The bed creaks. My head snaps in its direction. Through the darkness, the Executioner is staring at me.
“You scribble so fast, the pen fumes,” he says.
He walks to the window and pushes the curtains open, letting morning light flood in. My eyes perceive the reddish-orange color spreading through the chamber, but they accept the light without strain. I realize that I’ve written tens of pages in complete obscurity.
The Executioner’s changed his clothes. Dark denim covers his long legs and now he shuffles a quality shirt over his upper body. He does it with slow moves, showing off his slender, marble sinews.
He takes a gel tube from the vanity table, squeezes some in his hand and runs it through his ebony hair. He inspects himself in the mirror. A murderer disguised as a dazzling boy. I feel my lips tighten in aversion.
“You don’t like what you see?” he inquires.
I don’t reply. I turn to my pages, now a mess all over the desk. Soon, the Executioner stands close behind me.
“What did you feel when you saw him yesterday, Aura?”
His voice is soft and his heart wounded. I sense it so sharply that I don’t even blink. I still stare at the papers as I answer.
“My feelings for him haven’t changed,” I say. They’re stronger than ever, I think, but I keep that part to myself.
“Were you happy when he filled you?”
“Ivan, I wasn’t with him …”
He sounds so vulnerable that I almost feel sorry for him. His intuition tells him the truth and my lies can only make matters worse. I know he’s tempted to rain questions on me, clinging on every reason to believe me. Still, he’s a wise devil. Emotion might be new for him, but he doesn’t fall prey to self-deception. He could have Damian crucified for this. I bite my lip, trying to swallow my fear.
He drops a bundle of clothes on my lap and I realize I wear only the bath towel. With my mind deep in the account I’ve written on all night, I haven’t thought about it. My cheeks flush with shame.
I stand and the Executioner clasps my shoulders from behind. I freeze, my eyes wide. He breathes in, there’s a slight tremble in his voice.
“This sight of you will haunt me all day.”
He sweeps a lock of hair from my neck and wets his lips. No!
“Have you come to a conclusion?” I say and turn around to face him. He looks entrained. “About Dolores and how she and I are related, I mean.” I’ve decided I don’t take him seriously anyway, but the question should serve to thwart his focus.
He pauses and gathers himself.
“There’s only one way to find out,” he says.
He won’t say. He takes a few steps back and lowers his head.
“Get ready. I’ll take you to the library.”
“The library?” I blink, puzzled. Then the memory hits me. My task. I shudder, remembering the Abbot’s words.
My legs wobble as I head for the bath chamber, with no idea how I’m to go about this and dreading what’s expected of me. Light brightens the onyx, sending playful beams all over the walls and mirror – an ironic mood, given the depressive pit I find myself in.
As I put on the jeans and white linen shirt Ivan’s given me, I fantasize that I’ve just woken up by Damian’s side, looking forward to a cup of coffee, a morning kiss and a good day at work. For a second there, the weight of reality is off my shoulders.
I button the shirt up to my neck and face myself in the mirror. Fantasy shatters in front of that reflection. My once baggy, hazel eyes now shine topaz on a child-like face and my once wiry hair cascades in silky locks down a thin frame – an image growing more unnatural by the day. As I stare at it I know I’ll never sleep again, let alone be free to wake up in my husband’s arms. He’s a killer demidemon now and I’m a useless demiangel, with no means of fighting against an apparatus that’s so much larger than us and to which we’re bound for as long as Earth will spin. My shoulders slump as my head clouds with defeat.
The Executioner stands in the doorframe, eying me from head to toe. There’s something salacious in his gaze despite the absence of a cleavage on me, or anything of the kind. It makes me sick. Luckily he looks away and motions for me to follow him.
We walk along the corridors that brought us here, snaking through the Regent’s chateau. They fit my state of mind –hollow, cold and dark.
The sumptuous Vault reveales itself as the Executioner pushes the heavy doors open. Today countless demis crawl along its walls in all directions, like worms eating a huge octopus from inside out. My eyes widen and my lungs clog. The image seems cut from one of those horror movies my older cousins used to force me to watch, which sent me shaking behind the door and squeezing poor Barbie in my hands until my knuckles turned white.
The demidemons retrieve bottles and tubes with colored liquid. My stomach turns at the thought of what’s inside – contents of veins and bowels, drained from my own kind. I hurry after the Executioner towards the library, protecting my head with my hands, afraid one of those spider-scientists might drop on me like a crawler from a jungle tree.
Dressed in a fancy suit with a deep cleavage and a queenly collar, Aimee ‘the Black Beauty’ sits in a tower-like alcove. For some reason I think of Professor Snape and Hogwarts.
“So the Queen of Hearts was yet found,” Aimee addresses Ivan. Her succulent lips draw in an inviting smile as she looks up from a scroll.
She smooths it with her fingers and her long, red fingernails shine under an oil lamp. Shit, lamp! I glance around, nervous. I remember there’s no clock anywhere in the castle and no windows in the library. There’s no way I can measure time, not even by the sun’s position in the sky. I think of Damian waiting for me at noon and my heart pounds harder.
“I found her in the west wing,” Ivan says, “Dolores’ portrait had caught her eye.”
“Oh, did it?” Aimee yelps, faking innocent surprise. By the way Ivan looks at her, I can tell he expects she’ll go into it. But Aimee’s interested in another matter.
“And how was your night?” she inquires and flutters her lashes at Ivan as if I’m not even there. My ego remains unbruised.
He frowns and turns to me, his deceiving pianist hand finding its way to the nape of my neck. His gaze wanders down to my lips and I know instantly he’s going to kiss me.
I stiffen, but I don’t resist him. I’m grateful he covers for me and contribute to the appearances. His mouth closes on mine, wet and soft and trembling. He tries to part my lips, but I draw back against his hold and take my hand to my mouth. A lump forms in my throat.
“It was consummated,” Ivan says. His eyes, black as the night, are fixed on mine. He’s frustrated, I can see it.
“A surprising thing,” Aimee fakes innocence again, “that you should wait so long. I understand you’ve spent this whole year in each other’s company.”
Ivan makes no answer, still searching my face for emotions he’ll never find. I fight down the lump and take the situation in my hands.
“Mine wasn’t the only offer on the table. I had to come up with a unique selling proposition.”
Ivan can’t suppress a snort and Aimee’s eyes dart from one to the other. She seems offended I’d even dare intervene in her exchange with Ivan. In my sternum, I feel my Core open up like a lid draws from a lens, stretching its sensors to the hearts around me.
It’s Ivan’s emotions I sense strongest. He’s frustrated, boiling in his own juice. Aimee replays one of their nights together in her mind, when Ivan’s long fingers drew the moisture of lust from the soft flesh between her legs and his manhood slid between her buttocks.
I withdraw swiftly. Those feelings are not for me to sense. I find it a pain that God himself should have full access to my own wet dreams of Damian.
Ivan turns to Aimee, his gaze cold and steady.
“The Abbot says you require Aura’s services.”
“That’s right,” Aimee grins.
“Then I leave her to you. When you’re done, have the Guard return her to our chamber.”
My head snaps to him. I need freedom to move for the slightest chance of making it to Damian at noon. And of gauging time, for that matter.
“You don’t need to treat me like a prisoner, Ivan,” I say in a bell, sweet voice that I barely recognize myself. “I won’t run away, will I?”
He stares at me and I smile. He knows I have him cornered. The entire Order, Aimee included, thinks I was the one who moved heaven and earth for a union with him, so keeping me monitored makes little sense.
“It’s for your own safety,” he mutters.
“Come on, who’s fool enough to harm me? I’m here under the Regent’s protection, aren’t I?”
Ivan’s out of excuses to keep watchmen on my trail. He stares at me with a look of reproach on his face for moments, then turns on his heel and stomps away without another word. It’s not until the library doors echo shut far down the aisle that Aimee speaks again.
“Congratulations on your union, Queen of Hearts. I’m sure Ivan makes a great mate.”
I face her, chin up. I sensed Ivan certain she has information on Dolores. I give his crazy theory a go and try to get it out of her. For that, I need to break into her own, intimate secrets.
“You should know.”
Aimee arches an eyebrow and a smile draws her lips. She’s surprised, yet not offended.
“He told you?”
“I sensed it in his memories, when we came to your place, close to Ambert.”
Aimee turns to the shelves behind the desk, letting her fingers brush over a row of scrolls. The parchment looks lustrous and I can tell it’s blank, so the scrolls are new. A cart bursting of them still stands on rickety wheels by Aimee’s royal-looking chair. My skin crawls at the thought of Damian peeling demiangels’ skin to make those things. I bite hard into my lower lip, casting the image to the back of my mind and trying to keep focus on the situation at hand.
“He took you there?” Aimee inquires, picking a scroll. It’s marked with carved wooden cylinders at each end.
“Upon my insistences. I’ve been having visions about the cathedral in Puy-en-Velay and,” I pause here, searching for the right words. No, not yet, “some other things. I knew Ivan’s family had lived in France for a while and I had a feeling he could help me.”
I keep my eyes fixed on Aimee. If she’s the Keeper, as Ivan referred to her, then my words should ring a bell, if not trigger alarm in her. I can’t see her face, so I probe her feelings. She’s tense, very tense. I’m surprised, I wouldn’t have guessed by her attitude.
“You know, Aurelia,” she says, her voice calm, “I may call Aurelia, right?”
“It’s my name.”
“Yes, but it’s custom within the Order to address members by their Cores. By their true identity. Names we use among friends,” she grins here, looking me in the face again, “You and I will be spending some time together from now on, and being friends will make our job easier.”
I suppress a snort. Friends. As if she has the faintest idea what the word means.
Aimee unrolls the parchment and paces to the desk.
“Now that we’re more comfortable with each other, would you let me in on a little secret?”
I nod, but she doesn’t look up to see it. She sets down the parchment and taps it with her red fingernails. The gesture looks like a silent threat.
“How did Ivan end up in Nathaniel’s Nucleus and stayed with it for so long?”
My lie is automatic.
“Nathaniel captured him during the fight in Constanta.”
“Aham. And how come Nathaniel didn’t kill him?”
I gulp in air, using the moment to come up with something. I haven’t thought of that. It’s true, Nathaniel never takes hostages.
“I begged him not to,” I say.
“And, all this time, Nathaniel didn’t see your reasons?”
Aimee now leans on her palms against the desk and looks into my eyes. I dive into her emotions again.
She’s suspicious of how Ivan ended up in Nathaniel’s power, but not about his feelings about me, as I expected. She remembers how he wanted to marry me for strategic reasons at the Grabianko mansion. She was sure of his indifference to me as a woman back then, and she still is so now. She’s not jealous, she’s convinced I’m a poor lover, no match against her sensual skills. That’s all I need. I use her emotions to move away from her questions and towards my own goal.
“I tried everything with Ivan,” I lie, “But no matter what I did, he remained cold as ice toward me. He only showed some interest when these visions started. Visions of the Black Madonna, of the tomb and,” my gut spurs me to say the name, “Dolores.”
And indeed, there it is – the tremor of Aimee’s heart as she binds those two words together: tomb and Dolores. I gasp as the implication of this hits me. I lick my lips and decide on a full bluff.
“Dolores, lying in a tomb, hot wax dripping on her face. I was in her skin…”
I pause and look at Aimee. She fixes me for a moment and then bursts into laughter. She laughs at me.
“You, in her skin?” She laughs harder, “That’s not an option dear.”
“Well, let me see. Probably because Dolores died fifteen years ago. You were already in this world, probably already married to the Blacksmith. So if it’s reincarnation you’re implying, drop the theory. It’s downright silly.”
My lips suck lemon at Aimee’s loud, mocking tone. I feel stupid, but I know I still hold advantage. I bluff on.
“I know you’re the guardian of Dolores’ tomb, the very same one I saw in my visions.”
“I, yes …” Aimee stammers among giggles, “I used to guard her. Guard the womb.”
The lines on the sole of that statuette, the one I saw in Aimee’s room, run before my eyes. I shall return to claim my blood, once upon a nameless tomb, and pierce the devil’s steel heart, with the vengeance in my womb.
I stand before Aimee, feeling awkward as if naked, and struggle to gather my thoughts and link things together. I realize there might be something to Ivan’s theory after all. If Dolores does lie in that tomb at the cathedral, then I truly am related to her. I sensed her as if I inhabited her body. Why, I cannot say. She can’t be my ancestor, since she never had children during her long centuries, yet Aimee refers to her as ‘the womb’. And the grave parallel to hers? I voice the question too directly, without forethought. Aimee holds her palm up.
“Now, now, Aurelia, that’s enough. Dolores, her life and her history are not the reason you’re here.”
She motions me to join her by the desk. She sits in her chair and splays her long-nailed fingers on its arms.
“Do you know what this is?” she asks, looking at the open scroll she’s pinned to the desk with an ink cartridge on one end and a heavy pen on the other.
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