At the Marquis’ ball Saphira has learned that, apart from being a murderer, the young man is slowly taking control over the entire region. Soon there will be no place for her to hide. She attempted to leave the ball when her way was blocked by one of her overly insisting admirers. Then something that happened behind the man drew her alarm, and now she finds herself in a very perilous situation.
The young Marquis walks close behind the piranha Vladimir Pukov and stops him with a hand on the piranha’s shoulder. Something flashes in his other hand –metal. I only see it for a second or two, but it’s enough to make things clear – he can kill the piranha in cold blood, same as he did the man at the Royale.
“I have to step in,” he says. “You’re heading too confidently towards my date.”
At that word both the piranha and I look puzzled from one to the other, then to the Marquis.
“My apologies,” the piranha says, his shoulders slumping, his baldhead glistening with sweat under the chandelier. He has no idea that he’s facing a murderer, but he’s intimidated nonetheless. It’s the first time I see the bastard humbled, and it feels good. “I didn’t realize you and Miss Lothar –”
“Apologies accepted,” the Marquis replies before the piranha finishes, then offers me his arm. I’m afraid of the consequences of a refusal to take it, so I do without a thought.
He sweeps me with elegance away from the staring piranha. Surprised faces and Venetian masks draw from our path as we glide among them, and I become ashamed of my appearance. Most women look glittery and flamboyant but decent, their dresses long, so I feel more like an escort than a lady in my short golden cocktail dress, my hair unrestrained down my back. It’s too much, maybe even ostentatious. Inside I’m shooting reproof at my mom, who I now notice on the side, a happy smile on her face. Dad must be ecstatic at the sight of the Marquis and me together too.
In order to sheathe our heading for the exit, the Marquis stops here and there and introduces me to people I know already. They’ve been spending their holidays in this town for years, but one fact is indeed new and shocking to them as it is to me – I’m the Marquis’ girlfriend. Some of them would’ve considered their own daughters, sisters or themselves a far better pick, especially since they’re leading rich sharks in London and Paris. They have some difficulty swallowing the info that a bankrupt artist from the province has won the freaking lottery with the Marquis’ interest.
I have even more difficulty. I stare up at the Marquis’ face as he speaks, and find myself compelled by those dark, murky eyes. The way his hair frames his head, rich and glossy, it enhances the youthfulness of his features and the menacing feel of his gaze. I’m all too aware that he was ready to kill a man just minutes before. The scene of him removing his gloves after taking that man’s life at the Royale comes back like a stinging warning, and fear makes my muscles clench.
It’s baffling how he manages to lead the way amidst the crowd and then out of the banquet hall without anybody noticing. A line of people who look like guests but must actually be the Marquis’ staff close behind us like a human wall as we leave through a narrow – and secret – exit. My heart pounds in my throat as he takes me up dark stairs to the tower, an architectural ghost.
“Why are we going there?” I manage, breathless with anxiety.
“Don’t be afraid,” his voice resounds close. It makes me feel drunk, and I know he’s got a grip on my senses again. The fear subsides, and my hand relaxes as he takes it in his. The touch of his skin electrifies me.
I’m little more than a zombie with a crush by the time we reach the room at the top, the door creaking open like an old cell grate. The place looks a dungeon, the walls black and foreboding. The Marquis leads me slowly to a niche to the side, lights a candle, and holds it up to illuminate what I expect to be a wall. But when the painting I made of him reveals itself in the candlelight my senses shudder out of the trance, and I reawaken to reality.
I’m standing in the manor’s oldest tower with a murderer, looking at my best-kept secret. The Marquis seems to read my mind.
“You took mine, I took yours.”
“How did you even know about it?” I whisper, trying to hide my fear. I’ve painted it in repeated fits of nightly obsessions after the day he visited at my parents’ house, he shouldn’t even know of its existence.
“Your father. I suppose he wanted to make it clear to me that the chances stood high for the two of us.”
I’m embarrassed and enraged. “He had no right.”
“He had a reason.”
“He just wants to see me married to someone wealthy,” I spit. “I understand you’re as filthy rich as they come, so he’s doing his best to bring us together. That’s as noble as his reasons get.”
I can feel the warmth of him close behind me, and my knees threaten to melt. I struggle to keep control. My jaw tightens as my thoughts run in errant circles. The Marquis bends his head so that his lips touch my ear, sending a thrill all through my skin.
“You think it’s a good idea to put your father in that light? I understand tonight you learned what I do with greedy bastards.”
My head snaps to the side, and I stare at him baffled. A smile draws his young lips, and I feel an urge to kiss him. I bite the inside of my cheek until I taste blood.
“Yes,” he says, “I know what was discussed at your table.”
“In my business I have to keep spies everywhere.”
“You mentioned your business before. What is it exactly?”
“Direct again.” He looks up at the painting and raises the candle. “Let’s talk some art first.”
I decide on direct once more. “You want to know why I painted you?”
“Oh, I know why you painted me. It’s how you did that I find intriguing.”
I look up at the portrait too. It shows him in his full beauty. I’ve been waking up at night with the urge of plunging into the oily colors, forgetting the brush and working on it with my fingers, wishing to feel him, to become one with him so I can understand him. I felt possessed, pushed into it by some evil force, moving like a nut case until I fell exhausted and smeared with pasty color all over, my eyes puffy and heavy.
“How did it get here?” I whisper.
“Your father helped. After you left for the banquet tonight, your maid opened the door to my people, who packed it and brought it here.”
“They were fast.”
“They always are.”
“What’s your name, Marquis?”
That smile again. “I can’t tell you that.”
He looks me in the face, and I’m lost in the depths of his eyes, glittering dangerous in the candlelight. “Because it would give you power over me.”
“Are you a demon, then?”
I haven’t realized that he walked to me while I retreated, and now I bump into the wall opposite from his portrait. I’m hot and start sweating, yet I can’t control my shivering.
“Why do you do this?” I whisper. “Why do you tell people I’m your girlfriend?”
“I’m making this serious. Otherwise you’d think I’m playing with you.”
“I don’t want us to be serious.” The words hurt as they leave my mouth, because in truth I desperately want him to kiss me.
“What do you want?”
“I want you to leave here and never come back,” I lie blatantly.
“I can’t do that, Saphira. Not after everything you saw.”
“I saw the end of a murder, yes. But not exactly what happened. I’ll keep my mouth shut, I assure you.”
“It’s not only what you saw at the Royale.” He’s now too close, and I feel high again. “It’s what you see in me. What you put in that portrait. And what you might reveal in other works too.”
“That is the portrait of a young man, nothing more.”
“That portrait is a confession. You don’t realize this, but it talks too much. You won’t be able to hold back, you’ll reveal more in time.”
I want to keep the line of replies open, but the Marquis’ next move stuns me. His arm winds around me and presses me to him, his other hand stroking its way up the halter under my dress. My heart jumps and my breath catches as his lips, warm and soft, take over mine. My head spins, and I can’t help touching him, letting my hands knot in his hair. He retreats before my passion breaks out of control, a satisfied smile on his face. I know immediately that he’s aware of his power over me, that he’s aware I’d go all the way.
“Not yet, Saphira. Not yet.”
He withdraws in the dark, leaving me shaking with desire. I’m under his spell, and I barely realize where I am until the door creaks sharply, bursting open. My head turns in its direction, and I see the last person I expect to see.
To be continued.
Liked this? Please share your thoughts and feelings in a comment. Saphira’s whole story will be published in a Christmas Story Book for Adults between the 15th and 18th of December. The book might just make the best present idea for some of your friends. Know someone who loves fairy-tales even in ripe years? Then take advantage of this opportunity, and stay tuned for Gift Promotions and other goodies.
UPDATE: Saphira’s whole story has been released in the Christmas Story Book for Adults.
Stay tuned for the Wednesday Quiz – One question. One choice. What does it say about you? tomorrow, and a new episode of the suspense story Hyperion on Friday. Enjoy!