Daylight makes it through my eyelids, stubborn and stingy. I shield my eyes and squint around to realize I’m tucked under the long coat, alone on the couch. I sit up with a jolt, and my eyes find the Marquis.
He’s sitting at his desk, wearing a dark suit that compliments his athletic shoulders and arms. He’s as cool and composed as ever, but the moment he looks from his papers to me his gaze changes from that of a cold prince to that of a man who knows, who understands and who cares – the gaze of Kieran Slate. He smiles and stands.
I watch as he approaches, the events from last night replaying in my head like a movie on fast-forward until he squats by the couch, taking my hand and kissing it.
“I would’ve brought you to a cosier room, but I thought you’d freak out if you woke in a place where you didn’t feel safe.”
“Last night I told you this study was the only place serpents couldn’t breach,” he reminds me.
“I had clothes and water brought here. I knew you’d be scared if you woke up alone, so I didn’t leave you for a second.”
Once again affection overwhelms me. “Your wounds?”
He unbuttons his jacket and his shirt, revealing his marble pectoral as the fabric falls off his shoulder. Only a thin scar even whiter than his skin reminds me of the gaping wound from last night. My eyes widen.
“I told you by morning I’d be as good as new.”
“What you did for me last night, Saphira,” Kieran says while his hand brushes through my hair as far as the tangles permit it, “it started mending other wounds too. Wounds that don’t show on my body.”
I search his beautiful face and I’d do it forever, but a knock on the door distracts both our attention. Kieran gives me another glance, assessing me up and down – probably to make sure I’m decent – before he permits the visitor to enter.
The double doors open to reveal the head of security Zed with his hands on the knobs. Our eyes meet. His features are as stony and controlled as ever, his ice-blue eyes as focused, but the scars on his face in the shape of scratches bring back a flash of memory – Kieran’s claws slashing the first attacker.
“It was you,” I whisper, remembering the way he writhed and hissed like a lunatic snake – which is exactly what he was, according to Kieran’s explanations. A pang of fear goes through me, but Kieran’s protective arm winding around my shoulder brings back a sense of safety.
“Zed only attacked you because of the moon’s influence, Saphira,” Kieran says. “His animal instincts controlled him, but not anymore.”
“You can rely on me to protect you as I did before, Milady,” Zed adds, bending his head, but his body keeps stiff and straight.
I look him up and down, fascinated by the difference between the animal and the man. “Milady” doesn’t go unnoticed either.
“Call me Saphira.”
“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding between you and Kieran,” I say. “It was all my fault.”
“No apologies needed. You wouldn’t apologize to a wolf for having provoked him with your presence in the woods either. Plus that we regenerate fast, no permanent harm was done.”
“What do you have?” Kieran cuts in.
“Vivien Grant,” Zed replies, raising his head and squaring his shoulders like a soldier at his superior’s command. “We trailed her. She sought haven with relatives in the southern forests.”
“Vivien lives?” I yelp and spring up to my feet.
“She does,” Zed says. “But she’s so traumatized she can’t speak.”
“What?” I start walking to Zed, as if that can make things clearer. The man doesn’t move an inch, keeping as stiff and cold as a robot. “What she went through left her with a trauma. She’s shaky and mute and seemingly not in her own body.”
“I have to see her. Right away.”
“That’s impossible. We let her stay with her relatives and left guards behind, since bringing her here would put her life in danger. Her presence would attract Basarab and help our cause indeed, but I doubt you want your friend used as bait.”
Kieran clasps my shoulders and turns me to face him.
“Listen, Saphira. The men made sure Vivien is safe, but for the moment this is all we can do for her.” He turns to Zed. “We’ll discuss the details later. Now escort Saphira to the chamber – my chamber. It’s more comfortable.” He addresses me again. “I’d accompany you myself, but I have to prepare the plan.”
“Plan?” I frown in confusion.
“Zed will explain.” Kieran squares his shoulders, his hands dropping off me.
The head of security steps aside and motions me to walk before him. “I’ll tell you all about it, Milady. Saphira.”
Kieran is already on his way back to his desk. I stand in place and watch him until he faces me again.
“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I whisper. Our eyes lock, and emotion flows between us. I want to run into his arms and kiss him, but I remember my dirty skin, my crazy hair and the stained ripped dress I’m wearing. And the plan. I turn and let Zed close the doors behind me.
Two other men wait outside the study and lead Zed and me up the grand stairs, past the huge pointed arch on the first landing to what turns out to be Kieran’s majestic bedroom on the first floor. A huge arched window reveals a view of the rocky fields where serpents crawled and squirmed last night in the terrible fight that I survived only thanks to Kieran. There’s a king size bed, a fireplace and all the decorum of a palace, but it barely looks inhabited.
“He’s rarely here,” Zed says, as if reading my mind. The door is still open behind him. He avoids being alone with me, and I can understand that. I can only hope he’ll talk freely nonetheless.
“He mostly spends his nights as a serpent. But things might change now, since you and him . . .” He clears his throat and changes the subject. “Please, get ready. You and Kieran are going to the lunatic asylum today to talk to your friend’s mother.”
I’m baffled. “Why the asylum?”
“That’s where Mrs Grant has been since the events with her daughter and the burning of her house.”
The news strikes me like a punch. “Excuse me?”
“She was hysterical, impossible to control, they said.”
“They, who’s they?”
“The police, led by your friend Jeremy Simmons. They had to restrain her and turn her in for special care at the asylum.”
A young butler brings in clothes. I take a bath and put on an elegant cream-colored two-piece suit and glossy high heels that he provides. My hair finds structure in a wound golden tail, but the make-up fails me. Last night took its toll, and no matter what I do, the eerie effect of the golden eyes reflecting in the mirror won’t lessen.
Zed and Joyous escort me to the curb, the latter holding the door as I get in the back of the car by Kieran’s side. He looks fresh in his suit, his marble face flawless and his smile dashing, his attitude very different from the man’s who used to drive icy fear into my bones with a mere glance. The knowledge that he still has that power, that he can hypnotize me into obedience or dread anytime, unsettles me.
“Is everything all right?” He takes my hand his. I look down at it, my heart beating in the rhythm of my crush.
“I’m still wary of you, Kieran.”
“Please, don’t. I’ll never hurt you again, I’ll die before I do.” He squeezes my hand, and I look up into his black eyes that show pain.
“Maybe you won’t hurt me by doing what you did before, but how can I be sure that you’ll never use your hypnotic powers on me again?”
“I promise that I’ll never influence you. Not anymore, not like that.”
I narrow my eyes. “What do you mean ‘not like that’?”
His gaze catches a shade of wisdom. I realize just how old he actually is. “I hope you’ll still allow me to try and convince you, just like any other person.”
“You’re not ‘Any Other Person.’ It’s unfair to demand Any Other Person’s privileges.”
“I’ve said it before, and I can’t resist saying it again – you’re a very special woman, Saphira.”
I’m not so sure, but I’m flattered nonetheless. I nestle at his chest, breathing in his bittersweet scent that stirs me in my crush. I try to get a grip on my feelings and keep a cool head.
“Kieran –” I lick my lips, searching for the right words to put this. “You say you’ll never hurt me again. But you came to Northville with the iron purpose of hurting my father. You planned an ‘epic revenge.’ Is that still your plan?”
Kieran holds my chin up and looks me in the face.
“Would you consider that I hurt you if I took revenge on your father? Even though I’d keep you very far from that revenge?”
I gulp down the knot in my throat. “I don’t know. How far can I be kept from it, considering that he’s my father.”
“He raped and killed women, Saphira. He tortured Catherine.”
My skin creases. “What do you intend to do with him?”
“First answer me this: Don’t you believe your father should pay for what he’s done?”
“I believe that’s better left in Providence’s hands. No evil deed has ever gone unpunished one or way or another.”
“Well, it’s been decades since Catherine, and your Providence hasn’t yet seen fit to punish your father.”
“No, not yet. But are you sure you want his blood on your hands? Blood is heavy, Kieran, no matter if it belongs to the just or the evil.”
He laughs a bad laugh, and it seems the dangerous Marquis is back. “Who are you telling about it? I have so much of that weight on my hands, Saphira, it should’ve pulled me to the core of the Earth until now. You know this.”
“I do. And it’s the very reason I’m worried and unsure. You and I, our connection . . . It’s happening fast, it’s relentless, and I want it badly, but I can’t live with the idea that you take lives.”
His gaze freezes on mine, and for a moment I fear this last point brought us to a dead end.
“You’re asking me to relinquish revenge on your father in exchange or for the sake of this closeness?”
“For the sake of it, of course. Listen, Kieran.” I squeeze his hand in both of mine and hold his gaze. “My father and his group committed terrible crimes, not only against Catherine for sure. We have the opportunity to unmask these monsters. You’re rich and powerful, I’m sure your means can beat theirs if they try to corrupt the press and the police. We can bring it all to light and nail them the right way.”
“Saphira, I survived being engineered into a monster and used as a killer only for the sake of this revenge. It’s what kept me going. You’re asking me to throw away my reason for breath.”
I caress his cheek. “I want to be your reason for breath. But I’m realistic, and I know such fantasies are childish. But I’m asking you to relinquish revenge is because I believe you and I can have a fresh start. The past is the past, but we cannot be together if the poison of vengeance seeps into our present, continuing to shed blood and tears. I want to live out my love for you freely, smoothly, without hacks and hatches. I want to lose my head for you, and feel good about it too.”
Kieran stares at me as if I’m turning into gold with every word. When he kisses me, he’s thirsty and deep and passionate. I’m dizzy when he breaks the kiss and joins his forehead to mine, both his hands on my face.
“For this favour, dear Saphira, I’ll not only consider dropping revenge, but I’ll turn that childish fantasy into reality. I’ll make you my reason for breath.”
My heart jumps, but I don’t want to be stupid. “I’m not asking –”
“No, you’re not,” he interrupts. “Because you’re wild and idealistic, but also mature and reasonable, and I love that about you. But fantasy, Saphira, is not only for children. Fantasy wouldn’t be imaginable if it weren’t possible.”
I smile and stroke the back of his hands. “And you’re the living proof.”
The two policemen lead us down a tiled corridor lined by security men to Ronald Lord Barkley’s office. By the moment the door opens to his secretary’s narrow antechamber I’ve got goose skin for all the bad reasons – the screams from the upper levels which probably come from people being subjected to electroshocks, the occasional door ajar allowing glimpses into greenish rooms with iron beds and chipped bathtubs. This is a place of shudder and gloom despite all the money that flows into it, and I can’t help increasing pace. I thank God with all I have that Kieran didn’t let me enter alone. His reliable presence and the warmth of his body help me act halfway decent, but when Lord Barkley’s full-moon-faced and red-lipped secretary opens the door to his office I’m about to lose composure.
The man sits at his desk, his livid cheeks slack and his mouth a hatched curve with the ends downward. He has drooping eyes and thinning hair, and his frame is long and skinny. He holds a cigarette between his knotty fingers that scream out his arthritis, and when the Marquis enters the room behind me, his face seems to draw even longer. But what strikes me most is something else.
Two people sit on either side of his desk. One of them – to his right – is my mother, also long and skinny, her face gaunt and haunted, her greying hair up in her usual bun. She too has a cigarette between her fingers, and tears well in her eyes as she sees me. She puts out the cigarette and stands up. My eyes fly to the other side of the desk.
Inspector Jeremy Simmons fixes me with his small dark eyes, but nothing in his expression betrays surprise. I realize immediately he’s here because he expected me. Or us. His bulky muscles fill the armchair he sits sprawled in, and his square jaw is covered by a three-day-beard that adds to his bad-boy demeanour. Tension is heavy in the room, the silence oppressive. Jeremy is the first to break it and speak.
“Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” he says, making himself even broader by putting a big hand on the desk and resting an ankle over his knee. “Miss Saphira Lothar and Monsieur le Marquis de Vandenesse.”
Jealousy lurks in his words. My eyes fly from one person to the other. The Marquis is close behind me, but I can’t bring myself to look at him, as if taking my eyes off the three characters before me would somehow trigger their doing something terrible to us.
“This is exactly why I didn’t want to leave you alone,” the Marquis tells me loud enough for everybody else to hear it.
Jeremy stands up as if electroshocked himself and stomps to us. “Take your hands off her, you bastard!”
“Back off.” Kieran grows menacing, and I can’t help turning to look into his face. He resembles a marble statue, but the life in his black eyes is searing. I place a hand on his arm.
“Kieran, we’re here for approval to see Mrs Grant, that’s the only reason for our visit.” I bend to the side to look at Lord Barkley past Jeremy. “Lord Barkley, please. Allow us just a few minutes with Mrs Grant, it’s urgent.”
“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Saphira,” the man croaks.
“But, Lord Barkley –”
“Save it, Saphira,” the Marquis stops me. My head snaps to him, and I find his eyes still fixed on Jeremy. They watch each other like hawks. “Any information Mrs Grant had to give, these three people here already have it. And they surely don’t want us to know it too, otherwise they wouldn’t take all this trouble to block access to her.”
Mum steps forward, crying. “That’s not true! Lynn Grant refused to talk to anybody, even the police. We’re here because we expected Saphira would want to see Lynn, and you wouldn’t by any means let her come alone. You’ve been keeping Saphira locked in for weeks, and you didn’t allow her to see even us, her family. You sequestrated her, you’re sick!”
“That’s not the reason I didn’t come to see you,” I step in. “I didn’t return home because I don’t want to have anything to do with that monster you call my father anymore.”
Mum blinks as if slapped. She babbles until she finds back to herself and her words. “Where did that come from, Saphira?”
I walk towards my mother, pointing a finger at her. “Enough you’ve pretended, a whole lifetime. You always knew something was wrong with him, which is why you abandoned yourself to booze and cigarettes. You thought substances would numb you, but all they did was throw you deeper into depression. And that man I used to call ‘Father’ is not the only criminal. This town crawls with sick bastards like him, so don’t take out your frustration and fury on the Marquis, because he’s not the one you truly want to choke.”
“What on Earth do you mean?” Mum whispers, her hands shaking.
“That’s enough, Saphira,” Jeremy cuts in. He walks to me and extends a hand, but the Marquis grabs and twists it behind his back. As big and muscular as Inspector Jeremy Simmons is, he groans and bares his teeth as he leans backwards into the Marquis’ clasp.
“If you ever try to touch her again, I’ll break every bone in your body,” the Marquis threatens. He’s taller and leaner than Jeremy, therefore more agile even without his engineered powers, but he’s also so much stronger. His ivory features are locked, and his black eyes angry coals.
“Please, Kieran, don’t hurt him,” I plead. “He’s innocent.”
The Marquis keeps his glare on Jeremy, his sweet lips drawing in a hiss. “I’m not so sure.”
“Better tell him the truth. That he should be on our side.”
“What the hell is this?” Jeremy groans and tries to struggle from the Marquis’ grip, but without success.
“Please, just listen to him, Jeremy.”
“Saphira, what is happening?” Mum is puzzled, her hand gently touching mine.
I look straight into her eyes and tell her the story in a few short sentences – that Catherine Lancaster, Lord Lancaster’s daughter, had been raped by a group of men from this town, and that my father, Gunnar Lothar, killed her in the end. Mum gasps and takes a few steps back, gripping the rest of the chair where she sat as we walked in.
“Your father was one of them too, Inspector Boy,” the Marquis hisses in Jeremy’s ear. “The lucky bastard died before I got my hands on him, so don’t give me reason to take it out on you, his son.”
Jeremy struggles like a wounded animal, kicking the air in front of him, but unable to release himself from the Marquis’ hold. “You fucking bastard!”
The Marquis is inhumanly strong, and Jeremy’s struggles don’t move him an inch. He turns his vicious black glare to Lord Barkley.
“What about you, filth bag? Could it be, that you were one of them as well?”
Lord Barkley is still sitting in his chair, the cigarette burning his fingers but he doesn’t seem aware of that. He looks stunned at Kieran, unable to utter one word.
Mum presses her fingers on her temples, shaking her head. “This can’t be. This can’t be happening.”
I approach her carefully, searching her gaze but she looks down, then sideways, then upwards, avoiding my gaze.
“It is, Mum,” I say gently. “If you’re honest to yourself, you’ve always known. But you’ve tried to silence your sixth sense.” As I did through compulsive painting, but this is not about me, so I keep the remark to myself. The Marquis’ voice cuts in, making me look at him and Jeremy again.
“And you, stupid shit,” he addresses Jeremy, “you find out all sorts of stuff but not the essential. You spoiled, superficial and incompetent brat. Didn’t you ever at least suspect of all the bastards in this cursed place? Or, what, are you covering their arses?”
“Wait a second,” Mum says, her voice faint, her eyes wide on the Marquis. “What happened with Catherine Lancaster was decades ago. What have you got to do with it?”
I clear my voice and hold her shoulders as I speak, so I can support her if she falls. “Kieran was Lord Lancaster’s stable boy, Mum. He and Catherine were secretly in love, and the night she was raped he was beaten almost to death by Vladimir Pukov’s people – Pukov was part of the group as well, and Dad wanted me to marry him even though he knew this.”
Mum looks stunned from me to the Marquis, then to Lord Barkley, who sits silent in his chair.
“But,” she whispers, “I knew Catherine. We were friends. We grew up together, just like you and Vivien, Lauren and Jeanie. Lord Lancaster said she had run away with the stable boy. It came as a shock to the rest of us, we knew nothing, I . . .”
“Lord Lancaster couldn’t take the pain, Mum,” I say. “He spread a story he could at least try to live with.”
Mum slumps into the chair behind her, and I support her by the shoulders as she does. Her eyes are fixed in awe on the Marquis. “But that means . . . How old are you?”
The Marquis looks at her, but doesn’t answer.
“My God,” she whispers. “And Saphira? What role did she play in your plot?”
Pain cuts through my chest, and I sink my head.
“At first I wanted to use her in my revenge on Catherine’s tormentors,” the Marquis explains. “I wanted to have her lure them to places where I could kill them right before her eyes, torment her mind and soul in the process, and in the end have her father find her mad from everything she’s witnessed in the same place Catherine was found. I considered it an act of kindness – to her, not Gunnar – not having her sleep with all those men too. I took the decision to go easier on her than initially planned after I got to know her. She made a painting of me, and she . . . I fell in love with your daughter, Mrs Lothar. It sounds impossible, coming from a monster like me, whose soul has been frozen for decades, but it’s the pure truth. I don’t expect you to give us your blessing, but I’d like you to know that for her sake I decided to drop all thoughts of revenge. But unfortunately, this town’s troubles won’t end with that.”
Jeremy has another fit of struggling, and this time he makes it out of the Marquis’ arms – or the Marquis let him go, since he doesn’t look surprised. He and Jeremy now face each other. The Marquis arranges the collar of his suit jacket, while Jeremy flexes and glares.
“This town’s biggest problem is you, devil,” Jeremy growls. The Marquis smiles at him like a prince at a powerless angry peasant.
“I’m not the one who set the Grants’ house on fire and tried to kill Vivien. That was Ivan Basarab – the Slayer – whose true name you should be busy finding out. He’s one of this town’s honourable citizens, killers, filth bags that you now have no more excuse to ignore.”
“You need proof for all these allegations, de Vandenesse and, right now, all I truly got is proof that you’re a killer. Guards!” Jeremy calls.
Quick steps stomp closer and louder from the corridor, and policemen burst in. They take out their guns and focus on Kieran as if they’ve been waiting for this command all along. I scream and want to run to Kieran, but one of the policemen stops me and keeps me away from the scene as more men pour in. This is indeed a trap they set up for Kieran.
Kieran looks left, right and relaxes. A smile pulls one corner of his sweet mouth, and that is the last sight I get of his human self before his skin starts losing it’s opaque consistence, turning into something jelly-like and transparent, then into increasingly metallic scales. His eyes spring into slits, and his serpent tongue shoots out of his mouth as he gives out a piping hiss that sends an unbearable buzz through all our ears.
I squeeze my eyes shut and press my hands to my ears, but the buzz still pierces through. Only when it stops I dare look up again to see all policemen scrambling up from the floor, the terrified looks in their eyes and the confusion as they grope around testimony that the Marquis had been right – nothing of the security here has anything on him.
The door is open, with no trace of the Marquis, while Jeremy is the only person standing, however stunned with a gun in his hand in the middle of his sprawled men.
Someone breathes hoarsely behind me. I turn to see Ronald Lord Barkley, and realize his knotty hands are clamped around my shoulders. He shakes and can’t take his eyes off the door.
“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he whispers.
“Excuse me?” I try to get away from him, but his fingers sink into my shoulders, keeping me in place as a human shield.
“I didn’t have anything to do with their dark practices. I was part of their group of friends all those years ago, but I never participated in the terrible things they did.”
I shake myself from his grip and hurry to help my Mum up from the floor.
“What in all Saints’ names was that?” She exclaims, looking desperate and brushing invisible cockroaches off her body. She’s horrified, hysterical, making it hard to help her up. “He’s a monster! A monster!”
I struggle with her to help her calm down, and it’s a real fight until she manages to get a grip.
To be continued on Friday.
Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part 5 on Friday!
This is a compilation of The Marquis’ and Saphira’s moments together from the entire story.