The crack of sunlight that marked each passing day grew brighter in the overhead shaft that served as an air vent to Jeremiah’s small prison cell. An occasional bird flitted across the narrow opening—sometimes, two birds giving chase.
On the west side of his cell, ocean waters beat against the other side his wall like a moody metronome. On the east side of his cell was a door that hadn’t been opened in over 50,000 days—not even to deliver food or drink.
Jeremiah should have been dead. He should have been bones. But things did not always happen the way they ought when trapped in a magical castle. So, rather than dying, Jeremiah awoke day after day feeling like he wasn’t eating for a second day in a row.
The first few months of this sensation had nearly broken him psychologically. Then he’d found the rhythm that had sustained him ever since: meditate, practice, carve, repeat—all on an empty stomach, day after day after day after day. A fair punishment for falling for the most beautifully evil person he’d ever met.
Because it was Jeremiah’s own fault. He hadn’t seen the dark side of the queen until he’d sworn fealty to her, and he’d been warned by everyone he knew never to swear fealty at all.
But he’d done it. He’d said the words:
“I hereby swear to serve the queen and her throne all my days.”
When Jeremiah had first uttered the oath, it felt like he’d finally discovered his purpose. The reason he’d trained his entire life to do what other men claimed was impossible suddenly seemed so clear. He had done it all because his rightful mate—a queen—needed such a man at her side. Jeremiah wasn’t royal by birth, so he had to earn the kingdom’s respect some other way.
In his case: by being an unsurpassed warrior.
It had all been so clear in his mind when he’d pledged himself to her after saving her carriage from attack in the woods then spending three more days leading her back to safety.
At the time, he hadn’t understood why so many people wanted her dead.
By the time he understood their hate, his oath was spoken and it was too late. A Huntsman could not break his word, especially if he swore in vain—which every Huntsman did at least once while trying to impress a possible mate. It was their universal weakness: beauty. And Jeremiah was at the top of the list when it came to cautionary tales other Huntsmen told of the perils of falling for a pretty face.
No one had screwed up bigger than him. Most Huntsmen who erred in their judgment as much as Jeremiah had were dead within a year.
As a child, he’d always thought those stories to be tragic.
As an adult, he’d decided not dying was much worse. Natural death was a misunderstood blessing, and eternal life was the worst damnation of vanity.
Better to live a short time and die with purpose than live forever in a fixed state of being.
But Jeremiah’s revelation had come just a little too late, and only after meeting a damsel in distress who made him forget everything but her face each time she smiled his way. Thus, had he lost himself in dreams that the queen wished to have him as her king and grown foolhardy in his efforts to prove his worthiness to her by going against all he’d been taught and swearing loyalty to her.
And, like so many other fools before him, Jeremiah had been her slave ever since—locked in a castle where time didn’t pass as part of a spell to keep the queen eternally young for as long as she stayed on the grounds. She only aged in the moments when she left the kingdom, which was why she did so rarely and only for hours at a time. For the queen was very committed to staying young and beautiful for no less than a thousand years.
And the queen always got what she wanted.
Well, except for once. And Jeremiah had been locked in a cell ever since for that little stunt—left alone to dream impossible dreams of ways to reverse his oath and escape.
Such a thing wasn’t possible. He knew that. An oath was an oath, solitary confinement was solitary confinement, and a castle that existed outside of time was a castle that existed outside of time.
There was nothing to do but stay sharp until something changed. Anything.
Anything at all.
And Jeremiah was so lost in that thought that he nearly missed the fact that something was indeed changing around him—that, at that very moment, footsteps were headed his way. For he’d imagined he’d heard footsteps countless times over the years, but it the sounds had never been what they seemed.
Why should this time be any different?
That’s what Jeremiah thought for every sound he heard until his cell door opened and a gush of black sand he’d chipped from the walls in his time there surged out into the hall.
“Whoa,” an unfamiliar voice exclaimed as Jeremiah’s hands paused in carving the eye of a wolf into his cell wall. Then he turned to see the first face he’d seen in well over a century.
The man who looked back at him was dressed as a butler and seemed as surprised to see Jeremiah as Jeremiah was to see him.
“You’re alive,” the butler said in obvious shock.
“I am,” Jeremiah replied. “But you’re new.”
“Relatively speaking, perhaps,” the butler replied. “I’ve been at her majesty’s service for just over twenty years now.”
“What happened to Marcus?” Jeremiah asked as he eyed his open door with a near-predatory need to flee. Yet he remained still.
“Killed by the curse while trying to escape,” the butler said with a hint of helplessness. “The queen soon replaced him with me.”
There was a story there. Everyone in this place had a story, for they were all captives and slaves. The slaves had to get up every morning and do the bidding of the queen while the captives incurred her wrath and were imprisoned into the realm of doing nothing.
Jeremiah obviously belonged to the latter group. But, as he looked at the butler and saw the anxious and beaten look in his eyes, he was reminded that, in many ways, punishment was preferable to good standing with the queen. Because to serve her was soul-killing
At least, Jeremiah hadn’t had to kill anyone for the queen while he was locked in his cell.
“I genuinely thought you were dead,” the butler stammered. “I was told to never come down here. The door to this dungeon was bolted shut. I had to use a laser cutter to open it.”
“A what?” Jeremiah asked, uncertain what a laser was.
“Doesn’t matter,” the butler said, motioning for Jeremiah to exit. “We’ve got to hurry. The queen wishes you to escort her to brunch and wants you on the plane before she’s done with her appointment. I told the doctor to stall as long as he could, but we’ve still got 40 minutes—tops—before departure, and we need to get you scrubbed up and in a suit.”
There were so many words Jeremiah didn’t understand in what was just said, but the butler’s tone made it clear it wasn’t a good time to ask. So he focused on one of the few words he did know.
“I don’t wear suits,” Jeremiah said, chin up. “I am a Huntsman.”
“Yeah? Well, times change,” the butler replied. “And restaurants have dress codes now. Luckily for you, plenty of men have fled this place while leaving their clothes behind, so we have a large selection of suits. One is bound to fit your bulky frame.”
Jeremiah stood his ground. “I don’t wear suits.”
The butler raised an eyebrow. “Even to get into the best restaurant in the world where you will be able to order whatever you want?”
Jeremiah hesitated only a moment longer before moving through the cell door and out into the hall faster than the butler’s eyes could track him.
It felt good to know he had retained some skills throughout all the inactivity.
“I’ll wear a suit to eat,” he said. “Then it comes off.”
The butler held up his hands in resignation. “Hey, it’s your funeral, man. I just need to get you ready.” He looked the Huntsman up and down. “You need a good scrubbing. We’ll trim the beard and your hair, but a full shave will have to wait until you get back. We should have time to do that and throw a suit on you. Then you should be good to go.”
And that’s what happened.
First, the butler showed Jeremiah to an indoor waterfall of hot water, encased in marble where he was instructed to scrub himself with an exfoliating soap until his skin turned pink. Then his hair and his beard had been shortened by shears that cut using a vibrating magic Jeremiah had never seen before.
Then it was back under the marble waterfall to rinse off, followed by an application of powders and gels to make him smell pleasing to the queen before a suit was presented to him.
“This might be a little big,” the butler apologized. “Most men with your size of shoulders have larger waists. But this should do for now.”
And it did. The trousers were loose, but held up by a belt, and the material was lighter than any kind of suit Jeremiah could remember. The times had changed and, with them, fashion.
Current suits weren’t half bad.
“Time’s up,” the butler said as Jeremiah struggled with his tie. “The queen is headed to the plane. We need to beat her there so you’re as ready as you’re going to get.”
After so long, he really was going to see her again.
Jeremiah wasn’t ready. Not by a long shot.
“But my tie…” he stammered, his feet suddenly as anchored as a statue’s.
“You can tie it on the flight over,” the butler replied, pulling him forward. “For now, you need to run.”
Jeremiah wouldn’t call the pace the butler set as “running” per se, but he matched the speed as he was led from the castle to the bright and brilliant outdoors where he felt the soft cushion of earth under his feet for the first time in ages. When the sun’s heat warmed the dark fabric of his suit and kissed his face like a long-lost lover, he could have fallen to the earth right there and then and cried. But duty forbade him.
Instead, Jeremiah jogged across the grounds to a long stripe of cleared earth with a massive bird-shaped machine on one side.
“What is that?” he breathed.
The butler looked at his curiously. “A jet. Have you not see one before?”
Jeremiah shook his head.
“How long were you down there?” the butler asked. “What’s the last thing you remember before you went into that cell?”
Jeremiah didn’t like to recall that particular memory. There was no pride to be had in it. Instead, he stuck with, “Trying to fool the queen.”
“Ah,” the butler said with a sober nod. “She always sees it coming, doesn’t she?”
“Yes,” Jeremiah agreed and they reached the massive metal beast.
The butler gestured up the stairs. “All aboard. The queen will join you shortly.”
A rush of emotions washed over Jeremiah at the thought of her until the only thing he knew he felt for sure was: sick. Sick because he was sworn to serve her dark soul and it was all his fault.
This was bound to be a terrible day.
Right then, something shuddered in the air—something strange—and Jeremiah knew without looking that he and the butler were not alone anymore.
“I thought I told you to have him waiting for me on the plane when I arrived,” the queen said down her nose from the machine’s doorway.
One moment, she hadn’t been there; the next moment, there she was. Apparently, she had acquired some new magic in his absence. How wonderful.
As Jeremiah turned to face her, for the briefest moment he forgot he hated this woman. The sight of her beauty was enough to rewire his brain into seeking her approval and wishing to be her mate.
Even after everything, he was still a sucker for her pretty face. It wasn’t fair.
“Apologies, Your Majesty,” the butler stammered. “I rushed him out here the moment I heard you were ready.”
“Not fast enough,” the queen snapped. “I’ll decide your punishment by the time I return. And double it if my mirror isn’t fixed back to brand new.”
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
She hasn’t aged a day, was all Jeremiah could think through it all. That, and she was showing her legs now and they were absolutely mesmerizing. Everything about her was.
As if sensing his gaze, the queen turned her attention to Jeremiah. “You look terrible. Why didn’t you shave?”
“There wasn’t time, Your Majesty,” Jeremiah replied.
“That suit doesn’t fit you,” she added with distaste.
“It was the closest fit of all suitable clothing in Her Majesty’s wardrobe,” he replied.
“So you’re saying it’s my fault?” she snapped with a dangerous look in her eye, and it sparked something in Jeremiah.
“Yes, Your Majesty,” he replied, jaw set and eyes unapologetic as he aimed more than a century’s worth of disdain at her in his gaze. “You have no formal clothing that fits me in all your kingdom and this is the best we can do. If there is a failure here, it is yours.”
He didn’t expect the reaction he got, but was gratified to hear her heart hammer lightly with fear and swallow in reflex as she processed his antipathy for her.
“Hmph,” she then replied, her tone dismissive again. “Well, I guess it’s good enough for what I need from you.”
Emboldened by her previous reaction to him, Jeremiah steadied himself as he raised his chin to meet her downcast gaze head on. “And what is that, Your Highness?”
She sent an accusatory look back to the butler. “Did you not tell him? Must your punishment be even more severe upon my return?”
In reply, the butler looked away.
“Tell me yourself,” Jeremiah said, pulling her attention back to him. “I take orders from no one else.”
She seemed to like that thought and her back straightened. “I need you to kill someone for me at the restaurant. I want you to lay her heart on the table in front of me—still beating, if possible. No cheating this time. No wild animal’s heart posing as my enemy’s. Do you understand?”
Of course, that’s what she wanted. The queen had always had a thing with collecting hearts. She’d once had a room where she collected them like trophies, but the room Jeremiah knew had to be replaced with something bigger by now if she’d continued her killing sprees in his absence.
“Yes,” Jeremiah agreed.
“Now climb aboard,” she said with dismay. “You’re making us late to my best friend’s birthday.”
The queen had a friend?
Well, this day was just getting weirder and weirder.
Yet, when the queen turned away and let her hips sway as she disappeared into the plane, Jeremiah found his feet following hers quite naturally. He was a Huntsman, after all, and it was a Huntsman’s instinct to pursue beauty.
And some instincts were the actual worst.