We make it to the study, the Marquis leaning on the pillar by the entrance as I push the doors shut. I help him to the couch, and hurry to the outline of the fireplace.
“Where’s the firewood?” I spin in place, the semi-obscurity making it hard on my eyes.
“No wood. A lever in the centre of the mantelpiece, it looks like a candle. Feels like one too if you can’t see well.”
I grope, find it and pull. What must be wood logs rolls into the fireplace from somewhere inside it, the sound followed by a splash and a sizzle. Fire bounces to life, making me take a few steps back. I’m amazed the Marquis should use technology in so vintage a place as this study. The warmth hits my numb cheeks, making blood prickle through them again.
I turn to look at the Marquis’ naked figure, his arms spread on the rest of the leather couch, displaying the marble beauty of his body. He resembles a work of art in the firelight, marred by trails of blood that trickle from his shoulder down his chest and from his hip down his sculpted thigh.
I rip my eyes from him and scan the place for anything I can use for his wounds. I identify the corner liquor cabinet, grab the vodka and soak a starched white napkin with it. I hurry to the couch with the napkin in one hand and the bottle in the other, and curl one leg under me as I sit facing the Marquis and pressing the napkin on the wound on his shoulder. He winces and squeezes his eyelids.
My gaze glides over his profile. His eyes are hooded as he relaxes his head back on the rest of the couch, now that the sting of alcohol is more bearable.
“You saved me,” I whisper.
He squints at me, as if he only just remembered. “Why did you run, Saphira?”
My eyes wandering all over his face, I realize the pain he goes through in his transformation. A revelation hits me – The Marquis may be a monster, but Kieran Slate is a victim. Emotion swells in my chest as my gaze lingers on his white, bloodless lips, then on his tormented black eyes.
“You weren’t exactly nice to me,” I whisper.
He looks sad at me, maybe hurt. “But why try to elope with Inspector Boy?”
“I . . .”
I move the soaked napkin to the wound on his hip. He winces and hisses, the sinews in his body tightening.
“I wasn’t eloping with him. He offered an alternative. But I’d like you to leave him alone, please,” I dare.
“You still have feelings for him?” He grimaces again at the touch of more alcohol on his wound.
“No, not like that, not anymore. He and I go way back though, he’s . . . say a childhood friend to me.”
Uncomfortable silence settles between us. The fire rustle fills the room, but I’m not sure the burn in my cheeks is because of the heat or because of the awkwardness.
I walk to the corner liquor cabinet again and grab more starched napkins and a bottle of water. My ears perk up, scanning the silence for serpent slither outside. My skin crawls at the memory of it, sending a shudder all through me.
“Are you sure they can’t get in?” I inquire after I’ve returned by the Marquis. Despite his exhaustion, this spot right by his side feels safe.
“Positive. This room is as good as a vault. But returning to the subject of Jeremy Simmons. How come you trusted him, Saphira? He cheated on you in the past, and you’re not one to forgive easily, as far as I know.”
“Uhm, er –” I busy myself soaking another napkin – with water this time – as a pretext to keep my eyes down to what I’m doing and not look into the Marquis’ face. “My situation was desperate, and I’ve known Jeremy all my life. I needed someone, and he was the next best thing.”
“Next best thing to what? Or to whom?”
My heart clenches as I remember that my father, the man I should trust most, is a deranged killer, and my mother a poor soul who keeps her intuition numb with liquor and too many cigarettes.
I force my mind away from the subject and shrug. “Jeanie and Vivien, my best friends, I guess. But I didn’t want to drag them into this horror. Jeremy was already in it.”
“How about your mother? Why isn’t she the one who enjoys your trust most?” The Marquis asks softly. My eyes shoot up at his, and the truth stumbles out of my mouth.
“She’s distant. She always did what she thought was best for me, but somehow she was actually never . . . there.” I look down again to hide the tears that start to well in my eyes. “I now understand why. She always sensed something was mighty off with Dad, and it consumed her emotionally. It still does.”
This is hardly the time for confessions, and thoughts of the serpents remind me of that. I fire a glance to the door. “Are you sure they can’t come in here? It seems so still out there it gives me the creeps.”
“Relax, this room is completely safe. Besides, it’s past midnight. The effect of the moon on the inner serpent is lessening, we’re more controlled now.”
The kindness in his voice sends warmth through me, and I’m wondering if he’s using his powers on me again. If he is, he does it in a wholly different way than before. We search each other’s faces for moments until I kick the conversation back on track, starting to dab the blood off his chest.
“How come this place is crawling with serpent-men? I thought you were the only one.”
“They are my staff.”
My hand freezes mid-dab. “Say what?”
“When I decided to stop working as a hit man for my makers, many of my peers decided to follow,” he explains. “I couldn’t trust people who didn’t share my curse or my secret, I’m sure you understand. As for tonight, full moon lends unbound power to the serpent inside the man. It’s next to impossible to fight the inner monster under the shine of full moon, and we can’t resist transformation.”
Now I understand why Zed left the door to my tower chamber unlocked – the inner demon tormented him, and he needed to get out fast, which unbalanced his otherwise steely focus.
“But they are your men. How come they attacked you?”
“I protected what would’ve been their prey – you –, so I stood their enemy. Tonight they’re slaves to their instincts and don’t acknowledge any other master.”
He protected me. At the risk of his own life. Gratitude fills my heart.
“Thank you so much, Kieran. So much.” I squeeze his hand, searching his beautiful face and hoping to convey the feeling that overwhelms me. A tired smile draws the corner of his sweet mouth, his eyes closing as if to let him take in a pleasant sensation.
“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. I cherish it, you know? It’s my only bridge to the human I once was.”
“I cherish it too,” I whisper. “And I won’t use it without your permission.”
“Oh, you have all permission in the world. I like the way it sounds from your mouth.”
He sets his dark eyes on me, soft and kind and intimate. He was cold and even cruel to me before, but somehow I always sensed the good in him. The way he looks at me fills me with affection, and my heart beats in my throat.
Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).