PRACTICE DRAFTS. The Queen of Hearts – THE HERO AND THE VILLAIN

FREE READS for pre-Christmas time. Enjoy a break with a new episode from The Queen of Hearts.

Sequel to The Blacksmith and Cries of the Blood, The Queen of Hearts takes Aurelia deep into the mysteries of her bloodline and compelling attraction to Damian – her former husband and now the deadliest member of the demidemon Order.

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***

I struggle to keep calm as Aimee returns to her work. She doesn’t speak to me again for what I fear might be yet more hours.

“Will you be needing my further assistance today?” I ask in an even tone.

She shakes her head and waves a hand.

“Just be here tomorrow morning.”

I walk slowly along the aisle toward the library doors. When I’m finally out into the swarming Vault I increase my pace and bump against the scientist demis in gray suits. I try not to look at those crawling along the walls and ceiling, but my skin creases as I sense them.

I run down the corridor leading to the small wooden door where Damian and I separated yesterday. He’s not behind it. The narrow, rocky stairwell is empty in the weak light of a fading torch that barely keeps away spiders and other small beasts.

My nostrils flare as something in my sinuses seems to open up like dilating channels that reach into my brain, their walls growing sensitive.

I sniff at the air instinctively, like a rabbit. The scents I catch sting through my nose into my forehead – the heavy oil from the torch, rock and the scent of wood and musk. Damian’s been here. Logic processes the data and sends gut feeling to tell me that he must’ve been waiting for at least an hour.

I turn to the corridor again and let his scent lead me to my own chamber. I’m anxious that he should dare look for me there. But now I notice there are no Guards at the door. So Ivan must’ve taken them off the task. I’m free to move around now.

There’s no trace of Damian inside the room except for his scent. The curtains are open, showing to a bloody sunset crowning the wild foreheads of distant mountains. I’ve been with Aimee the whole day! I realize in shock. I don’t pause to take in the view, but follow my quickening heartbeat out and down the grand stairs to the palatial ground floor. That’s where I catch his scent again.

I trail it among loose clutches of people across a rectangular hall with gilded ceiling and mirrors. They’re so bright that they cast beams of light all over the hall – pure gold, tons of it. My stomach turns at the opulence, as if I’ve just gulped down a gallon of sugar. Seing the doors at the far end guarded by Lucas Mortimer and Decebal Cazan adds to the nausea.

Mortimer fixes me with those wicked green eyes of his as I approach. When I’m just a step away from the doors he stops me and glares as if he can’t believe my guts.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he grunts.

“I’m searching for my, er, for my man. Ivan. I mean, the Executioner,” I babble the first excuse that comes to mind.

A sharp grin stretches on Mortimer’s square, white face.

“Keep it to the bedroom, Queen of Hearts, or whatever other place. The room behind these doors is off limits for you, even if Ivan were in there.”

My temper flares as I sense Mortimer’s feelings. He despises me so much that he’d do me and cut me at the same time. He imagines himself pulling my hair and sliding a knife around my breasts while my legs are twisted upward and he bangs into me, causing pain that makes me scream. That’s the only thing he sees me good for – being used like a hunk of warm, bloody meat to release the sick libido of men like him and being passed around until there’s nothing left of me but rags. Then the last monster to do me would throw me in a ditch – the fate of all Rooty women who come into these devils’ claws. Except, I’m no longer a Rooty.

I stiffen up and drill my fingers into his chest. It’s hard like iron and my hand hurts, but I won’t drop away. My chin trembles with indignation. I yet keep my tone low.

“Your feelings awake memories in me, Seraph. Memories of how a dear friend of mine died, at the hands of a killer like you. I’ve sworn to myself that every such killer I meet will pay with his heart.”

Mortimer lets out a low laugh and slaps my hand from his chest.

“I don’t kill my women, Queen of Hearts,” he says and bends to me as if snapping from a sling. His eyes look greedily into mine in search of shock and pain as he speaks, “I grant them long lives so I can bang all the shit out of them.”

“You torture them,” I spit.

He shrugs, full of himself.

“That’s how I like to fuck, but I don’t force anybody. It’s them who come to me,” he concludes, arms apart as if he just gives the world what it wants from him.

“You think yourself a stud, don’t you? If women knew what you truly are, you’d spend eternity jerking off.”

Mortimer bursts into laughter, much like Aimee did before him. For a moment there I think I got crap on my face or something.

“Oh, Queen of Hearts, you’re a female and yet know as good as nothing of the female heart. No, you see, you’re wrong. If they knew what I am, they’d first try to save me with their overdone care and patience,” he raises his eyebrows, purses his lips like an impressionable boy and looks at Cazan, who grins back at Mortimer with an expression of approval on his face. Mortimer continues.

“Girls, they put up with so much shit, you can’t imagine. And you know why? Because they love this body so much that they don’t care who I am on the inside. You surely know their usual excuses, you must’ve heard them from some of your friends too: ‘He’s suffering and that’s why he’s such a jackass. But deep down he’s a good guy, I know’. And until the jackass doesn’t hurt them dry of tears they don’t think of walking out.”

“I see. Some call that resilience. I call it love,” I counter.

“I would as well, really, if I’d seen at least one woman taking shit to save the monstrous soul of a buckled, penniless old man. ”

“You can only come up with a solid theory on that one if you study every single couple in the world, Seraph. Samples won’t do in matters of the heart.”

The expression on Mortimer’s face is still amused.

“You’re a special one indeed, Queen of Hearts. You entertain me with your unique kind of stupidity, I’ll give you that. It was nice talking to you, but you’ll have to go now. The Executioner’s not behind these doors.”

The discussion’s tired me but I don’t want to leave. I’m here for Damian and not Ivan. I used Ivan’s name only as an excuse to peek inside and see if my actual interest is in there, where his scent leads me. After I take a few slow steps away from him, thinking of ways to stick around, Mortimer’s voice stops me.

“Oh, and, Queen of Hearts.”

I turn wearily.

“I must apologize for my feelings a few moments ago. I promise I’ll tame my fantasies of you from now on.”

A curse itches the tip of my tongue but I swallow it down and draw behind a cluster of six demis across the hall. I can see the closed doors if I crane to the side from time to time. But I’m no master at finding my way in a group, and soon the six people stop speaking among each other and stare at me icy-eyed. They hold papers and ‘colored cocktails’ – as I call them – but this time the liquid is in porcelain tea cups.

They measure me from head to toe, making me sharply aware that I’m out of place and underdressed with my linen shirt, jeans and flats. Not to mention that my size must make me look like a child no older than fourteen. I sense two of them – a man and a woman who look like a couple – recognize me from the ball yesterday. The expressions on their faces twist from arrogant to disgusted.

“Have you been waiting long?” A familiar female voice reaches my ears.

I turn to see the proud silhouette of Valentina Grabianko approaching from the entrance like a floating fairy. I can’t believe the feeling of relief I get as those intelligent black eyes glow at me from her bony face. Her hair is pulled back in a chignon, her high brow and witch nose exuding even more elegance than the long, classy dress she wears.

With every step she takes closer to us the group takes one back. I sense their level of respect rise, though they know Val holds no power within the Order.

“Val!” I hurry to put my arms around her. She makes a fine stopping gesture by holding her palms up, but she smiles.

“Smart that we agreed to meet in the evening. During the day this place is as full as Westminster Hall, with too many people crowding before the great doors. We wouldn’t have found each other had the sun been any higher in the sky,” she says, motioning with her long, ivory arm to an arched window.

I understand instantly she wants to justify my hanging around to the six demis. They don’t dare utter one word, but keep their puzzled gazes on us – puzzled that Val should give me any attention. I sense in their memories that Val’s always been a sort of enigma for them – she rarely speaks and when she does, it’s only to address one of her own Nucleus. There’s something distant about her that makes others wary of approaching her.

“Let us take this to a more comfortable environment,” she says and leads me away from the group and towards the exit. I look back, worried that from wherever she’s taking me I won’t be able to see who goes in or out the golden doors. To my relief, just right from the hall there’s a large chamber bathed in a cozy atmosphere and that’s where Val ushers me in.

The same minstrels I heard the night before play quiet, relaxing Jazz on antique instruments in a corner, entertaining groups of three and four people lounging around. By the players’ faces they’re fascinated by the beauty each demi brings as they walk in, and their music takes up a different nuance in honor of each face.

The ceiling is high and the walls splashed with mural paintings, making the place look both old and elegant. Sophisticated candelabrums give off scents so flowery and so pleasant that I realize in a flash they, too, are made of fluids from demis’ bodies.

I  sniff as my olfactory fibers readjust. I feel them stretch, dilate and constrict again, resetting to keep focused on the trail of Damian’s scent so I can follow it when the time comes. I hurry to take a seat on one of the silky lounge sofas that face the entrance – this way I’ll see every person who comes out of the rectangular hall.

The armchair next to me squeaks a little as Val takes her seat. A Rooty girl wearing black and white service clothes appears with a tray and bows to offer porcelain cups like I’ve seen before. They too contain liquid made of my kind’s bodies. I shudder and pass. After Val takes one I wave the girl away in such a manner that she understands I don’t want to see her again. A Rooty looking as healthy and amiable as she does can’t be one of the demidemons’ slaves, so she must be here because she admires them. Or the big bucks they must be paying.

Val sips from her cup looking away, toward the musicians. She seems as distant to me as she did to the six demis in the hall and I’m taken aback by it. In the end, she’s the one who saved my life in the Identifier’s lair when Damian, then still my husband, wanted to pierce me with his blade. She’s the one who helped me understand my Core. And I’m the one person in the world who knows her deepest secret. Her sin. We spent little time together but she’s dear to me in a special way.

“Thanks for helping me out with those people,” I attempt a break at the ice.

Val shifts in her armchair, holding the cup in one hand and the saucer in the other. She crosses her ankles and leans her slender knees to one side like a veritable princess. The gesture looks natural but she seems to be feeling awkward.

“You’re welcome.”

“I saw you in the Regent’s loge the other night, with your father,” I try again.

“That loge is pretty much everything I get to share with my family since we came to France.”

“Aren’t you all staying here, at the Chateau?”

“No. Only members of the Order get to stay under the Regent’s roof. A great honor,” she says and takes a sip, looking at me from over the cup’s lip. Her eyes demand an explanation. I’m forced to give her a lie.

“Val, we … Nathaniel didn’t approve of us. Of Ivan and me. I had to find a way out.”

“So you betrayed your Nucleus.”

No!

“Yes.” I blink rapidly.

She nods and, as my eyes settle on hers, I see she believes me. There’s a warm, sad smile on her face and her gaze is soft. Her voice comes out small and too sweet to fit her class.

“Don’t beat yourself up for it, Aura. As a demi you experience the deepest and most consuming levels of love that will either make you a hero or a villain. Whichever you may be, I’m glad Ivan found his way into your heart and I …”

She pauses and looks at her cup, as if she’s embarrassed. “I never got to thank you, Aura. Feeling love is a blessing. My brother now gets a taste of Heaven because of you, even though his feelings didn’t come … naturally.”

Her trust and genuine gratitude makes a lump form in my throat again. I’m sick with myself. Val is one of the few people who know of Ivan’s true affection for me and this affection gives her joy. As does the fact that I allegedly feel the same about him. I’d change the subject but there’s too much I need to know.

“I’m waiting for him right now,” I say. Guilt builds up in my chest for trying to manipulate information out of her opening heart.

“He’s not in the Hall of Thrones, if that’s where you expected to find him.”

I open my eyes wide, trying to fake surprise. I don’t know what the Hall of Thrones is, but Damian’s in there, behind the golden doors, so I need to find out.

“Why would Ivan be excluded?” I ask. A question allowing for various answers.

“Why would he be included? He told you to find him there?”

“No, but … I gather he’s wherever the Blacksmith is.”

Val’s smile vanishes, sadness clouds her gaze.

“Ivan and Damian. The Executioner and the Blacksmith. Yes, they should share privilege and that in my father’s Nucleus. But Ivan left us to be with you and, sadly, we’ve lost Damian to the Order without a hope of ever bringing him back.”

“How come lost?”

“The Regent offered Damian power, Aura, so much of it that our Nucleus couldn’t compete. The Order is above all demidemon Nucleuses and the Regent the most influential man in the world. He can build space shuttles in a month and cleanse the world of cancer in a day if he chooses to – that’s to give you an idea of what we’re talking about. No one can reach any higher than that.”

“And Damian is in the Hall of Thrones now?” I ask, hoping my hunger for confirmation doesn’t show.

Val nods.

“And wha … what is he doing in there?”

“You don’t know what the Hall of Thrones is, do you?”

I look long at her. She leans in and offers a quiet explanation.

“It’s where the Regent convenes with Nucleus leaders such as my father during the day, discussing the regional affairs each Nucleus administers. But the evenings are reserved for the Regent’s innermost circle – demidemons who have control on a global scale and who answer to no one in the world except the Regent. Damian is one of them. He runs the warfare operations against the Order’s only enemy that could prove dangerous – demiangels. He’s become the Order’s High Seraph, head of the Cleric and Guard, and that in less than a month. Ivan is only one of Damian’s many subordinated pawns. That’s why he’s wherever the Blacksmith is, as you put it, or where the Blacksmith sends him, but he never follows in Hall of Thrones.”

My palms are wet. I refuse to believe what I hear.

“No, it can’t be…” I say, shaking my head. I feel like laughing, though I’m far from amused.

Val misinterprets me, but to my best interest, as it turns out.

“I know you had other hopes for Ivan. But the Order of the Snake is too big of a hydra for him to find a suitable place in it.”

I couldn’t care less about Ivan. I look away, afraid Val might read it in my eyes.

“But Damian’s just a Blacksmith Core, how can he run warfare operations? Wouldn’t the position be better suited for a Mars Core, for someone like … Lucas Mortimer?” I say his name in a low tone. I don’t want to cause Val any pain. But it’s not his name that she reacts to now.

Just a Blacksmith Core? Damian is the strongest demidemon since Darach Grabianko, my brother. He’s a Blacksmith Core with Samael and Hades Shades. That makes him the Regent’s biggest gun, Aura.”

I stiffen as a disturbing thought crosses my mind.

“Is that admiration I hear in your voice?”

Val touches my hand and smiles like a trusted friend who sees the reasons behind my words. Luckily for me, she gets a distorted image of them.

“He won’t take your beloved Ivan’s place in my heart, so don’t worry. Ivan is my brother, but Damian’s like a son to me.”

I arch an eyebrow at her, thinking of how I myself once mistook sexual pull towards a younger man with protective affection.

“You’ve grown so close?”

“We didn’t have to,” Val replies and sips from her cup.

I feel like knocking it from her hand. I refrain from physical action but spread the receptive rays from my chest to probe her feelings for Damian. I’m eager and shaking until I reach into her heart.

To my bones, I sink in a puddle of fluffy feeling. An emotion like cradling a baby. A baby that is not Val’s own, and yet a piece of her soul. I dive deeper, into her inflated chest when she looked up into Damian’s face one night in the full Council room. His steel eyes glared cold as ice into hers. Val smiled, proud of his strength and unbreakable will. Like a mother indeed, though she didn’t give birth to him. I whirl out of her feelings, relieved. My body relaxes. Whatever her reasons to care about my Damian like that, her feelings are not of an intimate nature, so I won’t intrude any further on her privacy. All of a sudden, she’s dear to me again.

***

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