The dark god's bride hadn't expected the underworld to be so bright.
All the legends agreed that the Neathniche was a land of eternal gloom: a fit prison for a deity exiled from heaven. But as the demon procession snaked its way through the caverns, all Bastien Brume could see was light. Here were forests of lambent mushrooms, cyan or violet or pink, with as much variety in their forms as the plants in the world above. There was the river with its luminescent fish, rushing underneath the slender bridges they passed. Above, in the stalactite-toothed ceiling, were jewels lit up with their own inner fire, brighter than stars.
It was a world of unexpected wonders and Bastien was sorry that he wouldn't see much of it before he was eaten alive.
Those were the terms of the Bargain, after all. For centuries after his exile, the fallen god--now known only as Gris Neath--had waged war against humanity, trying to break free of his sunless prison. But the ages had taken their toll and even he had grown tired of war. In exchange for peace, he'd agreed to take a bride every year. Just one human life: a beautiful youth or maiden of gentle birth, newly come of age. He would enjoy his bride for a year, and at the end of it, he and his demons would feast.
This year, the unlucky lot had fallen to Bastien.
Luckily, he didn't mind.
There had always been an odd, disquieting peace about Bastien Brume, something that recognized Fate and bowed to it. Unnatural, his Aunt had called him, when he didn't weep at his parents' funeral. Soulless, heartless, his cousins had whispered, whenever he failed to join in their games or sympathize with their intrigues. Even animals were wary of him.
He'd never felt at home except in the manor's woodlands. There, the trees and shrubbery hid him whenever he grew tired of all the agitated, moving creatures of the world. He loved the peace of quiet things that basked under the sun. He loved them even when they were tossed by the windstorms and rain, for then there might be lightning, and for Bastien, that brief, searing flash of whiteness seemed to carve out a singular space in the world, a moment of crystalline purity before the rolling growl of thunder broke it into pieces. It was so similar to the peace that lay coiled inside him.
When he'd been a child, his mother had told him stories of the gods inhabiting these things: the sleek Cat-of-Lightning forever pursued by the Thunderdog, the majestic Firebird Emperor who was the sun, the Moon Mare, and all the other great ones. But the spirits she loved the most were the soulwisps of plants, most of which she could summon by name. She'd never been able to teach him all she knew.
Now he would never see her or the sun or storm or greenery ever again.
Lost in thought, the dark god's bride touched the pendant at his throat, caressing the thistle engraved into the ivory. He wondered if his small, botanical magics could survive this sunless world. As soon as he was able, he decided, he would find his way back to the mushroom forests and see.
It was in this thoughtful manner that Bastien was delivered to the god on the scarlet throne.
And once again, his unnatural mind confounded him. He hardly noticed his new lord and master, the deity he was bound to serve. To him, the enigmatic Lord Beneath was only an impression of heavy darkness, a blood-red shadow on a blood-red chair.
All he could see was the young man chained to the foot of the throne.
In a world of color and darkness, this youth shone as stark as a bolt of lightning. He was not only ornamented in white--with pearls and gauzy silks and bangles of white jade--he himself was white, from the liquid waterfall of his hair to the alabaster gleam of his skin. Scintillating inside him was a pale fire like the flame inside the cave's jewels, burning coldly and distantly, brighter than a star. He lay still at the dark god's feet, but Bastien felt as if the entire world had begun to turn all around him.
Without waiting for the signal, Bastien alighted from his palanquin and prostrated himself before the stairs to the throne. "I've come here for you," he said, his voice hoarse for he didn't often speak, "because I love you." And no one but himself had to know that he spoke to the slave instead of the king.
Questions fluttered in his throat. Who are you? Why do I know you even though I've never seen you? You can't be last year's sacrifice, for she was a maiden. He restrained the words, more out of habit than any instinct for self-preservation.
But this restraint also preserved him, because the dark god's first minister--a demon eight-feet tall and crowned with violet horns--only gave him one lash of the whisk for his impertinence. His Aunt's punishment had been far heavier when she'd caught him singing a spell over her roses.
Gris Neath raised a hand, and the demon minister bowed and backed away.
"I don't need your love, child," the dark god said. The voice in that blood-red armor seemed as it came from the depths of a black pit, but for all its abyssal magnificence, it sounded amused. "I need only your flesh. Do you know your duty?"
For a moment, Bastien's peace almost left him. He remembered then that he was naked underneath his ropes of shining gems, that he was cold despite his coat of aromatic oil. He might have trembled. He couldn't tell. "I know my duty," he finally managed to say. But he was looking at the white boy as he said this.
The youth looked back at him, with the measuring glare of a great cat. Their gazes caught, tangled, and held, until Bastien felt his chin grasped and tilted up by a cold, gauntleted hand.
The Lord Beneath overwhelmed his vision. "You are fascinated by my Thistle?"
Bastien's startled hand flew to the pendant at his throat.
Grimly, the metal fingers reached for his own, prying his fist open to reveal the ivory thistle nestled within.
"Ah," the dark god growled, in a tone of such ugly suspicion that Bastien shrunk back. Gris Neath caught him by the shoulder and dragged him closer. "So They have begun to move at last? They've dared to send a spy?" His grip tightened until Bastien cried out, and found his cry echoed in another voice: "Don't!"
Gris Neath let Bastien go and whirled around, his tone barely leashing its thunder. "Do you command me now, Thistlethorn?"
The white boy got to his feet only to drop himself back down into a deep bow. He did it all in one fluid motion, his movements followed so gracefully by his pearls and hair and silks that he seemed like a spirit of air. Even the silvery links chaining him to the throne sounded sweet, like bells. "Forgive me, lord," he said, in a voice that was startling in its deep richness. "I can't see you demean yourself with violence against one unarmed."
The demon king barked out a laugh. "Oh, is it only that? Concern for my morals?" But his moment of anger had passed and he was amused again. He patted Bastien's shoulder, which still bore the imprint of his bruising grip. "And if you are Their spy, then welcome! What more injury could They possibly do to me?" The dangerous, bitter smile was invisible underneath his visor, but Bastien could hear it in his voice. "I hope you enjoy your adventure, little spy. A single human year is all you have left."
Red, metallic fingers darted for Bastien's pendant, closed around it, moved to tear it from his neck. But the gesture was cut short by a new shout, one of outrage and pain. The dark god jerked backward, his gauntlet smoking where the pendant had burned through it.
A murmur rippled throughout the throne room, followed by the hiss of swords coming free of sheathes. Demonic guards lumbered forward to surround the blinking, slack-jawed Bastien. He gripped his pendant nervously, expecting that same burst of heat and pain that had seared the Lord Beneath--but for him, there was only coolness, a memory of storm-tossed trees frozen into whiteness by lightning.
His thoughts stilled. Even when he felt the points of the blades press against his bare skin, he couldn't win free of this preternatural calm. Perhaps that was a final mercy. He closed his eyes.
"Enough!" Gris Neath commanded. "Put up your blades! It's plain he's only a pretty lackwit, no matter what amulets he might have. Leave him, his time has not yet come." He installed himself back onto his throne, and it seemed as if he melted into it, becoming only a blood-red shadow once more. But his voice rang throughout the great cavern of the throne room, dark and hollow and full of malice. "Take him to the yellow room for now. I won't want him tonight." He beckoned his beautiful, white lover onto his lap. "You will attend to me, my Thistle."
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