Enjoy the second episode of The Queen of Hearts, sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood, my previous practice drafts.
In The Queen of Hearts, Aurelia and Damian are drawn deeper into the mysteries of their past. They discover that breaking the chains of mortality was just the first of a long line of secrets to the world of man and the love they share.
I hesitate, though I know what she expects of me. It’s a sensation in my bones, a memory in my muscles. Slowly, I stretch my hand and let a finger glide down the blank parchment like I’d check for dust. I feel countless tiny, fine ridges, like the ones on my fingertips, and see them carved in the pearlescent texture. The material is beige and rosy, with patches of bronze.
Images light up in my head one after the other, images of flesh and bleeding meat cut open on a stone board. I pull my hand back and clutch it in the other. I’m sure I trigger these images myself as I think of how the parchment’s made and of what.
Aimee stands and looks me in the eyes. Her dark gaze is direct and determined and I need no words to understand she wants me to go on. I know what she feels – a fit of oversensitive whining from my part is all she needs. She’d use such as an excuse and have me dragged to the Regent. She’d plead for my uselessness and that of Sidonia, Salma and Jarred, and she’d recommend our elimination. I don’t need further incentive.
I touch the scroll again, this time with my whole palm. My entire body feels somehow eager – it’s not desire but compulsion. I need to feel the skin through my own, I need its essence to permeate through mine. My lids fall heavy, as if a sudden sleep – sleep like I knew it as a base human – courses through me from the parchment like snakes under my skin and seeps into my head from around my eyeballs.
Sight is blurred and my body goes limp. My heart slows down until I can’t feel the faintest pound against my chest. The chest itself fades like a dissipating dune of sand, and so do my arms, my hands and my legs. I’m only something, awake and tranquil. As thousands images flash around, I don’t stir. Everything matters nothing and nothing matters all.
I sense a knife slicing the skin off a man’s bicep. His fingers twitch, sweat beads mingle with trails of blood on the freckled back of his hand. The blood solidifies inch for inch like thin, gnarled tree branches growing longer every second. And they grow and grow further into colourful dots like an endless, spiralling ladder into me.
I’m the spiral, something older than I can grasp and something deeper than the space beneath the Earth. I’m not alone and I’m not one. I’m many. I’m a crusader, driving his sword through his opponent’s mail, into his body. The tip emerges through his back. I’m a man dying in a trench, blood gurgling in my mouth, choking me. The sky is lead. I’m a boy with red hair, running bare-foot and wide-grinned through a dusty village. I meet a Gypsy boy with russet eyes. Those eyes grow larger until they swallow me, their pupil a black hole. I face a man, dark-skinned and muscular like a barge. His hair is spiked and his eyes thundering grey. I face Nathaniel. For a second. Then his face multiplies and changes shapes like a racing footage. Images, too many for me to control, circle me like a tornado. They spit me out onto the dark stone floor of the library.
Aimee sits at the mahogany desk, only her braided chignon visible above the back of her massive chair. She writes on the scroll.
I scramble to my feet and walk to her, drawn to whatever the content of her work. I’m still dizzy and drained, my body feels as soft as it used to when I was yet a Rooty. But as the reality of the tower-high library and blood flowing through my veins catch full shape again, I realize what’s just happened – I sensed what was left of the essence of the red-haired man I’ve seen on a stone board in the Blacksmith’s forge, the history in his DNA. And Hector. I sensed Hector. I freeze in place, eyes wide, not blinking.
“He’s dead,” I whisper.
Aimee throws me a cold glance. She frowns and ponders. Something’s not right.
I crane my head over her shoulder and intrude on her scribbling. She hasn’t written many lines, but they’re neat around the blank shape of my hand. The ink is dark red, almost black. I know without words that it, too, is fabricated of fluids from demiangels’ bodies. The lump climbs into my throat again, but I get a grip on it.
My eyes follow the alligned symbols. They’re letters, what I identify as old French but I’m not sure. Yet I know the last three lines are Spanish. I walk backwards, stunned. I betrayed them with my own mouth. I drop to my knees by the shelves, wretched.
Time passes, but I don’t know how long. I can’t measure it, as if the sight of Aimee at the desk is an endless present that pulses. Even as she stands and moves toward me it doesn’t feel like seconds lapsing. It’s only when she grabs my arms and pulls me up that that I step into time again. It starts to flow.
“Go on,” she says and points with her chin at the scroll. Now it’s all unrolled and written on, it spills over both desk edges.
Aimee drags me to it.
“Here,” she presses, her voice tense and high-pitched, her eyes red and bulging with tension, “this patch, touch this patch!”
She presses my fingers to one of the brownish spots. I lose myself again at the sensation the parchment sends up through my fingertips. I come back to my senses as my back slaps against the shelves. Scrolls fall at my feet. My eyes snap open. I see Aimee pacing around the massive desk, agitated.
“He mixes them, why the fuckin’ hell would he mix them?” she grunts to herself, stripping off her lady polish.
I glance at the scroll again, the French and Spanish words now linked with arrows and drawings to chunks of small written text, as if Aimee wanted to use every inch of parchment. Words I must’ve spoken out. My blood begins to boil and reality is sharp again. I stalk to Aimee and grab her shoulders. I shake her.
“How much did I tell? How much of him is in there?” I cry.
Aimee blinks, as if she doesn’t know what hit her. My going aggressive is the last thing she expected. She yet picks herself up fast.
“I know where Nathaniel’s Nucleus is based now, if that’s what’s you’re asking,” she says with a satisfied grin.
“Did I tell you?”
“No, you gave me broken bits ’cause the parchment isn’t homogenous. Apparently the Blacksmith now mixes skins, this scroll is made of two people – a Frenchman and the Gypsy Spaniard, Hector. That made my job more difficult than usual, but not impossible.”
I don’t need more to realize Damian killed them both and sent their skin down the parchment production chain. Anger and pain choke me.
“He’s yet a monster!” I grunt, my lips twitching. He broke his promise, he crossed me.
“He always was, Aurelia,” Aimee points out. She pushes my now limp hands down and leans over the parchment again, “What you knew of the Blacksmith when he was yet a base human, when he was yet Damian Novac, was only a veil over his demidemon Core.”
“I know him!” I cry, though I can’t believe myself for still protecting the image I have of him. But arguments bolt to the front of my mind as if triggered by some mechanism I can’t control. “He worked hard, he built things, he fixed them.” He mended Hector’s wounds with expert hands right before my eyes, I want to scream, but my lips seal in time.
“That’s right – things,” Aimee counters, “But what he was really trying to do was fix the demon inside. You have no idea how many nights he spent fantasising about slitting a client’s throat or punching the flesh off a man’s face with a spiked strip over his knuckles. You were in deep sleep and oblivious to his compulsions. It never crossed your mind that he was a cold-blooded killer, tormented by his needs.”
“Did he tell you all this?” I breathe, stricken.
Aimee laughs, throwing her head back.
“Tell … No, the Blacksmith doesn’t tell.”
“Then how do you know?” I ask. Hope sparks in my chest, hope that she’s wrong.
“I’m old, Queen of Hearts, and I’m a Thesauria Core – a keeper of knowledge. The Blacksmith might be the strongest of the Cleric, maybe the strongest of all demidemons, but he’s still too much of a freshman to fool me. I mean, how old is he, thirty-seven?”
“Thirty-nine,” I correct.
“Yes, right. Well, he’s the perfect version of himself now, his youthful looks make it hard to tell,” she giggles, as if she might even be interested in him, “You’re a lucky girl to have had him between your legs when he was still your husband. As a demidemon he’s pretty hard to get, you know, Loredana’s been trying for some time now. I wouldn’t have shied away myself, if I weren’t given to Rasko – you know a union’s a serious thing.”
She walks to me, eyes hooded and greedy. I realize she’s been fantasising about Damian. I want to choke her for it so bad that my cheeks burn.
As if she finds my face amusing, Aimee continues, “As I said, I’m old and hard to trick. I think he still has feelings for you. I think he either hates you or loves you.”
My heart jumps and my ears begin to buzz.
“I’d bet on the hatred, though,” she goes on, “since he’s so disappointed in you.”
“Di … disappointed?” I babble.
Aimee nods. “Damian Novac has loathed himself forever. As a man, he felt dirty and not worth a spit for his murderous compulsions that he fought so hard against. They’re not that demonic if you ask me, though. His wrath is directed only toward those he considers unworthy, towards the privileged. Towards drug lords and pimps who abuse the weaker. Toward those who grow rich on the backs of sick, skinny people they exploit for five dollars a day.
“And you … You were everything Damian was not and that pulled him to you. You weren’t a dashing beauty who could lure into obsession – like Damian himself was irresistible, even as a base human, as a Rooty. That made beauty and attractiveness something he hated.
“You didn’t seek priviledge or power, all you wanted was a tranquil life by your husband’s side. When the two of you met, everything in your attitude told him you wanted to start by being friends, not lovers. It made him feel that you connected on a special level – you were both flawed creatures, and he thought you saw and liked that. But when Ivan came into your life, Damian realized what you are – a sucker for handsome predators. Damian was growing old and tired, so you sought a new thrill …”
“It wasn’t like that!” I burst.
“Would you deny it?”
“You know nothing about us!”
“I know a lot, Aurelia, trust me. I was the one assigned with observing Damian Novac’s evolution and researching his life when Boris discovered he was Darach’s descendant. I’d been watching both of you for years before the time was right and I informed Boris he could bring the entire Grabianko Nucleus and settle in Constanta.”
She’s so close to me now that we stand just a few inches apart. She looks down on me with those dark, almond eyes full of contempt. Her succulent lips curl.
My head spins as I process Aimee’s words. I don’t want to imagine her discovering the secret Damian and I share since last night. I think of him waiting for me at noon and my heart leaps into my mouth. The hour might be long past.
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