Working for a villainous overlord is never easy. There are always do-gooders to vanquish, mythical monsters to set loose, and prosperous kingdoms to topple. It’s much harder, of course, when you’re also in love with said overlord, but I’ve been doing this for more than a thousand years now. In six months, I even have the option of retiring. I know I should consider myself fortunate. Not everyone henchman makes it to this point, and the severance pay is more than generous, but the prospect of giving this up fills me with dread.
For the moment, this happens to be your regular, run-of-the-mill ransacking. Dry leaves crunch under my feet as I step forward to observe the commotion in the valley below. The village that sits on it is currently under our siege. It’s not particularly strenuous, so I’ve let the kids handle it.
We do this every single year. You might look at it as a team-building exercise—Hades knows some of those minotaurs could be better team players—but between you and me, I’m not sure what the objective of this annual pillage really is.
We're big players—peaceful villages surrounded by flower meadows and evergreen peaks aren’t our usual gig—but every year, on the 14th of February, we take over one of these idyllic hamlets. I’ve never questioned His Evil Imminence. You don’t last this long in this industry by asking questions.
That’s not to say that I’m not curious though.
While it’s in His Most Sacrilegious’ nature to bring about a reign of terror, he clearly takes great pleasure in ripping hearts out, metaphorically speaking, of course, on this special occasion. Flower meadows are always harvested bald, chocolate hearts are systematically confiscated, and at the end of the day, musicians are forced to play romantic ballads for their own captors during the evening feast.
Yes, I’d say that my master knows it’s St. Valentine’s Day.
At first, I wondered if he just had a bone to pick with Valentine. We had met him while we were passing through in Rome, you know, and let me tell you: What. A. Saint. He was just as heroic and dashing as the conflicting accounts say. Him marrying those young lovers in secret? Absolutely true. Helping the Jesus people escape the Romans? That deserves a standing ovation. It would make sense for The Dark One to dislike him.
Except it doesn’t. For one, Valentine had already been long dead when His Evil Majesty first began his annual crusade. And for another, I suspect that my master actually liked Valentine.
So then I thought that his crusade against Valentine’s Day was being fueled by a more antagonizing foe, and following this train of thought, it seemed like there could only be one answer.
When my master had first come into being, he had not been alone. He had nine other siblings that sprung out of his mother’s womb, each one more frightening than the last, but despite being nonuplets, they’re not a close-knit family. There are rumors that three still remain on this earth, but I’m only really certain of at least one. I believe that she goes by Sybil these days.
I met her towards the tail end of the Black Plague. She’s hilarious, a natural-born comedian, and we exchange correspondences whenever we can, but she does have a talent, as all siblings do, to ruffle my master’s feathers. I don’t think he ever forgave her for stealing his thunder at the meeting with The Brothers Grimm. Or that one time she left him literally hanging after some hangry peasants got the jump on him.
However, it doesn’t really add up either. The Dark Pontiff may be a man of few words, but he doesn’t hold back when it comes to his sister. On more than one occasion, he’s ranted about how she’s ruined Bacchanalia for all eternity or how she’s yet to pay him back the mountain of gold he loaned her when she decided to go backpacking abroad. Bad words are always used.
I'll never admit it to his face, but to see this side of him is actually pretty endearing. He does this thing where he wrinkles his nose like a rabbit when—
Anyway, my point is, if his pillaging spree had anything to do with her or with any of his other so-called family, he would have said something by now. But once again, I’m left stumped.
I find myself resigning to the fact that perhaps, my master simply abhors the existence of a holiday that celebrates love.
If I’m being honest with myself, I don’t want to believe it, because, personally speaking, I quite like the idea of Valentine’s Day. I enjoy the sweeping declarations of love, the swoon-worthy ballads, and the edible tokens of affection. I’m only a little embarrassed that my collection of romantic prose has grown to rival the (former) Library of Alexandria.
And if the dashing rake in my mind always happens to have a billowing cloak and an evil grin, well, can you really blame me?
Perhaps when I retire, I should try my hand at writing a few stories. I certainly know enough about unrequited love to grip at tender and impressionable hearts, although I'll always make sure that my stories end well. If I can’t have a happy ending, then I can at least give my characters one.
I head down to the village to survey the damage. By now, we’ve got this entire routine down pat. After the kids force the village into submission, everyone is rounded up in the square where I make an accounting of all the valuables to be taken to the treasury, and we end the day with a nice feast. We even reserve tables for the villagers. Now that I think about it. I should probably consider training a replacement if I’m to retire.
I’m creating a list of things to do for the turnover of tasks when I hear my master call my name.
He sounds exhausted even if he’s barely lifted a finger.
“Oh Unholy Deviant,” I greet him with a bow. “Does today’s pillaging please you?”
The muscles on my master’s face spasm. He looks like he's having a seizure only to change his mind halfway through.
“Caspian,” he repeats.
I smile a little brighter. I do so enjoy it when he says my name.
“Have you ever wondered why we keep doing this?” he asks, gesturing to the parade of prisoners behind him.
I feel like I’m being tested, and for the first time, I don’t know the answer. “Your Heinouship despises Valentine’s Day,” I say cautiously.
He makes an odd sound, like a cross between bleat and a growl, and then he pinches the bridge of his nose. He looks stressed. I should remember to give him his herbal tea before he retires for the evening.
“Caspian,” he says my name again. He looks desperate now, and my cheeks can’t help but flush. I’m not accustomed to being on the receiving end of such an expression, much less from my master.
He takes a few more steps towards me until he closes what little distance remains between us. He’s a little taller than I am, so I find myself having to look up. Straight at his chiseled jawline. I resist the urge to sigh. Greek and Roman sculptures have nothing on him. He leans down, his face hovering over mine, and my world resolutely shrinks. There is nothing. There is no one. Just him. Only him.
I should have kept my eyes open, should have forced myself to witness this moment, but they fluttered close on their own, and then, something soft and tender brushes against my lips.
I open my eyes just as he pulls back. He looks terribly red, but he doesn’t seem angry. He does look like he’s just agreed to trade his first-born child for rampions, however, and that is no better. I open my mouth to say something, but he swiftly turns around, cloak nearly knocking me off my feet, and runs up the hill.
I watch him retreat, while the rest of the world trickles back in. When I finally turn my attention back to the square, no one is looking. Or everyone is trying hard not to look. One villager is very determinedly inspecting the dirt in his toenails.
What just happened?
I look at the line of people offering tribute, arms laden with bouquets of flowers, boxes of chocolate...
I touch my lips.
“You really are quite the pair,” a voice behind me says.
I turn around. “Sybil,” I greet. “You look well.”
She arches an eyebrow and nods towards the direction her brother went as if to say, “Go on. I can hold the fort for you until you idiots sort out your feelings.” Or she might have projected those those thoughts in my head. In her last letter, she did mention hanging around some new age hippies.
I nod at her gratefully before heading off. I choose to walk instead of running, so as to give us both time to sort out our thoughts, although I’m not sure if I’m even capable of holding any right now. I bring a hand up to caress my lips and replay the moment over and over again in my head. I always assumed that my feelings would remain unrequited. In real life, henchmen often fall in love with their masters, but masters rarely return their feelings. But this gives me hope.
When I reach the foot of the hill, I see him waiting up there for me. My steps falter a little bit. For a moment, I wonder what would have happened had he not... kissed me tonight. I would have likely rounded up all the bounty as usual. He would have spent the rest of the evening drinking himself into what I now recognize as a sulk. I would never have known about his feelings for me, and the last few months of my service would have been spent trying to keep my broken heart together. I can’t believe how narrowly we missed living such a miserable eternity.
A most effusive feeling of warmth spreads over me, and I can’t help but break out into a run. He looks a little startled, so I slow down and make sure to smile, so he knows I’m not about to attack him. Yes, non-verbal cues! We're already communicating better. As I speed uphill, I make a list of self-help books we can read in my head. I don't want to miss a single moment of his love. I want to know what I should look for, whether it's in his silence or his actions. And I want him to know me, too. Every touch and every smile. Fortunately, we have the rest of our lives to do that.