The study is warm and cosy, the firelight casting a beautiful glow on Kieran’s face. We sit facing each other on the couch.
“But still, I wouldn’t thank me,” he says. “It’s my fault the serpent-men are here in the first place.”
I shake my head. “No, that’s not true. This place was a nest of vipers all along, with my father and his group having raped and killed Catherine. It’s their fault you are here.” I grab his hand with both of mine. “Kieran, this town was a place of morbid mystery until you came along and brought that crime to light. My mother and I, we always sensed something was wrong. To silence that nagging inner voice, she lost herself to liquor, and I – to avoid the same fate – turned to watercolours, oil and canvas. Through painting I searched for something I sensed but couldn’t identify no matter how hard I tried.”
“Is that what you did?” He probes softly.
I bite my lower lip, searching for an example that would best help him understand.
“Remember the painting of the Dark Castle? The one you walked straight to when you first entered my parents’ attic? You said it mirrored my soul. You were right. I’ve been digging in it, portraying it in detail hoping to find something that I now realize didn’t even lie within but without. I was trying to uncover what it was that I sensed.”
“You do have special insight into souls,” he says, his voice low and creamy. “That’s why I had the portrait you made of me brought here and locked in the tower. It made me feel bared.”
I search the depths of his eyes. “You said that portrait was a confession.”
“And that it was. A confession that there was a battered stable boy behind the powerful Marquis. That I wasn’t invincible.”
Scenes of him in his huge serpent form slashing and biting his attackers fill my mind’s eye.
“Not invincible, but incredibly strong. You fought all those creatures by yourself.”
He makes a bitter grimace. “The reason why my makers held me in special regard. And why the mighty Slayer avoids direct confrontation.”
“Speaking of the Slayer,” I latch on the topic, trying to mask the shudder that goes through me as I realize how powerful he actually is. “Ivan Basarab. My best bet is Ronald Lord Barkley, especially since he and Vivien used to meet around the asylum. Vivien’s mother knows for a fact who it is – she told me, but an explosion muffled the sound. All we have to do is ask her to get confirmation. I would’ve told you before, when you came to my room, but I was too scared.”
He smiles a gentle smile, putting his hand over mine. “You’re not scared anymore, I hope. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”
I smile back. My cheeks prickle with emotion, which I identify as infatuation and a trace of fear. “It’s getting better.”
“Good, because I want us to become real, Saphira. I want . . . I want a true relationship.”
I drop my gaze like a maiden from the past century, embarrassed by my blush. I fight the girlish stupidity with all I have. “You’ve hurt me, Kieran, badly. You used me in terrible ways.”
The couch dips as he changes position and bends to me. My heart races, and I watch my own chest rising and falling as I try to control my breathing. He touches my chin with a soft finger, lifting my gaze to meet his again.
“Is that a no?”
His face draws. Desolation falls over his features, giving me an impulse to allow hope.
“At least for now,” I add quickly. “I need time.”
“And will time help?” He slurs.
I desperately need to change the subject. I take to washing the blood off his muscular thigh, the rhythm of my heart alert. He’s completely naked right in front of me. “What do you think about Ronald Lord Barkley being the true Ivan Basarab? Ivan Basarab sounds East European to me, and I remember he used to help couples adopt children from that area, so this speaks in favour of this theory too.”
I look up at him. “You don’t think so?”
“If Vivien had anything going with Lord Barkley, she wouldn’t have needed to sneak at night into the lunatic asylum, would she? Basarab wanted access to the sewers so he could get to this manor underground. So it can’t be Barkley, he has access to the sewers anytime. But another person who’s manifested interest in the asylum and its sewers was your father, Gunnar Lothar, right after I bought the manor from him – he argued to Lord Barkley that the place needed expensive restorations anyway, and maybe it would be better to sell. He said that the old building had historical value, and the sewers could be turned into a tourist attraction. He wanted to explore the catacombs, allegedly to assess their potential, but Barkley hated the idea, and the relationship with Gunnar turned cold. So Basarab must’ve turned to threats to force Vivien Grant to help him, especially since she seemed to be on to him.”
I swallow hard. “You’re saying your suspect is my father?”
“He’s my best bet.”
I’m stunned, and I don’t even know what to feel. I look around, gathering my memories of my conversation with Mrs Grant. “Vivien’s mother said the mysterious man had everyone fooled except Vivien. That Vivien ‘discovered his true rot.’ These were her exact words. But my father, we know already how rotten he is.”
“I know, his so-called ‘friends’ know, and now you, but not the rest of Northville. To them, he’s the respectable family and business man.” He lies down on the couch with a grimace of pain, one leg curled in front of me, the other one on the floor.
I can’t help admiring the marble sinews of his naked body. His wounds are now disinfected and clean, but they still need tending to. The sight of them makes me cringe.
“Is there anywhere I can get bandages?” I ask.
“Not in this room, and you can’t go out. The serpents are calmer, but still. They’re wounded and furious.”
“Then we’ll have to improvise.”
I get up from the couch, walk to his desk and open drawers until one object builds team with my imagination – duct tape. I grab a few clean starched napkins from the liquor cabinet and go back to Kieran, who watches me with an amused expression.
“What’s so funny?” I inquire, drawing tape from the roll. It makes a pitchy sound that rips through the rustle of the fire.
“You’re inventive,” he says. “A life-saver in hardship.”
But the moment I bend to place a folded napkin on his shoulder wound, I notice it’s closing. Slowly like a snail, but visibly. I shriek and jump back. When I look into Kieran’s face, he’s smiling.
“There’s something about my kind of reptile,” he says. “Unless you cut off our head, we tend to regenerate.”
Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday 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).