnant? You shouldn’t be traveling.”

"I’m not worried,” Alana said. “I had an easy time with Alexandra. My body loves babies; I get all fat and sassy and have no trouble. I had to see you. I had to know how you were.”

“I’m fine,” said Krystal. “I’m more worried about the children.”

“Jason seems to be handling himself very well,” Alana said.

Krystal nodded. “He impresses me. He was born to rule.”

“What about the others?”

“Jon is doing his best to help Jason, and Belle has been wonderful with Sam.”

A smile twitched at the corners of Alana’s mouth. “Princess Sam, you mean?”

Krystal turned her mouth down in a mock frown. “Don’t you start.”

“I still haven’t gotten used to it,” said Alana. “You a widow; Jareth a widower.”

“And you lumping us both in the same sentence,” Krystal said.

“You should come to Fayterra,” Alana said. “So many people would love to see you. And you wouldn’t believe all of Calum and Miraya’s children. Emelyn has started admiring the cut of the young men’s tunics and her father is about to crack under the strain.”

“Calum? He always seemed so level headed.”

“He was, until his little girl started growing up.” Alana laughed. “Return with me, Krystal. It will be so much fun.”

“I can’t just now,” said Krystal. “There’s so much here that needs attending, and I can’t imagine leaving the children behind.”

“Bring them,” Alana suggested. “I’ve crossed the border twice. The treaty is voided now with Gregory gone. Jareth wouldn’t turn you away, or your children.”

“Are you sure of that?” Krystal sighed. “Jareth and Gregory were enemies for so long, how can I know he won’t look upon my children as Gregory’s alone? How can he know?”

“Because I see so much of you in them,” said Alana in a gentle tone. “And because I know my brother still loves you.”

Krystal hedged. “I don’t know. I don’t think the time is right to take the children anywhere. They’re still mourning their father.”

“Can you at least consider the possibility that seeing Jareth again may just be the perfect solution to both your problems?” Alana lifted questioning brows. “He needs a wife and you need a man who will care for and guide your children. You and Jareth have a great love, the kind only talked about in songs and storybooks.”

“Had, Alana,” Krystal said. “What you’re talking about is in the past. Who knows what would happen if he were to see me now?"

“You’re still young and beautiful, if that’s what worries you,” said Alana. “And you’re far too young to be a widow. Do you plan to be alone the rest of your life?”

“I hadn’t planned any of this!” Krystal threw up her hands. “I’m not thinking about the future; I’m still trying to get through each day. I have four fatherless children to consider. That’s enough to keep me busy for now.”

Alana sighed, and nodded. “At least consider it, can you promise me that?”

“I’ll try.”

“Good,” said Alana. “And regardless of what you decide about my brother, come visit us. I’d like to see you when my next child is born.”

“I’ll do what I can.”

“Now let’s go round up your children and have dinner. I’m starved.”

***

Krystal couldn’t attend the birth of Alana’s son, Justin Alexander. She had too much to worry about in Demarde with the arrival of a stranger. He introduced himself as Rogan Gildresleve, and had a tale to tell so peculiar she wouldn’t have believed it if he didn’t look so much like a younger version of Gregory.

“I am his brother, though I regret to say I never knew him,” Rogan said as she and her children sat around to listen. “I was the child Queen Roweena carried when she vanished.”

“He would have liked to know you,” said Krystal. “What happened to his mother haunted him from his childhood.”

“My sister and I grew up in seclusion, far from prying eyes and questioning looks,” he said.

“Sister?”

“Half sister, actually,” he amended. “Our captor married my mother once word reached us King Lucien had died. Jessenia stayed behind with Mother when she sent me here to find out what happened to our family, to her children.”

“I wish I could give you better tidings,” Krystal said. “But Gregory succumbed to illness a year ago, and Falina has been gone nearly two decades.”

“But she has grandchildren,” he said. “That will warm her heart.”

“Yes,” she said. “And at least three great-grandchildren. Both of Falina’s children have children of their own now.”

“I should meet them, to explain myself,” Rogan said.

“It’s too late in the season now,” said Krystal. “You cannot reach Fayterra before the first snows fall. We’ll have to wait until spring.”

“Then you will come with me? I hadn’t dared ask.”

“We should come,” she said. “I know them. I can help you deliver this remarkable news.”

Rogan stood. “I will send a message to my mother and sister, telling them I’m staying for the winter and that I’ll have news for them come summer.”

“We’d be glad to have you,” Krystal said. She glanced at Belle, who was looking at her new uncle with adoring eyes. “You’re welcome to stay as long as you wish.”

“And we can become better acquainted,” he said. “I’m sure you have much you can tell me about my family.”

At that Krystal paused, unsure how much she should tell him. She decided on the full truth almost instantly, but not in front of the children. “That can wait for another time. Why not tell us about yourself? And I’m most curious about Queen Roweena.”

That night, when she retired, Krystal found Jason sitting on her bed. “What is it, my son?”

“That man, my uncle Rogan,” Jason said. “Does his being Father’s brother make him King before me?”

“You are the legitimate firstborn son of a firstborn son,” she reminded him. She had chosen not to keep the truth of Donovan’s existence from him. “No one is King before you, save your own father. It is Demarde’s law. Though, Rogan strikes me as a level headed man. It wouldn’t hurt to give him a position. You and I can talk more about that later.”

“I’m glad he’s not King before me,” Jason said.

"Why?”

“I’d hate to disappoint Father,” he said. “He told me to be a good king, and how could I if I wasn’t to be King after all?”

Krystal smiled. “You have nothing to worry about. Come here and kiss my cheek so you can go to bed.”

Jason kissed her cheek, hardly having to rise up on his toes he’d grown so tall. He also gave her a quick hug. “I’m glad he’s come,” he said. “I missed hearing your laughter.”

Krystal stared after her son as he bounded from the room. Had it really been so long since she’d laughed?

Rogan’s presence brightened all their lives. He got on well with the boys, and Belle missed having a man to dote on her and tell her she was beautiful. One awkward moment occurred when Princess Sam called Rogan Daddy, but Krystal laughed it off as she corrected her. It embarrassed Rogan more than anyone else, but Krystal wouldn’t hear of his distancing himself. Her children adored him and the affection seemed mutual.

One day, as they watched the children play outside in the snow, Krystal told Rogan about the man his brother had been when she met him. She told him all she knew about Falina’s death and Gregory’s involvement. Then she told him about the man he became after their return to Demarde. When she’d finished, Rogan leaned back in his chair and remained silent a long time.

“I appreciate your sharing this with me,” he said. “I know it can’t have been easy for you.”

“I couldn’t have you travel to Fayterra without knowing what has passed between our two kingdoms,” she said.

“I thank you for that,” he said again. “Though there are some details I will keep from my mother when I see her. I don’t see any reason to hurt her by telling her all Gregory’s deeds.”

“I’m sure King Jareth and Alana will agree,” she said. “They wouldn’t want to cause their grandmother pain.”

“Do you think, because of my resemblance to Gregory, some may shun me?”

“The thought has occurred to me,” she said. “But it won’t be anyone of consequence, only someone whose bitter heart hasn’t healed.”

“Do you think I should stay behind, let you approach them first on this topic before I make my appearance?”

“I’ll write to Alana, and mention you, so there will be no surprises,” said Krystal. “I still think you’ll be better off traveling with us.”

“I appreciate your efforts,” said Rogan.

***

Returning to Fayterra didn’t seem real to Krystal until after she’d sent Alana the letter. That night she stood before her mirror longer than necessary. She hadn’t changed so much that no one would recognize her, but she wasn’t the girl who’d ridden away in the night with Gregory either. What could she expect when she got there? She wished she felt as brave as she had when speaking to Rogan.

Spring came quickly, and in no time they were on their way. Jason rode his horse alongside Rogan while Krystal rode in the carriage with the three younger children—nine-year-old Belle, six-year-old Jon and almost three-year-old Princess Sam. Belle had taken to reading shortly after her father died and spent the journey with her nose in a book, but Jon and Sam refused to sit still for even a moment. They peppered Krystal with questions until she thought her head would burst.

On the second day, she had their nanny ride in the carriage while she rode her horse. She let the children take turns riding with her because she wasn’t completely heartless, and before she knew it the castle loomed on the horizon.

It looked just as she remembered it. A rush of excitement hit her and she urged her horse faster. She loved Demarde, and its people, but this felt like coming home.

Jon, in her lap, asked her to slow down. She slowed her horse to a trot and led the way into the courtyard. Alana flew out of the castle to greet them. Krystal handed Jon to her so she could dismount.

“You’re here!” Alana swung Jon around in her arms; he giggled. She wrapped one arm around Krystal. “I can’t believe you’re finally here!”

Krystal handed the reins to a waiting groom. “I can hardly believe it myself.” She took Jon from Alana, tucked him on her hip, and went to the carriage to release the other children. Jason rode up and dismounted behind her.

“Goodness, what have you been feeding this boy?” Alana came to stand before Jason. “He’s taller than I am.”

“That’s not hard,” Jason said with a smile. He hugged her. “Hello, Cousin Alana.”

Rogan arrived then, and Alana’s witty retort died in her throat. “Oh, my,” she said instead.

He dismounted and bowed. “My pleasure, Princess Alana.”

She curtsied. “Mine as well, Prince Rogan.”

Krystal handed Jon to Rogan so she could take Sam, who had woken up too early from her nap. Belle leapt from the carriage lightly and put her arm around Alana’s waist.

Alana tore her eyes from her uncle. “My, Belle, how lovely you are!”

Belle blushed prettily. “Thank you, Cousin Alana.”

“I’m a poor hostess,” Alana said. “Come in, all of you. Let’s get you settled and then we can chat.” She turned to Krystal. “They’ve made up the Rose Room for you. I trust you can find your way.”

Krystal laughed as she turned to the entrance. “I’m sure I can,” she said. Then she froze.

Jareth stood in the doorway. She hadn’t seen him in over twelve years and yet her knees threatened to buckle at the sight of him. He’d grown perhaps more handsome; at least he no longer had the look of an underfed teenager. His chest and shoulders were more muscular and he may even have grown taller, she couldn’t be certain. Her heart slammed in her chest.

An expectant silence fell over the group. Krystal did not move under Jareth’s gaze; she couldn’t. Everything she’d ever felt for him rushed to the surface, and for a second she couldn’t even breathe. At last he spoke.

“Hello, Krystal.”

“Hello Jareth,” she said when she felt confident enough to speak without gasping.

Alana stepped forward. “Children, I want to introduce you to your cousin Jareth, King of Fayterra,” she said. “Jareth is my brother. Jareth, this lanky young man is your cousin, Jason. His lovely sister Belle is the one with the death grip on my waist. Krystal is holding little Princess Sam and young Prince Jon is in the arms of our long lost uncle, Rogan Gildresleve.”

Jareth studied them all a moment before he said, “Welcome, all of you. My sister has prepared suitable rooms for you. I hope you will all be comfortable.”

“Thank you,” said Krystal.

“Yes, thank you,” echoed Rogan.

He nodded once. “I shall see you at dinner,” Jareth said, and turned and disappeared into the castle.

Krystal sighed. What had she expected?

Alana settled all of them on the same floor. Rogan had the room that had once been Krystal’s prison, though she did not mention it. Alana had made room in the Rose Room for Krystal, Belle and Sam to stay there comfortably, and had given the room next to Rogan’s to Jason and Jon.

***

Jareth was late enough to dinner to make Krystal think he’d reconsidered joining them. When he did arrive, he offered them all an apology and took his place at the head of the table. Krystal looked around at all the familiar faces and the feeling of home returned. She smiled across the table at Miraya, Calum and a very grown up Emelyn.

Jareth remained gracious, if distant, as they settled in at the castle. Alana served as hostess. Krystal’s older children found fast friends with Alana’s and Miraya’s children. She learned Emelyn would be married that summer to a handsome young knight. Two of Miraya’s sons fought over who would sit next to Belle at dinner each night.

Rogan spent a great deal of time sequestered with the king during the days, and in the evenings he told stories to the younger children while the adults observed. He did not demand or even ask for acceptance or friendship, but won both from each of them in turn.

When it came time for their visit to end, Alana joined the children in begging Krystal to extend their stay. In answer, she wrote to Demarde and asked that several trunks of clothing be sent to them by wagon.

***

One night Sam could not sleep, and rather than call for a maid Krystal carried her to the kitchens in search of warm milk. Jareth was there, cradling a child in his arms. He did not look up when she and Sam entered.

“We have restless daughters,” he said in a low voice.

“Yes,” Krystal said. “Is there any milk left?”

“Only what I’ve just warmed up,” he said. “But they can share.”

“No, we’ll make do.”

“It’s no trouble,” said Jareth. “Isa never finishes the cup anyway.”

Krystal accepted the cup he offered and gave it to Sam. “Thank you, Isa,” she said to the child.

“She’s Isolde, actually, but I call her Isa,” he said. “Princess Isolde Falana Lochnikar.”

“It’s a beautiful name.”

“And I know you didn’t name that adorable girl Sam,” he said with a small smile.

“Samantha Elyce,” said Krystal. “Jon couldn’t pronounce the whole thing, so she became Sam. Though I think it’s beginning to wear on her.”

“You named her for your mother,” he said. “It’s lovely.”

Isolde caught Krystal’s eyes and Krystal gasped. The child’s eyes were identical to Jareth’s both in shape and color. Her white blonde hair was lighter than his, but there was no doubt she was his daughter.

“Her middle name is a combination of Alana’s and our mother’s,” Jareth said of Isa. “The name Isolde comes from her mother. It’s an ancient name from her kingdom.”

Krystal nodded. “She’s a beautiful girl.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I never know quite what to say to that.”

“I know what you mean,” she said.

They lapsed into silence while the girls drank their milk. Krystal took Sam’s empty cup and put it on the counter. Jareth put Isolde’s cup next to it. Krystal shifted Sam in her arms so the child could rest her head on her mother’s shoulder and began to rub her back. Jareth moved Isolde into an almost identical position.

He smiled at her. “Do you need anything else for her?”

“No,” she said. “I think I can get her to sleep now.”

Jareth nodded. “Goodnight, then.”

“Goodnight.”

They saw Isolde more after that. As the days warmed, Jareth suggested they let the children play outside. On one such occasion, Krystal and Jareth found themselves side by side as they watched Isa and Sam run across the grass.

“She’s adorable,” Krystal said of Isa. “But you spoil her horribly.”

“I know,” he said on a sigh. “I remind myself to be strong, and then she turns those eyes on me and I’m lost.”

Krystal nodded. “I had a similar problem with Belle. She was such a pretty baby everyone wanted to do everything for her, and for a while I had a real brat on my hands. Isa has to hear ‘no’ every once in a while. She needs balance.”

Jareth sighed again. “I’m not as practiced at this as you are.”

She patted his arm. “You’ll do fine.” Not unpleasant shivers shook her. Immediately, she recalled the time long ago when his mere touch ignited her.

“What happened to White Lightning?” she asked to distract them both.

“After you left, I couldn’t stand to see her closed up here alone,” he said. “I set her free.”

Krystal smiled. “That was kind of you.”

He looked at her. “I’m glad you came.”

She lost herself in his eyes. “So am I.”

Sam’s scream brought them out of their trance. Isa had a full handful of Sam’s hair and was pulling hard.

“Isa!” Jareth’s voice thundered across the grass. He caught his daughter in his arms, disentangled Sam and pulled Isa away.

Krystal hurried to soothe Sam, but she watched Jareth walk away with his daughter. It looked like a promising start to her.

***

The castle slept peacefully as Krystal let herself out to the gardens. Her tossing and turning disturbed Belle, so she decided to go for a walk. Jareth found her there.

“I saw you leave,” he said by way of explanation. “Can’t you sleep?”

The moon was not bright enough for her to see his face. “Not really. Can’t you?”

He shook his head. “I’m restless, I suppose. You’d think a man of thirty could sleep at night.”

“Thirty isn’t so great an age,” she said with a smile.

“I wasn’t restless until you arrived,” Jareth said. “Now I have a new problem.”

She swallowed with a dry throat. “What is that?”

“Now that I’ve seen you again, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to let you go.”

“I never should have come,” Krystal said.

“Don’t say that.” He took a step nearer. “When I saw you in the courtyard, it felt like I’d awakened from a long sleep. It brought that night I watched you leave flying back to my mind.”

She put up a hand. “Please, stop.”

“I felt alive again for the first time in I don’t care to know how long. My wife always knew there was a part of my heart she couldn’t touch. I felt terrible about it and perhaps, if she’d lived, things would have changed.” He stepped nearer yet. “I understand better now. When you left with Gregory, you closed off a part of yourself to survive. You stopped feeling everything, just like I did, because it would hurt too much.”

“We grew up, that’s all,” she said.

“It’s more than that,” said Jareth as he stepped nearer still. “You closed off that part of your heart that loves me. And now you’ve begun to open it again.” He touched her shoulders. “Please open it, Krystal. Open that part of your heart where my heart fits so well.”

She shook her head. “It’s not that easy anymore. I have children now; I’m your aunt for goodness’ sake! I can’t abandon my children to pursue my desires. I have to take care of them.”

“I couldn’t ask you to abandon them, but you can’t deny your heart forever,” he said. “These last few days, I’ve seen that light in your eyes when I look at you. I know you feel as I do.”

Krystal turned pleading eyes on him. “What do you suggest I do?”

Jareth bent his head to hers and brushed her lips. “Love me. We’ll figure out the rest.”

Krystal leaned into him. “You make it sound so simple.”

“It’s just us now,” he said. “We can make it that simple, together.”

Jareth kissed her, and just like that her world shattered. Her skin felt like thousands of pins pricked her. Her hair practically stood on end. She began to feel again.

And it hurt. Krystal ached as she let him deepen the kiss, whimpered into his mouth. She ached for the lost years, the walls she’d built around her heart while she built a life with Gregory. And she ached with betrayal, for she loved her children desperately but had never loved their father like this.

She threw her arms around Jareth’s neck. He pulled her close to his chest. And still they kissed. She clung to him, and he to her, and they just went on kissing until they couldn’t kiss any longer.

Krystal’s cheeks felt cold against the wind. She’d been crying. She looked up into his eyes and found they weren’t dry either. Jareth smiled at her and kissed each tear stained cheek.

“I have to marry you,” he said. “Soon, or I may die.”

“I won’t leave Demarde,” she said. “Not until Jason is grown and becomes king. I have to stay with him while he needs me.”

“What about Rogan?”

“I trust him, but not that much. Not with my son,” she said.

Jareth’s smile widened. “Not like that. I thought we could put Rogan in charge of Demarde and instruct Jason here. Rogan is a prince of the realm. He has the authority to step in as steward of Demarde, if needed.”

“But he hasn’t been raised to be king,” said Krystal. “He may not know the first thing about ruling.”

“What do you think he and I have discussed all this time?” Jareth kissed her nose. “I think it’s worth a try.”

“We have to ask Jason,” she said. “I don’t want him thinking I’m giving away his kingdom.”

“Of course. So when do we marry?”

“How soon can we make it happen?”

***

Krystal married Jareth two weeks later. There would be a great deal of traveling back and forth to Demarde in those first years. Jason agreed, but not easily, to allowing Rogan to rule as proxy until he came of age. Rogan didn’t seem too thrilled about it himself, and Krystal and Jareth agreed to bring Jason to Demarde several times a year so they could discuss the kingdom’s progress.

Jason told his mother, in a quite grown up way, that her happiness mattered more to him than his ego. He would trust her.

None of that crossed Krystal’s mind, however, as she stood in the king’s chambers on her wedding night. Jareth looked at her quizzically when she paused in taking off her dress.

“I feel absurd,” she said. “I’ve borne four children; I’m not a girl anymore. I’m nervous what you will think of me.”

He crossed the room and took her in his arms. “You are a woman,” he said as he eased open the fastenings of her gown and slid it off her shoulders. He paused to kiss each shoulder. “You have a woman’s body with a woman’s curves. I see a goddess.”

And then it didn’t matter anymore.

THE END
HAPPY NOW, GREGORY?

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