Secret Weapon – Ep. 40 of “The Marquis”

The Manor’s main hall is intimidating. It was intimidating when I first saw it on the Night of Venice, but now it’s nothing short of crushing with the Marquis’ deadly soldiers-in-black replacing the partying crowd’s laughter. They’re lining a long, impressive table, heavy chandeliers hanging from the high ceiling, the immense space crawling with whispers.

The Marquis and I sit at the head of the table, and I feel mighty awkward with everybody staring at me like I’m the Queen. The diamond ring on my finger draws serious attention. Kieran’s men look at it and at each other, all of them baffled but for a few exceptions – Zed, whose stony features and ice-blue eyes are fully restored, and Joyous the big-boned, eerie-eyed Healer; the Marquis’ most trusted men, who’ve been with us every step of the way.

There are more soldiers present – serpent men loyal to the Marquis – than I imagined. Probably over three dozen of them. Maybe not enough to stand against the Black Monks, Inspector Jeremy Simmons’ vassal Special Forces and the Elite’s mercenaries, but surely enough to make a point about how much they respect Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis de Vandenesse.

“You’ve always been our leader, whether official or not,” one of them says after Kieran talks about our plan. “We’ve always followed you, but this is pure suicide. We can’t simply attack the Black Monks, they’ll freaking roast us before we get to say ‘charge’.”

“Hear him out, Lugo,” Zed cuts in. He still sounds weak, but then again, only a few hours ago his flesh was practically turning into ashes on his skeleton, so no wonder the healing exhausted him.

“Saphira here,” Kieran continues, “my future wife, has a special talent. She’s a painter whose work amazed and intrigued, but recently we discovered her talent has more powerful underlays.”

He chooses his words well as he tells about my ability of making what his men called “voodoo pictures” that can take over all harm done to a person, leaving the person unscathed. At the right moment Zed stands and bares a part of his tattooed back where the last remains of the bubonic plague are visibly healing.

“I owe this to Saphira Lothar,” he declares, giving me a deeply grateful look, and going on to explain what happened. The man who first spoke – Lugo – stares at me like I’m turning into a mermaid with every word that leaves Zed’s mouth.

“This is a miracle,” he says. The crowd turns restless, but Kieran’s voice rises over them. Everybody falls silent, eyes stuck to him, drinking in his words.

“Saphira is the ace in our sleeve. She agreed to make pictures of all of us – it can be only sketches, she’ll add the ‘flesh’ to them as we go along – and she’ll keep restoring them while the curses hit us. Nevertheless, there’s a catch. We’re outnumbered, so Saphira might have a very hard time keeping up with the Black Monks’ ‘blows.’ It would drain her of her vital energy. So we need to go about this in an energy-saving way.”

Lugo frowns. “What do you mean, in an ‘energy-saving’ way?”

“We need guerrilla tactics. We first dispatch scouts to find out who are the Monks’ most important people, their leaders, their secret weapons, and we go for those. We try to keep in the shadow, unnoticed, for as long as possible in order to avoid as many blows as we can. And, of course, one of us has to go for the head of the octopus – Ivan Basarab, the Slayer. I will gladly take on the task.”

Lugo jolts forward and bumps into the table, that’s how much the statement charges him. “You know who he is, Marquis? You finally discovered that bastard’s true identity?”

Understandably, Kieran hesitates. There’s no easy way to put this, since Ivan Basarab is literally no easy man to pin down thanks to his very special power.

Kieran licks those sensual lips that look like sin, preparing to speak, but the doors open and Jeanie Simmons enters the hall, followed by a squad of serpent-men. It looks like she had just been saved from her brother’s hands and returned to her beloved Joyous’ arms that open broadly to receive her. Her sweet dark curls bounce up and down as she runs to the Healer, her otherwise milky face on fire, and her eyes still wide with fear.

“The people in town,” she calls out once in the safety of Joyous’ embrace, “they gathered with torches and weapons to march here and set fire to this manor, Marquis. They want to kill you, they’re convinced you’re the source of all evil that’s befallen Northville.”

Kieran’s face turns to ice, and my heart beats like crazy – he might be ready to fight all the foes out there, but there’s no way he’d fight the town people. They’re innocent, victims of the elite string-pullers, and he’d rather die than take on them – I read every one of his thoughts and feelings on his beautiful marble face. This could be a dead-end.

I cup Kieran’s jaw with my hands, and guide him to look at me. “There will never be a better time than this to use your powers for the good, Kieran.”

His black eyes search mine puzzled. I take a deep breath and, though feeling guilty for my thoughts, I share them. “Influence their feelings, Kieran. Make them fight your enemies instead of you.”

“What? Are you –“

“Yes, I am.”

“But Saphira, if I do that and don’t get to Basarab fast enough, they will die–“

“And what will happen to them if you die? Basarab’s Monks will finish them for sure, there’s no way they’ll leave any witnesses who could tell the tale of Northville. They won’t allow the slightest bit of truth to ever come to light, because it would turn the world upside down – engineered serpent men, painters who can make ‘voodoo pictures’ of people, healers? What will the world do when it finds out that lines such as ‘everybody dies,’ and ‘we’re all only human’ are bloody mockery? Yes, Kieran, normally influencing people is wrong, is bad, it’s a big No, but in this case, it’s plainly the best thing to do.”

 

***

To be continued on Friday.

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Eros and Thanatos – Ep. 39 of “The Marquis”

The dark tower provides a large view over the fields. Kieran’s serpent eyes penetrate the night, while I stand in the alcove opposite from him, looking up at the painting I made a felt century ago.

The painfully handsome Marquis de Vandenesse looks down at me from the wall, his marble features as ruthless as a young devil’s, but the black eyes that used to scare the life out of me have a creamy softness to them. Indeed, like Kieran pointed out on the Night of Venice, the portrait seems a confession. It allows a glimpse of the boy Kieran Slate behind the powerful Marquis.

I feel him approach, which compels me more than his portrait. A gush of wind from the open window inflates my gown as I turn to look at the serpent Marquis who’s chained my heart to his. Tall and beautiful just like the young man in the picture, he takes my breath away. His shirt is open, revealing the marble sinews of his body, and I can’t help a surge of lust.

“The air carries the scent of death,” he murmurs, casting my senses in a daze.

I have a flashback of the moment we first met – that fated night at the Royale by the sea, when he’d first used his hypnotic powers on me.

“You promised you’d never influence my senses again,” I whisper.

“And you think I’m doing it now?”

“It feels like you are. It’s that opiate effect, numbing the pain I want to feel.”

“I assure you, it’s not intentional, but maybe automatic. I want to keep pain away from you so much, I might do it instinctively.”

He looks down at his hands, and I follow his gaze. My heart skips a beat at the sight of his long fine fingers twisting a diamond ring between them. I swallow the spike of emotion that bolts up from my heart in order to prevent embarrassing manifestations. It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to realize what he’s doing.

“A while ago I crossed Gunnar Lothar’s threshold,” he says, “asking for your hand in marriage. I asked the man I hated for what I thought would be the deadliest weapon against him. Things have taken many unexpected turns since then, and soon there was nothing left of my initial plans, but one thing never changed – my wanting to marry you, Saphira. I desire you as my wife more than I ever desired anything, even revenge. I won’t lie to you, there’s a chance that I’ll find my end tomorrow, and there’s no priest to forge our bond before that happens. All we have is tonight and the deadly breath of the Black Monks out there. Let it be our minister and seal our vows, and be sure that I’ll love you forever even from the Underworld.”

My breath catches at his words, which he speaks taking my hand in his and sliding the ring gently on my finger. It’s a bit of a loose fit, but the intensity in his dark gaze fits mine perfectly.

I stroke his cheek, taking full delight in the feel of him, and I can’t hold back a longing sigh. That sets him on fire, and he takes over my mouth in a hot-blooded kiss, lifting me in his arms. I wind my legs around him, welcoming him between my thighs, rubbing and weaving myself on him as he takes me to the bed. I’ve lost my head for Kieran Slate long ago, but now I let go completely. Death is just around the corner for both of us, so I might as well relish in our love like there’s no tomorrow.

I peel the shirt off him with feverish hands, thirsty for him as I savor his silky lips, his jaw, his neck, and lower my mouth down his smooth chest, my hands seeking the hardness in his pants. He doesn’t have much patience either, breathing hard with lust, soon taking over and kissing me into submission.

Looming over me, he guides me on my back on the satin sheets, his fiery mouth pleasuring my skin all over. Before I know it I’m lying completely bare under him, while he stands on his knees over me, a beautifully shaped marble devil, naked and growing bold. He’s big and hard for me. His hand sinks and my hair, twisting and tugging as he brings himself to my lips. Making sure I want it as much as he does, he glides down my mouth.

His smooth hardness slides over my tongue to my throat, turning me on so bad that I moisten and writhe, my face on fire. I can’t refrain from clasping his backside and guiding him deeper, making him grind into my lustful mouth and moan with unrestrained pleasure. He flexes and clenches his fist in my hair, gritting his teeth and knitting his brows as if it’s too much for him, and then, completely unexpectedly, he retreats and curls at the end of the bed.

I don’t know what just happened, and I stare at him rocking like a hiding child. I crawl to him and touch his shoulder, ready to beg him to come back and take me, but he tenses yet more.

“Please, Kieran, look at me,” I whine, but he’s bracing himself so tightly that the flesh under his fingernails is even whiter than the rest of him, his face hidden, his lamentations low but heartbreaking. I go gently to my knees before him, caressing his thick, black hair. I keep insisting until his face dashes up, and the sight of him sends ice slithering down my body.

His eyes are the black blisters of the serpent, his lips like black leeches, and his flesh turns glutinous as scales slowly replace the skin. I don’t know by what miracle I manage to catch the outcry in my throat before it reaches my mouth. Every cell in my body screams to get away from him, but I force myself to keep still – this is the man I love, a victim of bastards with power over science.

My hand shakes slightly as I take it to his face, brushing a tendril away from his now snake-skinned forehead.

“This is too much for me, Saphira,” he pleads. “My basic instinct runs wild at sudden pleasure, and the beast comes out. I want to make love to you, so bad, but if I lose control fully, it’s very dangerous.”

“Don’t think about that,” I whisper, bringing my face within an inch of his. “This is true love. I love you and I trust you, Kieran.”

A blood tear slithers down his cheek that slowly changes from serpent scales to glutinous mass, then to beautiful ivory skin. His blister-like eyes are still pained and deeply worried, but he does allow me to get closer and closer. I force myself to keep my eyes open as my lips touch his, expecting them to feel like the black leeches they look, but instead they’re dry and pleasant. His kisses are gentle, and his tongue careful as it seeks mine.

There’s a lump in my throat as I imagine that split serpent tongue exploring my mouth, and indeed I feel the two tips, coarse and cold, but their touch is so shy that it makes me grow downright audacious. I sink my hands in his hair and pull him over me on the bed, inviting him to push his tongue down my throat, even though chill after chill runs down my skin.

Flashes of that tongue pulling Pukov’s stomach out lash at me, the white tablecloth splattered with blood, the coiling and wriggling under Pukov’s shirt. But Kieran Slate is the man I love, and I want him inside of me, even if that means having him between my legs in his serpent form.

But instead of disturbing, his love turns out sensual and intoxicating, and I find myself wanting more and more of his scales on my skin. I finally understand that the snake-man is as much part of Kieran Slate as his hypnotic powers, and if we’re both going to die soon, I want to experience him to the deepest level, and to the last cell.

“Use your powers on me, Kieran,” I whisper. “I want to be high on you, and I want an overdose.”

The words are a powerful catalyst for Kieran. His eyes, at first stunned, then confused and then profound, pour themselves like a black drug into mine, and cast me in a spiral trance. I let go of all reason, and my mind goes blank, leaving me fully prey to the sensations Kieran gives me, making me arch and moan under his kisses and caresses.

My thighs part to accommodate him as he slides deep inside me, long and hard and smooth. Moist and lascivious I grind my hips to meet his moves, riding towards the climax that makes all my muscles flex, and Kieran Slate shows his true face above me – his features are prominent, beautiful and white as ivory, while his black eyes bleed, and his sensual mouth lets out moans of pleasure.

I’m still convulsing with the remains of climax as he drops on his back by my side, taking me in his arms and kissing my forehead and my lips and my cheeks. The opiate haze he’d cast over me begins to lift, and I come back to a feeling of happiness and fulfillment that pulses in my chest.

“I love you, my bride.” His voice is creamy and rich, and his hands restless as they caress my body like he worships me.

“And I adore you, Kieran.”

***

To be continued on Friday.

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The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3

From fire-fighter to cop to nurse I get transferred back to Zed’s hands, who drives me back to the Marquis’ manor in silence. I’m dizzy and coughing and convinced that the man Mrs Grant referred to is the Marquis, and that Vivien had discovered his secrets, which put her in death’s way.

I’m shaking as Zed escorts me to my chamber in the tower and seals the door behind me, pulling three heavy locks from the outside. In a fit I take off my soot-smeared clothes and brace myself, rubbing my arms up and down nervously and chewing on my lower lip until I taste blood with ash. Curling between the cold pillows on the bed, feeling dirty and drained, I stare at the ragged canopy hanging over me as my mind spins around Vivien. My head snaps to the door the moment it creaks open, and the Marquis enters the chamber.

I retreat to the bedhead and brace my knees, but lose control of my shaking as he approaches. My lips are dry and cracked, yet the tip of my nose drips sweat. Those black eyes, demonic in his pale face, scare me to death, but for the first time he doesn’t try to numb me with his hypnotic powers. His neckline is open, revealing part of his marble-like pectorals, lean but strong and smooth like serpent muscle.

“You really believed you could elude me, Saphira?” His voice is calm and slithery. I can’t bring myself to speak. My vocal cords seem stuck, and my arms lock painfully around my knees. I wouldn’t be able to let go if I wanted to, I’m so afraid.

“There’s no way out of this for you but the one I provide,” he says and stops still, staring hard at me. For moments he looks a statue of marble with eyes of coal, a deceivingly handsome monster.

“What will you do with me?” The question comes out of my throat in a hoarse whisper. I think I recognize a shade of hurt in his eyes.

“Why Jeremy Simmons of all people?” He demands.

“He –” I cough and lock my fingers into my wrists. The marks left by the cuffs hurt, distracting my attention from the fear and restoring my ability to speak. “He was the only one who offered an alternative.”

“And did you consider the consequences in case his alternative went wrong?”

I ponder. “I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.”

He walks around the bed and stops by my side. I sink my fingers deeper into my wrists, but can’t keep down the fear anymore. He’s too close now. I expect him to grab my hair and pull my head back, then push his serpent tongue deep through my mouth to my inner organs and rip out my stomach like he did Pukov’s, but what he does is sit by me, a humid coldness emanating from his body. I know he’s warm in his human form, so he must be in an intermediary state between man and serpent. I shudder with horror.

“A few weeks ago, your friend Vivien Grant began seeing a myserious man,” he says, his voice dazzling my senses. “They met only at night. Always around the lunatic asylum, according to what the police discovered by now, but he kept cloaked and hooded, and no one other than Vivien ever saw his face. Last time they saw each other they also entered the asylum. The place is as fortified as a high-security prison, as you sure know, so Vivien must’ve used her good relations to some of the personnel – which is what the mysterious man needed her for. After he got what he wanted he tried to dispose of her and any proof of their relationship, and caused the fire. The girl’s mother was probably supposed to die in it as well, but managed to escape.”

He looks into my eyes, the blackness of his gaze chilling. I can’t imagine how I could ever accept his closeness while “sober” of his hypnotic powers, he’s such a perfect blend between man and beast, so unnatural. His beauty is of a rather fantastic than human nature, and it’s hard to put up with for a normal person. “He has you mesmerized,”He has you all fooled,” Mrs Grant’s words come back to me. He must wield immense power over the psyche.

“Mrs Grant says Vivien didn’t trust the ‘mysterious man’. So she couldn’t have helped him,” I manage.

“He must’ve found some way to persuade her. Blackmail maybe?”

“No way. Vivien is – was – as clean as an angel.”

“Then maybe threats? Against her family, her friends?”

“You should know,” I hiss between my teeth.

“Saphira, I never lied to you. I don’t have to, you see, because I’m in a position of power. So believe me when I tell you – I’m not the mysterious man.”

***

I measure him up and down. Tall and strong, dark eyes intense and sovereign in his ivory face, he looks honest and confident, and even a shade respectable. I decide to at least assume he’s telling the truth.

“Say I take that for a fact. What do you suppose the ‘mysterious man’ was after? Why did he need to get inside the asylum?”

“The sewers underneath the asylum link to the catacombs under this manor. He wanted access to those sewers and therefore to me. He wants my head.”

A revelation hits me. “You think the mysterious man is Ivan Basarab. The Slayer.”

The Marquis snorts as if insulted. “The Slayer. Undeserved distinction for a coward who fights from the shadow. He’s afraid to face me for real.”

“You think he succeeded in breaching the sewers?”

“If he did, it’s irrelevant. I secured them from halfway to here. But I do have something more on Basarab’s true identity. I think he’s a Northville local.”

A shock. “Say what?”

The Marquis continues. “Your friend Vivien Grant clearly knew him. Her mother too. I also think that he was a member of the group that raped and killed Catherine, and that gave me over to the people who turned me into what I am today.”

The pathos with which he speaks the words, the fearlessness in “rape” and “kill” and “what I am today” emphasize his entitlement to revenge. I surprise myself indulging him. And accepting his theory. Tension dissolves from my body as I begin to understand things. I let go of my knees.

“When you proved to be stronger and deadlier than the other serpents, you became dangerous to your makers,” I draw the conclusion. “Then you went independent. That’s when they must’ve activated Basarab, the Slayer. He’s always been one of them.”

The Marquis smiles a disturbingly charming smile. “You’re very bright, Saphira.”

“So Ivan Basarab is a false name for a man we already know.” I attempt to ignore how his praise makes me feel.

“That’s right.”

He looks hard at me with those impossibly black eyes that seem to hypnotize me, only that this time I’m sure he’s not trying. Silence settles between us for moments in which I just stare, unable to rip my eyes from him.

“What are you thinking?” He whispers, lowering himself so close that his bitter-sweet breath touches my face, the mattress and the pillows giving in under his weight as he leans on his hands. I feel lost.

“I’m wondering why I find it so easy to take your word for everything,” I whisper.

His expression deepens, his eyes now flooding mine. It’s hard to breathe, they seem to weigh on me.

“Because I may be a villain, but I’m the only person without a reason to lie to you. All you ever got from me was the truth. You’re beginning to trust me.”

I let my gaze wander all over his marble face.

“I must be really stupid.”

“By no means. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, actually. And I wish to win  your complete trust.”

“What use do you have for it?”

“It’s the key to your affection.”

My heart flutters. “You desire my affection?”

“Ardently,” he says, his eyes lowering to my lips.

***

The Marquis’ mouth closes on mine, soft and warm, while his arm curls around my waist, pressing me gently to him. His body feels stone hard under his shirt, and he smells young and manly and alluring. I turn to jelly in his arms, allowing him to stretch me on the bed under him with no resistance. His kiss makes me dizzy, and small stars seem to circle my head.

This feels very different from what happened last night, even though his passion grows in the same possessive way. His hands explore my body greedily as his tongue consumes me in deep kisses. My mind empties and I part my legs, ready to accept him, but he breaks the intimacy, bridging to distance with thirsty pecks on my lips.

He pulls away and stands, yet the expression in his face shows it’s not easy. His neckline is open, his hair a bit ruffled and his face so youthful and handsome that it hurts. He retreats as I scramble out of bed and advance toward him, wanting him so badly that I lose control and all sense of shame.

“Please,” I beg, losing my bra and letting my panties fall to the floor. I now stand completely naked before him, smeared with soot, my hair a messy blonde broom, hoping that I look depraved enough to stir the animal in him. I want him inside of me so much I barely refrain from touching myself.

His dark, hypnotic eyes wander all over me with a hunger that makes me moisten and lose a sigh.

“Please,” I repeat, but manage to keep in place.

“It can’t be, Saphira, not now,” he says, his voice low and husky. “Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“I can’t explain.” He retreats further, his white hand now on the doorknob. I see the skin patching into alligator leather, then fading into white human flesh, then pulsing into faint spots of leather again, and I realize he’s fighting to keep back the serpent.

My eyes find his just in time to see them narrowing, his black irises turning to slits. He makes a pained grimace and pulls the door open. The fight between human and serpent makes him bare his teeth, a pointy tongue slithering out and licking his upper lip. When he speaks, his slivery voice makes my hair stand on end.

“Trust me, Saphira. Please, trust me,” he hisses and throws the door open, lunging into the obscurity.

For moments I stand there, naked, stunned and with my heart pounding until Zed appears in the doorframe. His stony features are locked in urgency. He can’t help looking me up and down –I’m a naked person dirty with soot. I snatch the duvet from the bed and wrap it fast around me.

“What’s with the Marquis?” I inquire.

“It’s a bad night,” Zed says and throws a glance out the window. I do the same.

“Full moon? But, is that –”

“It has nothing to do with the occult or cheesy magic,” Zed explains in an even tone. “The moon has power on the inner workings of the Serpent as it does over the tide.”

He turns to leave, but then turns to me again on a second thought. “We have strong reason to believe your friend Vivien Grant is alive. The Marquis ordered us to find her and protect her. For your sake. Believe it or not, you’re high up on his list of priorities, and in a good way. You have every reason to trust him.”

“Have you been eavesdropping?” I breathe, getting the goosebumps at his words.

He looks me up and down coldly, but not without interest – more like curiosity – and he leaves without replying.

***

Down in the catacombs cells roll by me like rusty landscape by a lazy train, and I wish I were faster, much faster. I take a turn, my legs flexing in a desperate attempt to pick up yet more pace, but after the second turn I slow down, my eyes widening. My heart stops.

Dry snakeskin stretches before me, thick and crumpled and trailing around the next elbow-shaped corner like a dead mega-python. I understand where it’s coming from, and dread makes my skin crawl. Still, compelled by a hypnotic pull I walk slowly along the dry serpent coating around the curve, where a mind-blowing scene unfolds.

***

The Marquis is naked, with his back at me. I recognize him immediately, even though he looks nothing like the man I know. My heart hammers inside my chest as I watch this creature with spiked spinal cord writhe, his flesh transparent and slippery. My eyes pop out of their sockets as his muscular serpent tail spans and throws up his torso – the only part of him that still resembles anything human.

My heart drums in my ears, mixing with the whistling sound the monster makes, his bitter-sweet scent strong as varnish, giving me a headache. His tail is curved on the floor, now sustaining him in a standing position, the tip of it slashing the air left and right. It swings until it hits a cell gate, bending one of the iron bars with a bang. The muscles in his torso swell from under the transparent skin that turns opaque here and there into patches of leather. He squirms and hisses as he shreds his skin, driving me to press my hands to my ears.

For a moment I catch his profile, and fail to keep back a shriek. He turns to me full-face, and I burst out in a long row of screams that I don’t hear. His black eyes protrude like blisters from his eye-sockets, his nose is sunken in and his nostrils diagonal slits, truly like a snake’s. Only the bone-structure of his face is recognizable, and his lips that looked so beautiful in their human form are black and wet like moving leeches.

My hands drop from my ears and I hear myself scream. The creature bares vampire-like fangs in a whistle, the muscles swelling in his arms as he raises them, his hands taking the shape of claws, and his nails shooting out from the tips of his fingers, turning long and sharp as blades. He’s a huge monster perched on his dragon tail.

Horror runs through my limbs, and so does adrenaline. I turn and run as fast as I can back the way I came – or so I think. The monster is chasing me, I can hear his tail slashing the floor as he slithers his way after me, his calls splintery.

“There’s no escape, Saphira.”

I heave in panic, but manage to go on, taking curve after curve and by some miracle managing not to skid or stumble.

“Don’t run. The place is packed.” He sounds closer. I cry out in a surging effort of putting distance between us, and at the next turn I see a round black opening, a tunnel.

I plunge into what I discover is a dry sewer, but dread courses down my spine as I realize there’s a long way to a real way out. Left and right there’s no option but further tunnels, and above my head there’s a rusty grate. My hands reach for it, and I hoist myself up with more strength than I ever thought possible for me. Blood still races through my veins, which can only mean that I’m yet alive, so either adrenaline has turned me into Cat woman, or the snake has desisted from the chase. Keeping to the grate with my head upside-down like a bat rather than a cat, I look behind. Indeed, he’s not there.

I let go of the grate and drop back to the floor, keeping on one knee and listening to my own breath. My brain refuses to ask itself questions, but decides to keep looking for an exit. Turning back isn’t an option. The fright seems to have reduced my intellect to the most basic functions – search for safety first, think later.

I reel through the tunnels, feeling dizzy and trailing the wall with my palm. The lack of ventilation makes breathing difficult, and the less oxygen I receive, the less reliable my senses. Soon the place begins to spin with me, but then I see it. Right before me, a grate that leads outside, to the moonlight shining on rocks covered with moss – the fields. The bars seem to have enough distance from each other that I could slip through them, however difficultly.

I hurry to them, but bump into a glass pane that I failed to see. Of course. No ventilation in the old sewers to prevent infiltration by enemies. I reach for the crumbled wall bits on the floor, grab a bigger stone and swing it at the pane. But what the darn thing does is drop at my feet, and I realize that the lack of air has rendered me a zombie that can’t even throw a stone.

I pick the stone up again and bang it on the pane – me leaning on it with my mouth open and slobbering – until it cracks. I manage to take a few steps back and launch the stone at it again. The glass splinters and falls from my path. Shards remain around the frame, irregular and menacing like the teeth of a shark, but I manage to slip between two central bars without a scratch.

Whether the chance at real freedom lifts the curtain of stupidity off my brain or if it’s just the oxygen that I now breathe in like a junkie, I don’t know. But I begin to reason again and realize that this exit must be guarded by the Marquis’ men, so I keep to the wall at first, waiting for any sign of sentinels. It seems no one’s there, and I decide to venture in the open fields, but the full moon doesn’t make it exactly easy to keep inconspicuous.

The cold bites into my flesh, the wind hitting me hard in the face. It’s so strong that I’m quickly reminded of the train rides where I used to stick my head out the window, and gasp at the gush. The dress is dirty and glued to my body, feeling icy from the sweat, and my ankles crackle and hurt as I slip on the mossy stones.

To my horror the Marquis emerges from behind a group of big rocks. I stop in place, my heart beating in my throat as I watch the man I’m running from walk to me, dressed in jeans and what looks like a crumpled suit jacket over an open white shirt that reveals his torso. As if he put on whatever he could find first. His face seems a statue sculpted in marble, and his pitch black eyes send voltage through me. Their intensity is the only reminder of the terrible beast I’d seen in the catacombs, the difference between that and this beautiful young man mind-blowing.

As he approaches, drops of rain begin to hit my face and shoulders. The Marquis stretches his hand to me.

“Saphira, come,” he says.

My tongue is frozen, I can’t say a word.

“Saphira, it’s full moon, the Serpents’ Night. They’re uncontrollable, dangerous.”

I walk backwards out of instinct, and he increases pace toward me. “Listen to me, woman! I don’t know how long I can keep myself under control, let alone the others. Let me take you to safety.”

I understand he’d desisted the chase in order to get a grip on himself and approach me as a man. I stop and decide to let him talk, but it’s too late. A slimy tail coils around my ankle and pulls, making me fall flat with my face in the mud. Another tail punches my jaw as I raise my head, causing me to see stars for a few moments, and when vision settles again I cry out loud.

Right before my eyes a huge snakemouth opens, its jaws big enough to swallow me in a snap. My eyes widen as the four fangs and rosy flesh beyond them dart close, but the instant before it can bite my face off a huge dragon tail punches the snake so hard that the hit thunders in my ear. The Marquis now stands with his back at me again in his serpent form, his dragon tail coiling protectively in a circle around me as I lay on the ground. Hisses and slimy crawls fill my ears, and then we stand surrounded.

***

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part III on Thursday!

Previously The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1. The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2. This is a compilation of The Marquis’ and Saphira’s moments together from the entire story.

Read Part I of the ENTIRE story („Saphira“) here, and Part 2 of the ENTIRE story (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

Tomorrow I’ll have something really special for you, the presentation of a military love story based on real places by awesome author Camelia Miron Skiba. You definitely don’t want to miss this one, so please stay tuned!

 

Pic source.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their story – Part 1

The most important scenes in the book by now, Part I – There’s a goody in the end : )

***

“Excuse me,” I say and push back my chair. I leave the table and make my way through the crowd towards the exit, then take up such a pace down the stairs that I stumble over my own dress folds.

I manage to reach the bottom of the flight on my feet and lean on a marble pillar, hand on my belly and struggling for deep breaths. The freaking corset makes it hard.

The first toilet is full of powdering noses, so I seek a more secluded cloakroom to cool down. This part of the venue is still undergoing some renovation, which keeps precious personalities at bay. Given that the ball’s full of them, this wing is empty.

I stroll among a few scaffolds for interior and take the curve around the corner. I stop in my tracks and my breathing catches, yet this time it’s not the corset.

An elegant back in a tailcoat, stripping off a pair of black gloves. He moves like a feral licking its bloody snout, which must be why the white-faced dead man in a suit sitting on the floor facing him, back against the wall, actually fits the picture for a second. I realize I’m witnessing a murder and I want to scream, but the killer turns, and my heart stops.

His face is marble-white with astonishing features and the blackest eyes I’ve ever seen, his hair dark, rich and glossy. He’s probably no older than twenty, barely more than a dazzling boy who gives women wet dreams. But the calmness he displays, the composure, it leaves no doubt – it was him.

I turn on my heels and run back towards the populated hallway, my shoes clattering on the marble floor, dress folds gathered in my hands. I barge into the packed toilet, breathless and unable to utter one intelligible word. The powdering noses now staring and batting fake lashes don’t look like much help.

I crack the door and peek outside. People stroll up and down the luxurious hallway, stiff and wearing the fake grins specific for these business balls. He’s nowhere in sight. I slap a bit of water on my cheeks, which brings my shaking limbs back in moving condition, and hurry up to the ball room, intent on blurting out a report to my father.

But only a few steps into the dancing and tumbler-clinking crowd the young killer blocks my route, arranging his tie and fixing me with those dangerous dark eyes. I freeze in place. Before I realize what’s happening he reaches around my waist and leads me into a slow dance. He moves so naturally, no one would suspect that something’s wrong with this picture. I move along, my mind blocked and relying only on my sixth sense – I dread what would come out of struggling away from such a man.

“Are you going to tell on me?” His voice is a pleasant baritone. Soft, warm, it could fool anyone. It could’ve fooled me.

“You just killed a man.” I begin to shake.

“I had the best reason there is for that.”

“There are no good reasons for murder. You’re a psycho.”

“You’re good with labels. Stamp people a lot?” He exudes a bittersweet scent that stirs me inside.

“No more than they stamp me.”

I have a label for you too, then.” He sounds menacing. I can see “dead woman” racing my way. But he takes distance, keeping my hand in a smooth palm. His eyes hypnotize me into calmness as he takes it to his beautiful young lips. “Persephone.”

“Why Persephone?” I whisper with my last drop of wit. He seems to hypnotize me in the most real sense of the word.

“Because I might just take you with me back to the Underworld.”

***

Dressed all-business in his best suit, Father has a content expression, a bit devious maybe. Big stomach ahead of him – liver issues, which he ignores again with a glass of scotch and ice cubes – he stands leaning with a hand on his desk. There’s something about him that resembles a mafia boss, but the years when he was truly dangerous are gone, he’s just a poser now. He’s facing someone sitting in the revolving leather armchair in front of him. I can only see the back of it.

“Ah, Saphira,” he says with a sly grin, “please, do come in.”

He hurries to my side. He must be tense, his salt-and-pepper hair seems on volts.

“Let me introduce you to the newest member of our community, the Marquis of Vandenesse.”

The chair turns while Father talks, and the dark-eyed killer appears before me. The blood freezes in my veins. Those eyes settle on mine as flashes of the dead face at his feet come at me again and again. I’m certain I just went snow-white.

He stands and approaches, tall and elegant in his black suit. He’s as close to me as he was on that dance floor a week ago, before I managed to break the trance he’d put my senses in, and make a fool of myself claiming out loud to have witnessed a murder no one found a trace of. As for him, he’d dissolved in thin air. Ever since I kept myself locked in, fearing a moment such as this.

“The Marquis,” Father pushes the conversation since it doesn’t pick up by itself, “has bought the manor with the fields. The perfect home for the perfect gentleman.”

The manor. That means a healthy realtor commission for my father, which blows away all the family troubles. Just like that, as if they’ve never been there. Father must be feeling dangerously grateful.

“We’ll sure be doing more business together,” the killer says in that deceitful voice of his, his eyes not leaving mine. Chills course down my spine.

“However I can be of service, Marquis,” Father replies, and pauses to be offered the Marquis’ first name. The Marquis doesn’t react as expected, but keeps looking hard at me, while my eyes wander helpless all over his young face. He’s so handsome, it’s compelling.

“Oh, you can, my dear Mr. Lothar,” he says. “Will you allow me to engage the assistance of your charming daughter?”

“In what way?”

This time the Marquis addresses me directly. “I hear you paint, Saphira.”

“You do?”

“Your mother mentioned you were up with brush and canvas before she went out to get you. The old manor could use some new fittings and decoration, so I would like to see what you have.”

“Oh, certainly,” Father cuts in. “We can show you an entire collection.”

“It’s not much worth,” I block.

“Word has it you sold two of your works for nice amounts last year,” the Marquis says.

“How did you hear that?”

“Quality tends to become famous.”

“Yes, well, quality hasn’t found its way out of this house since.”

He lifts his chin, and his eyes flash with cunning. “I’d like to get an impression of my own.”

I go weak at the knees as Father encourages the killer and invites him out of the study and up the stairs, all the while speaking highly of what he called until now a “craft for spoiled brats.”

The door to the attic squeaks open, revealing my work in progress and the crowd of finished ones, some rolled up, some leaning against the walls, the tripod and on each other. I thank God with all I have that I haven’t started to paint him, the dark-eyed killer. That would’ve been terribly embarassing right now, but if I survive this visit I know I won’t be able to resist putting what I feel in a portrait. Something very strange is bustling inside of me.

The Marquis walks right to my oldest painting that hangs on the wall. The Dark Castle. If I had some presence of mind until now, when Mum gets Father out of the room invoking the Marquis’ assistant’s asking for the host to see to the transaction papers, fear grips me.

I’m alone with the killer.

“This painting mirrors your soul.” His voice fills the wooden room, liquid and rich.

I want to say something witty, but fear’s got my lips bloodless and shivering. With small steps I advance to my working place and palm a nail. The Marquis still stands with his back at me, black hair glossy, hands in his trouser pockets.

“I can feel your special golden eyes on me,” he says calmly. “And I know what you have in your hand.”

I begin to shake.

“In my business,” he continues, “if I didn’t know when someone holds a weapon behind my back, I’d be long dead. Or something similar to dead.”

He turns, and I’m certain I’m looking at a demon, as handsome as sin. He approaches, and I can’t detect the slightest trace of fear in his moves or in his face. I don’t unsettle him at all. Again he stands too close, his scent bittersweet, anaesthetizing my senses. His stare keeps steady on me, and I understand that he’s making himself available for questions. I take the chance.

“Why did you kill that man at the ball, Marquis?”

“Right to the heart of the matter. Don’t I deserve some small talk first?”

“Oh, you don’t want to hear what I believe that you deserve.”

He gives me an indulgent smile. “Are you so direct on all your suitors?”

My heart jumps. “Suitors?”

“What did you expect, Saphira?” His voice lowers, threatening, and his stare deepens. “You have a secret of mine, so I can’t have you walking around free. It’s either this or the underworld.”

“What on earth are you trying to tell me?” My heart drums, I’m breathless.

“That there’s more special about you than just the color of your eyes. You managed to break free from my grip on your senses when we first met. That’s a rare gift, you see. So knowing what you know, I need you completely in my power. And I’ll have you completely in my power, no matter how many houses I have to buy from your father.”

“I’ll run away,” I whisper.

He laughs. It’s a quiet, but confident sound. “Tell me, Saphira. Do I strike you as someone who’s easily eluded?”

“There must be exceptions. There are always exceptions,” I attempt to defy to the very end.

His presence grows darker, crushing and chilling, not of this world. “None of them alive to tell the tale.”

***

The Marquis stands on the grand stairs, an elegant young man of a stunning beauty. The contours of his face, pale and flawless, contrast with his eerie dark eyes, and make something stir in my chest. I punch the feeling away, but it keeps returning. He is our host, so at least I’m relieved he’s not the new master of Jeanie’s heart. It must be one of the two men flanking him. Still, Jeanie is the exception rather than the rule. The female sighs around at the sight of him – including Lauren’s – leave no doubt the young Marquis fills the dreams of many.

***

A buzz starts in my head, and I no longer listen to the cause of death. I know it’s a fake. The man died at the hand of the Marquis, I saw it. I saw his dead eyes fixed on his murderer.

“Signed the cession on the day he died, word has it,” another man says. Soon the discussion heats up, and I stand with a dizzy head, seeking my way to cooler air. The cologne and body warmth of the crowd smothers me.

Jeanie asks if I’m okay and wants to join, but I refuse. On my way to the door the baldhead piranha who’s been terrorizing me with phone calls walks my way with a filthy grin on. I don’t stand a chance to avoid him, but then I see it. I see what’s behind him. I want to scream, but I fail.

***

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 at each other, then at 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.

The Marquis stops here and there and introduces me to people I know already. A particular piece of news is as 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.

He leads 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.”

“How?”

“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.”

“Why not?”

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?”

“Yes.”

“You’re mocking.”

“You’re shaking.”

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.

***

On the rare occasions the Marquis looks at Jeremy he seems to scan the man inside out. His youthful features are relaxed as he glides in the crowd, talking to people, as if Jeremy’s presence doesn’t worry him in the least. Stone Mask and Joyous flank him the entire time, and a group’s constantly shifting to back them up, which makes it clear they’re undercover security. I can’t help stealing glances at him, compelled by his unusual beauty and the memory of his kiss.

I realize I’m always around him, beginning to act like a stalker. Refusing to sink any lower, I stomp to the wardrobe, let the valet help me into my coat and hurry down the manor stairs. I increase pace with every step, but before I get to slide on my butt on the last one a chauffeur catches me and elegantly motions to a car. He tells me the Marquis insists that I’m safe and comfortable. As the car departs I look back at the majestic manor, wondering if he’s watching me leave.

For days I keep myself locked in the attic, painting him in a frenzy, canvas after canvas. I sink my hands in the watercolor and reproduce his portrait with my fingers. My brain spins with questions – should I tell Jeremy what I saw? Should I risk it? Should I paint the scene, let it speak for itself? The answer subdues my morals every time, reminding me my own father could have the same fate as the man at the Royale if I betray the Marquis’ secret. So I ignore Jeremy’s calls, fearing his questions. It’s not the same when the piranha Vladimir Pukov resumes attack.

***

That dark, liquid voice gives me the goose bumps. I look in the direction it came from and see the Marquis walking to our table from behind the fake wall that separates it from the rest of the restaurant. I freeze as he stops by our side, an elegant feral in a dark suit, his eyes intense down on Pukov.

Stone Mask and Joyous flank him on each side now too, only that Stone Mask’s steely eyes shoot daggers, and Joyous’ smile seems deranged like a killer psycho’s. Just a shade different from his smile at the banquet, but it gives him a whole new aura, and I think of poor Jeanie.

Beads of sweat appear on the piranha’s baldhead again, and his fleshy frame cringes in his suit.

“Marquis of Vandenesse.” He attempts to stand, but Stone Mask pushes him back down into his chair. Pukov’s eyes widen as he realizes the conflict is no longer veiled.

“You didn’t contact her in days,” Pukov explains himself, sounding anxious. “I assumed it was just that night at the banquet.” The last words fade as his look at the Marquis gains more rounded meaning – he assumed the Marquis did me that night, and then ditched me, therefore leaving the path open for Pukov to do the same. But that’s not what the Marquis picks up on.

“And how do you know that I haven’t contacted her? Did you stalk her?”

“You must’ve done the same, since you’re here.” Pukov says. Then something in the Marquis’ eyes makes more sweat break out through his skin, his face now luscious with it. “I mean you’re in your every right to, since the two of you are more serious than I thought, obviously. Saphira could’ve told me, but she chose not to.”

The Marquis flashes a youthful smile at him. “Are you blaming the lady now?”

“She did give course to my invitation.”

“She broke under your insistences.”

“I hardly think that’s fair. She didn’t have to answer my calls.”

“You cornered her from every direction. You’ve been burning her phone for weeks, had her father lobby for you, even offered him money.”

Pukov would like to grin, but he bites his inner cheek. “Didn’t you?”

“Not to get her in my bed, but to secure her as my wife.”

Both Pukov’s and my jaw drop.

“This is direct,” Pukov says. “I apologize, I didn’t realize the two of you were this far.” It’s obvious he retires from the exchange because he’s afraid of the Marquis, not because he’s any less convinced that I’m a bitch who lifted her tail, merely playing hard to get. But the Marquis isn’t willing to let him off the hook.

“Your pattern of thinking, Mr. Pukov, it’s brought ruin to innocent destinies before. It got a particular young woman raped and killed. Do you feel she provoked you the way Saphira did?”

His words fire shock in my head.

Stone Mask and Joyous tighten their presence on each side of Pukov, while the Marquis bends down to loom over him, a hand on the rest of his chair, the other one a fist on the table. It looks strong and angry despite the Marquis’ low voice.

“You pursued her affections as aggressively as you do Saphira’s. She wasn’t interested, but you wouldn’t take no for an answer. You persuaded yourself she was just playing difficult, and forced yourself on her in an alleyway. She fell limp while you had your way with her, which drove you mad. You beat her up so badly, that by the time anybody could identify her again she was dead in a dumpster, after having been roughly used by a number of your friends – for money, for days.”

My heart beats in a rage as I process what the Marquis is saying. The piranha’s eyes are wide with fear, fixed on the Marquis’ menacing face.

“Say her name, Vladimir. I’m sure you remember it. You don’t forget an experience like that easily,” the Marquis slurs darkly.

The piranha tries but fails, and the Marquis doesn’t give him another chance. What happens next electrifies me to the marrow.

I strain to understand what I’m seeing as something looking blade-sharp begins slithering out of the Marquis’ mouth. I jump up as I realize a serpent tongue undulates slowly towards the piranha, but someone’s behind me and covers my scream with their hand. I have no choice but watch how the young man with the angelic face and demon-like eyes forces the thing that moves out of his mouth down the piranha’s throat. A bubble seems to form in Pukov’s belly then further up in his chest. I can see it moving under his shirt, and I feel a violent need to throw up. The tongue twists and turns inside the piranha and then yanks out in a splutter of blood, coiled tightly around what I realize is the man’s stomach. I press my eyes shut, releasing the fear and shock into the hand that presses hard on my mouth.

When I open them I see the Marquis through my tears, I see the skin on his hands changing texture into something reptilian. The tablecloth catches fire like paper at the edges under his touch, but Joyous is quick to spill the piranha’s glass of water on it. The Marquis pulls a pair of special gloves over his hands, then starts wiping the blood off the piranha’s face with white towels that Stone Mask provides. Joyous moves just as fast and skilled while he cleans the scene, suddenly assisted by people pouring in from around the fake wall. I recognize some of them from the banquet.

I’m being led out through the back, into a limo. I’m shivering and I’m sure I’ll pass out, but then the Marquis takes the place opposite from me, looking elegant and youthful as if nothing happened, removing his gloves the way I saw him at the Royale.

“You weren’t mocking,” I breathe with my last drop of self-awareness. “You’re indeed a demon.”

“Demons are the creation of a god, Saphira. I’m the creation of a man.”

***

He walks directly to me, elegant and dangerous like a panther, his dark eyes hypnotic on that youthful ivory face. He extends his hand – gloved and black – and I’m compelled to offer mine. He leans in and takes it to his lips, his eyes fixed on my face, threatening as hell from under his brows.

Soon his arm is around me, keeping me close to his body that feels hard and delicious under his clothes. He’s using that inexplicable power he has over me to influence my feelings, and I don’t stand a chance to resist him. He leads me around to greet people, who congratulate and stare. I’m sure I look like a zombie. I can’t even speak, as if he put a spell on me that seals my lips to anyone but him. I feel like a living mind in a corpse, I want to scream but I’m unable to.

Lauren bats her lashes at the Marquis when we come to her circle, smiling seductively. He gives her a reserved smile back, no more. If I were myself, I’d probably welcome her winning him over, but I’m not myself.

After a while the Marquis and I have a moment alone with a glass of red wine, and his hold on me lessens. I take the chance to win some of his trust, since it seems like my only option.

“You were right,” I mutter with some difficulty.

He takes the glass to his lips, looking purposefully away, as if to allow me to regain some self-control. “About what?”

“You did have the best of reasons to take Pukov’s life.”

“I’m glad we begin to think alike.”

“Who was that woman, Marquis?” I dare. “The one Pukov killed?”

“He beat and raped her, then had others do the same,” he cuts. “But he wasn’t the one to kill her.”

My throat knots. It dawns on me. “The man at the Royale, he was one of them?”

“Your wit is quick.”

“My God. They’re all from Northville.”

“And they’re all here now.”

I can’t believe my ears. Instinctively I look around, my gaze sweeping over every male face starting with my father – an obsolete, dusty Godfather-type of businessman – and ending with Jeremy, who stands a protective pillar by his sister Jeanie and Virgin Vivien, frowning at his suspect – the Marquis. William “Billy” Dean – the mouse-faced notary public who’s had a crush on Lauren forever – would never fit the profile after my standards. Maybe Ronald Lord Barkley, the livid head of the lunatic asylum; he looks deranged enough.

But when the Marquis glides behind me, one arm coiling around my stomach and the other pointing discretely but clearly in the direction of the killer, my blood turns to ice grain, scraping my veins.

“It was him.”

The words make the sky drop and squash my heart. I stare frozen, unable to feel.

“That’s why you insisted to marry me. It wasn’t just to keep me quiet about the murder at the Royale,” I whisper.

“Quick wit despite the shock. I like you more and more, Saphira.”

The haze begins to lift, and the reality presents its grotesque face – my father killed that woman. He raped and killed her, taking some sick pleasure in it. Somehow my intuition confirms, even if I would have never suspected it of my own accord.

“What do you intend to do?” I manage.

“Initially I planned a slaughter,” he hisses. I become aware of his men lining the walls, Joyous and Stone Mask guarding the exit, ready to seal it at their boss’ signal that the bloodbath may begin. I doubt they’d spare the collaterals. “But when you surprised me at the Royale, I had a much better idea.”

My skin crawls. “Who was the woman, Marquis? Who was she to you?” I force myself to look aside to his face over my shoulder. His eyes are black and deadly on my father.

“She was the woman I loved. I was very young back then, and nothing like I am now. I tried to protect her, but Pukov’s men battered me to a pulp. Pukov himself never even took notice of me.”

“But how is it possible that his men could defeat you? I mean, you’re –,” I stop.

“A monster,” the Marquis finishes for me. He smiles that wicked smile of his. “I told you, I was nothing like I am now. I was an orphan in love with an aristocrat, a hopeless but requited love. A secret love. But since I didn’t have anyone in the world but her, Pukov’s men did with me what they did with every such opportunity – they sold me to my maker.”

Chill after chill crawl under my skin. “Will you do with me what they did with her?”

Mystery replaces the threat in the Marquis’ eyes, and I’m somewhat calmer. But his good will is a mirage.

“You will assist me in my revenge, Saphira. And I’ll make my revenge epic.” With these words he extends his gloved hand again, and his power compels me to take it. He says the good-byes for both of us, and invokes a romantic chariot ride as reason for our leaving the party. The bastards don’t have a clue how very lucky they are. On the inside I’m boiling. I’m paying for the sins of sadistic perverts.

They gather at the windows and in the doorstep to watch the Marquis help me into the chariot under falling snow-flakes, believing me the fairy-tale princess, when in truth I’m the sacrificial lamb. The Marquis opens his coat like a demon his black wings to look like he’s warming me, but I can’t feel the cold anyway. My heart drums in anxiety with the tramping of horse hooves as I watch the black tower emerge from the white winter night. The Marquis’ lips touch my ear, his breath warm.

“I told you I’d be taking you with me to the underworld, Persephone.”

***

My heart pounds in fear as the Marquis leads me up the spiral stairs to the tower. This part of the manor is still in restoration, it’s dark and eerie, insects crawling in cracks and corners. Cobweb sticks to my face, and I half wish he’d use those hypnotizing powers of his on me like he did the last time. The expression on his face is wicked in the light and scorching heat of the torch, and I think he enjoys my distress.

The door to the tower creaks open, but the chamber presents some minimal amenities this time. The sight is a shade gothic, making a chill run down my spine – a dark king size bed with a black canopy and golden-rimmed pillows, a stone fireplace, a vintage vanity table and, of, course, my portrait of him. He places the torch in an iron support, and I stop in place.

“This will be your bedroom,” he says, his voice pleasant and rich. His spell clouds me, but I’m determined to resist. My fists clench by my side.

“Why an unfinished part of the manor? You have a fetish for ‘grim’?” My face burns, and I can’t blame the torch anymore.

“Oh, this will be your chamber alone. I won’t be sharing it.”

I should be relieved, and yet I’m not. “So you don’t intend to consummate the marriage?”

He gives a low laugh as he approaches, tall and warm behind me. His chin lowers to my shoulder, his fine fingers brushing my hair away, freeing the curve of my neck. A thrill goes through me at the touch of his breath on my skin.

“I like the symbol of the tower,” he murmurs, his undertones dangerous. “It’s where Henry the eighth put his allegedly adulterous wife, Anne Boleyn, before he beheaded her.”

“Is that what you intend to do? Behead me?” I struggle to keep my voice from shaking.

“You’re bold, Saphira. I like that. But I can smell your fear. The human body releases certain hormones at fear, and I’m equipped to pick up on them.”

I remember the kind of monster he is, and I can’t restrain a shudder.

“What are you going to do with me, Marquis?”

“I’ll have you do things for me, Saphira. I’ll command, and you’ll comply.”

I snort, bitter and defying. “I already saw what you can do, and the element of surprise is gone. I will not obey your orders. I’d rather die like Pukov.”

“Oh, I know you’d rather die, Saphira. You’re noble and just, true and stern, and this isn’t personal. But you happen to be the daughter of a highly despicable maggot, so you’re a collateral.”

“And you just accept collaterals.”

“I accept their fair sacrifice.”

“I will not obey you,” I repeat, shoulders square, obstinate.

“Not to save your life, and not even to save your father’s under the circumstances, yes. I imagined you’d feel that way. Which is why I said I’d make my revenge epic.”

His lips touch the curve of my neck, soft like velvet, and my skin electrifies. I stiffen and decide not to give him satisfaction, but it’s a challenge. His hand pushes my hair further to the side and drapes it over my other shoulder, while his lips trail to the nape of my neck. I try to turn and stop him, but his hands clench on my upper arms, keeping me in place, while a deep calm clouds my head like an opiate. I know he’s using his powers over me, and I wish I could defy him, but I’m falling deeper under his spell.

His fingers start unlacing the back of my dress, slowly, his kisses light on my neck, making pleasure ripple on my skin. My laces now unfastened, he brushes the dress off my arms, and the silk pools at my feet, leaving me half naked. I can feel his hips against my naked backside – the silk wouldn’t have looked good with anything but a thong.

He undoes my bra, and before I know it, his hands cup my breasts. They’re modest but firm, enough to fill his velvet palms that make my nipples harden. He loses a low moan of satisfaction and turns me around.

I’m now facing him, a handsome monster with fine ivory face and pitch black eyes that drill into mine, taking possession of my mind. He’s still fully dressed in his dark suit while I’m standing vulnerable before him in my thong and halter stockings, my hair undone and my high heels still on. He drinks in the sight of me with avaricious eyes and pushes me to the wall, his lust unleashed. My back slaps against the cold wall while the Marquis pushes against me, his body rock-hard under his shirt. He grabs me beneath my thigh, invading me with a possessive kiss.

I’m hot and burning as his other hand works between us on his fly, and only a moment later I feel his manhood like smooth stone between my legs. His push against my body makes me pull up one knee while he kneads my back thigh with a strong hand and enters me. I arch my back as I receive him, burning with lust and knotting my hands in the rich gloss of his hair. I’m hot and pasty down there, and yet it hurts as he grinds deeper into me, groaning with pleasure and growing brutal. He’s big and relentless, his thrusts making the shoe fall of my foot and the other tip lift from the ground.

He takes me like a master his slave, and yet I build-up like never before, coming hard around him and unable to restrain cries of ecstasy, pulling his hair. It’s not enough to even move him, and he takes in my manifestation with rapacious black eyes. I can feel him throb inside me as he finds his release, his groans low but rich. I fall apart in his arms, heaving and looking down over his arm, ashamed of myself.

We spend moments like that, and his spell on me begins to lessen. Still, the flutter of my heart and the clench of desire inside me don’t pull back, and I’m forced to admit it’s not his mysterious powers that have me charmed. He makes me stand again, his hands on my shoulders keeping me to the wall as he searches my eyes. I blink often, unable to look him in the eye, but then he lets me fall down to my knees before him.

Puzzled, I look up. The anger in his eyes strikes me. It’s the anger of someone who’s lost control. He buttons up his fly looking down on me, and walks like a feral to the fireplace. From the tripod candelabrum on the mantelpiece where the top candle should’ve been he removes a small camera. I’m stunned, and I feel dirty. I crouch in a corner, covering my breasts with my hands, glaring at him with powerless reproof.

“You won’t obey my orders to stay alive,” he says, his gaze dark and dangerous. “But you will comply to keep this from reaching everyone you know.”

“That’s beneath you, Marquis.”

“It’s the only way to manipulate an ice queen,” he sneers. “As I’ve said, your father was the man who killed the woman I loved. But several harmed her before him. You will be my instrument to wreck them all, one by one.”

***

Enjoyed this? Let me know your thoughts in a comment, and stay tuned for Part II on Sunday!

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2

Read the entire Part 1 of this story here, and Part 2 (“The Marquis”) here. Have fun!

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The Executioner – Ep. VII – The Man and the Shadow

I rushed backwards, waving my hands in a desperate attempt to cling to something, anything, and soon a wall of bodies replaced the gleam that had sent me frantic.

My brain banged against my skull for moments until I realized someone shook me. The physical sensation brought me back to awareness. George’s long, thin face appeared as an intermittent vision as I blinked fast, trying to gather myself. His words sounded muffled and the first thing that came through clear was, “Are you going mad too, Alice?”

“The window! I saw someone!” I squealed.

The Wretch moaned in his corner and my head snapped to him. His eyes were wide with fear, fixed on the pane, while his body struggled with invisible enemies, the chair screaming under him.

A commotion started, and before long people claimed, “There’s nothing here.” I pushed George aside but still hung on him for support as I craned my neck to see the panes. My jelly-soft legs barely kept me standing.

Indeed, darkness spread over the window, only the snow in its corners glistening like the veil of a ghost.

“I saw someone,” I whispered. Someone, I was sure of it. And indeed no wolf. The eyes had been at the same level as mine, which meant whoever had stood out there was a tall person. Outside the ground leveled much lower than inside the lodge, I’d realized that when I’d been out on the porch. No animal standing on its back legs could have as much as reached the sill, unless that animal was a bear.

“Are you sure?” George asked.

I already had second thoughts – not as to the glowing eyes, but to whether or not I should insist on it. Bottom line was: we all sank in deep shit, but panic was a bad advisor.

“No. I started when I bumped against the window, the rest could’ve been just in my head.”

“For fuck’s sake, Alice, you almost gave me a heart attack.” George scorned.

“We have enough pressure already,” another one called, his face hidden in the group.

I shut out all reproaches and welcomed Ruxandra’s comforting presence by my side.

“This whole thing is getting to us all,” she said. She allowed me some time to gather myself, but the small slaps on my hands and face were a clear sign of urgency.

“What did you get out of Marius?” I asked as soon as I could master my voice. Now, I too had a great urge to find out what the hell had put us in this situation.

Ruxandra searched my eyes, ensuring I could stand, then slapped me lightly once more. “Follow me.”

Before I could blink she started toward the door, snaking her way to the kitchen. I hurried to catch up with her down the narrow hallway, bumping into people who talked about what was to be done.

We found Damian and Hector forging the same kind of plans with a few others – including George, to my surprise, who listened with a serious look on his face, nodding. He seemed proud to have become a part of their closest gang.

Damian stood with his back at the counter, knives and other metallic, rusty objects lined on it, the sheepskin coat folded on a chair by his side.

“ . . . not before Hector and I have scouted the area,” he concluded as we came in.

I wanted to punch myself for how my heart fluttered as I laid eyes on him. I’d already waved a finger at my inner self and decided that Damian Novac was a no-no. I reminded myself that, if we survived this mess, he’d only have me toss and turn at night, obsessing about the smallest gestures he made and the most meaningless of glances – like I had until now. Not to mention that we most probably owed him this shitty situation. The man was serious trouble, no matter from what angle I looked at him.

Sick of myself, I kept a low profile by the door, but Ruxandra went straight to the men.

“Have you seen this before?” she interrupted Damian bluntly, her tone accusatory.

“Seen what?” Damian’s deep, forbidding tone shattered Ruxandra’s determination, but she picked herself up quickly enough.

“Damian, you’re keeping things from us and– ”

“I thought you wanted to ask, not impute something,” he interrupted.

Ruxandra brought a fist to her mouth and cleared her voice, probably buying time to rephrase once more. As she spoke, she sounded defiant. “I see, this is a game. Okay. Let’s play. Why did you have us gather all objects that can be used as weapons?”

“So we know exactly where to reach in case of need,” he replied as if he were prepared for the question.

“Why not simply arm everybody?”

“Because I don’t want you panicking at the slightest sound and hurting each other.”

“I’m sorry, Damian, but that sounds more like an excuse than a reason.”

“Do you want panicky drunks waving broken bottles around your pretty face before somebody actually bursts in?”

“You expect people to barge in on us?”

Damian’s eyes flashed as he spoke the next words.

People,” he stressed, as if saying a name, “chased the three of us from the village back here. They tried to kill one of us. A lash whipped out from the darkness and wound around his ankle. They dragged him, his body hit against trees and rocks until he came to a precipice, where he almost saw his end. Yes, I think People will eventually barge in on us, and they’ll bring some hellish killing techniques with them.” His voice was steady, but anger lurked deep in it.

“You make it sound like People are pretty good at what they do. And yet here you are, Damian, all three of you. Why do you think you made it back?”

“What are you implying, Ruxandra?”

“I’m implying People want us all in one place,” she said, raising her chin and taking a step closer to him. “I’m implying they were after us from the beginning. They were after the whole group, whom they want to take down in one blow. I’m implying they can take us down in one blow. I don’t think they need guerilla tactics, but just wanted to scare you, so you wouldn’t leave this place again. You made it back because People let you. They chased you back to your cage, and now they’re waiting for the right moment to attack, which is why they haven’t stormed in after you. You didn’t bother to block the door, so I think you know this damned well. You know what to expect.”

Damian’s jaw tightened. “And your question is?”

“Am I right?”

“It doesn’t sound like you still have a doubt.”

“To make the question clearer still: Have you met People before, Damian?”

His features hardened even more. “I have.”

My jaw dropped. Ruxandra straightened up, even more accusatory. “Then why don’t you tell us what to expect now?”

Damian’s face sealed off all expression, turning into a beautiful, sculpted mask.

“Because it won’t do you any good.” His eyes swept over us cluttered in the doorstep. I thought his gaze rested on me a second longer than on any other face.

He grabbed the sheepskin and started to the door. Toward me. I melted on my feet, cursing myself silently. How could I be so taken with him, even now? Stupid bimbo!

Hector followed, and George scurried after them like a pet. Those of us who clustered in their way drew aside. My heart smote me as Damian passed by, leaving a trace of cool air and fir scent behind. The others trailed after them like tide, soon leaving Ruxandra and me alone, gawking at each other.

***

Previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III, Episode IV, Episode V, Episode VI.

Hope you enjoyed this:) If you did, I’d love to read from you in a comment. If the story of The Executioner now happens not to let you sleep, it’s available in whole here. Enjoy!

Also, stay tuned for a new episode of The Marquis on Friday. Check out all previous episodes of The Marquis here.

 

High Risk – Ep. 25 of “The Marquis”

Jeanie and I watch them from the round window in the attic. The place I once called my “haven” now feels like a nest of vipers as Northville’s finest and most respectable personalities pour inside my parental home. Inspector Jeremy Simmons has been holding meeting after meeting to instigate them against the Marquis.

He has policemen guarding the building to make sure anyone intent on seeing me stays out, and he rarely shows himself to avoid my wrath. Jeanie is my only authorized company, as well as my mother, but I’ve refused to see her.

“He’s invited the elite,” Jeanie says as she places her tea on the table. “Your father – sorry, Gunnar Lothar – was one of them, and they’re easily moved by his murder. They’ll use their influence to make nasty propaganda against the Marquis among the town’s people.”

“The elite,” I whisper as I watch the arrogant suited men getting out of their fat cars, and the women clutching handkerchiefs in false sobbing under large designer hats. “I wonder how many of these rats were among Catherine’s rapists, and how many of these starving wretches open their legs in exchange for yacht rides and handbags despite knowing it.”

“I understand it’s hard on you, but try not to think about that,” Jeanie says. There’s something different about her today. Something jumpy, her eyes darting around every now and then as if she expects the walls to actually grow ears.

“Believe it or not, it’s easier than thinking about Gunnar’s rotting two meters beneath the earth.”

She leans in and touches my forearm to make me look her in the face, acting like someone who’s using a brief moment of opportunity.

“I did what you asked and talked to Joyous to arrange you a meeting with the Marquis, Saphira. It’s happening tonight.”

As my mind wraps around the idea joy fills my chest. I grab Jeanie’s hand in anticipatory anxiety. “And you think it’ll work? Jeremy will sure have men on my tracks, he’s had me followed for days.”

Jeanie gives me a sly smile. “Joyous organized a pub party with masquerade theme. We won’t be leaving the house wearing or carrying masks so Jeremy won’t suspect that we’re going to that pub of the whole bunch in the Old Downtown, but the hostess will hand us our fake visages once we’re in, and his men will lose our trail.”

“You’ve thought of everything, haven’t you?”

“Joyous has.”

I wrap my arms around her, and barely manage to restrain my glee for the rest of the day. I can only think of Kieran, and that I’ll actually see him again tonight.

When the moment comes for Jeanie and me to descend the stairs in the evening I’m anxious but determined. I’ve defied worse men than Jeremy by now, to put it mildly. I’m wearing leather trousers and high heels, but underneath I have fishnet stockings and in my bag there’s a scarf that I can use as skirt. We’re planning to change in the ladies room at the pub so Jeremy’s men don’t recognize us by our outfits.

We bump into Jeremy at the front doors, blocking our way out. He stands flanked by two of his policemen, hands on the holster, gun easy to see. Being muscular and dressed in black he’d make an impression on anyone who’s seen and experienced less than me lately. His sister overhauls me and walks straight to him.

Despite her red skirt, black pumps and leather jacket she looks like a milky-skinned, fluffy schoolgirl. Her shiny curls bounce down her shoulders, and I realize – maybe for the first time in my life – that Jeanie Simmons, the little girl who used to watch with her nose stuck to the window as her older brother played with us in the yard has grown into a young woman. But her face is still as innocent as back then, and her skin as beautiful.

“Jeremy, you promised,” she whines at her brother. “Saphira has had enough grief, she needs something to help lift her spirits.”

Jeremy looks me up and down. I know he wants me – he’s always had a thing for leather pants and high heels. His eyes are on me, but he speaks to his sister.

“And I’m not in your way. But the boys here will be coming with you, and they won’t leave your side. The Marquis could be lurking.”

“But Jeremy, they’re wearing uniforms and they carry guns! They’ll freak everybody out!”

Jeremy glances at them. “Okay, get civilian jackets and hide your gear,” he commands the men, who do as told and escort us to the car while a frowning, suspicious Jeremy watches from the door.

Jeanie and I can’t talk on the way to the Old Downtown, since the men’s ears are surely funnels that lead straight to Jeremy, but we’re both restless. Our plans have gone to waste. Even if the hostess gives us masks at the door, we won’t be able to lose the men.

“I wonder why Jeremy didn’t come himself,” Jeanie spews and folds her arms across her chest like a pouty child as the men escort us among the crowd and the pubs in the Old Downtown.

“He didn’t want a fight with me.” I sound as defiant as I feel. “He’ll be avoiding me for a while longer until he thinks I’ve calmed down.”

The air is wet and chilly, soaking my flesh. Like Jeanie, I hug myself to keep the cold out of my bones and hurry awkwardly in my ouchy shoes.

There’s great hustle at the entrance to the Black Horse. Once inside the foyer and among the aspiring attendees the wet cold turns to sweaty heat. Bodies crush Jeanie and me into our companions, some people rub between us, but the policemen hustle their way back in position quickly.

I’m ever more desperate that we won’t be able to lose them as we approach the hostess, who imparts coupons and gesticulates, establishing some order. She’s costumed as a witch, but she manages to get the chaotic crowd through as efficiently and fast as a jail warden. Soon I’m right in front of her. She looks me straight in the eye, and I recognize Lord Barkley’s secretary from the lunatic asylum.

I’m sweating, certain I’m lost. A scream so sharp that it stabs my ears shoots from amidst the crowd behind and a great commotion starts, crushing and swaying us like a violent sea storm.

 

Next episode.

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The Messenger – Ep. 24 of “The Marquis”

I sit frozen in my black dress with palms joined on my lap. The funeral unfolds before my blank eyes, and so do the days after. I count them by the number of times Jeanie Simmons – Jeremy’s curly-haired, rosy-cheeked, fluffy younger sister and my dearest friend – enters with food. I nibble just enough of it to keep me alive, but my appetite is as dead as the monster who fathered me, and who now lays two meters beneath ground level.

“Are you still seeing Joyous?”

Her hazel eyes dart around, as if the walls have ears. “You know I can’t answer that, Saph.”

Of course, he’s the Marquis’ ‘cousin’ – in truth one of his fellow seprpent-killers. I lower my voice and grab her elbow. “If you are, you need to help me, Jeanie. I need to get back with the Marquis.”

Jeanie’s hand covers mine that I now realize is so clenched around her fluffy elbow that my knuckles show.

“Something must be terribly wrong with you, Saph,” she whispers.  She looks me in the eye with a curious expression. “You haven’t spoken at all since you saw Mr Lothar dead in the study, and now that you do open your mouth it’s to talk about the Marquis. Is that a way of dealing with your grief? I mean, Gunnar Lothar is dead, your own –”

“Don’t even say it,” I cut her off. “That man was a monster, a . . . Whenever I think about him I want to rip the flesh off my bones for being his child.” On a second thought I shrug. “I suppose I must be grieving, and anger makes it all more bearable.”

Stomping up the stairs makes Jeanie’s mouth close before she can say another word. The door opens and Jeremy enters the attic in a confident prance, his muscular physique barely making it through the doorframe. The police officers who came with him remain outside the open door. He walks straight to the window with a triumphant attitude.

“I’ll make this short, Saphira,” he says, staring proud out the window. “The coroner called. They established Mr Lothar’s death was not suicide.” He turns to assess my expression as he gives me the news, cocking an eyebrow. “He was murdered.”

He lets moments pass to allow the information to settle in.

“Do you happen to know anybody who had a reason to kill him?” He continues mockingly. “Someone who wanted revenge, maybe?”

The Marquis’ words from the day we went to the asylum come back to me. “Would you consider that I hurt you, if I took revenge on your father?” And yet he wasn’t the only one with a motive.

“I also know of someone who goes to terrible lengths to keep his real identity secret,” I retort. “Someone who set Vivien Grant’s house on fire to kill her. Someone who’s put her mother in the lunatic asylum and has the poor woman so terrified that she won’t talk. I’m sure the same person hung Gunnar by the chandelier too – Ivan Basarab. Gunnar knew his true identiy. Ivan Basarab is terribly dangerous Jeremy, and despite what you might think, you can’t control him.”

Jeremy’s cocky attitude turns to anger. His face goes red.

“The whole town will believe it was the Marquis, Saphira,” he barks. “They’ll burn down his manor like peasants did haunted castles back in the Dark Ages eventually.”

Jeremy’s hatred of the Marquis fills the room like floating poison. I remember how the Marquis twisted his arm behind his back at the asylum, keeping him in check despite Jeremy’s big muscles and violent struggles, forcing down his ears the information that his own father had been a rapist, a monster.

“You hate him for having told you the truth.” I hold Jeremy’s gaze, defiant.

“Maybe, a little. But, most of all, I hate him for having taken you away from me.”

***

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Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment, I’m always ecstatic to read from you. Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the story from the start available here (Part I – Saphira), and here (Part II – The Marquis.) Enjoy!

 

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The Punishment of an Evil Man – Ep. 23 of “The Marquis”

Jeremy wraps the place up, giving his men curt orders and telling Lord Barkley to shut up each time the man opens his mouth.

“Anything you say can and will be used against you, sir, I must remind you,” he says coldly.

His men scurry around taking “prints” of the Marquis. They’re still in shock, but Jeremy managed to get them working despite that.

He moves his bulky frame around, doing what he must as head of the team, but he’s obviously distressed from what he’s found out. There’s something wild in his eyes, and the expression of his steroid- and testosterone-transformed features, square and shadowed by his three-day beard, make him look as deranged as the lunatics that inhabit this asylum. I’d like to remind him about the sewers, but I don’t dare to, he looks so angry.

Not even outside do I dare address him. We’re riding in a police van. I’m in the back holding my crying mother’s hand, her sobbing and nose-blowing accompanying the humming of the engine. Jeremy sits across from me in silence. He doesn’t even look at me. When we stop in front of my parental home I realize what’s happening, and I shake my head violently.

“No, I’m not going in there.”

“Yes you are. Your father has been worried sick about you,” Jeremy says. He sounds as cold as he had with Lord Barkley, and also a shade spiteful. As if it were in any way my fault that his father had been part of the group that had raped Catherine Lancaster. As if it were my fault that his father had been as much of a monster as mine.

“He pushed me in the Marquis’ arms himself, you know this,” I retort in a biting tone. “He was happy to see us depart together on the night he announced our engagement. But maybe it’s you who should have a word with Gunnar. In the end, the Marquis is right – Gunnar and his group perpetrated a terrible crime, and they should have to answer for it.”

“We have no proof for that crime, Saphira,” Jeremy says, keeping his glare out the side window. “I can’t corner people based on allegations alone, I’m sure you understand.”

My mouth curls in a sour expression. “You only pretended to believe me when I told you the story? Is that it?” Now that I come to think about it – indeed, why hadn’t he investigated as soon as he’d heard about Gunnar’s crime?

“No, it’s not. But I still need proof in order to take action.”

“If you only investigated Catherine Lancaster’s case, maybe you’d get your evidence,” I say through my teeth.

“If you only let me do my job without acting all smart-ass, things would be different.”

“Different how, Jeremy? Based on how you’re doing your job, these people’s crimes will remain unheard of.”

I’m aware of the poison in my tone, but I can’t help it. Jeremy springs forward and grabs my jaw in his huge rough hand.

“The Marquis of Vandenesse is London’s priority, and with good reason. London sent me back here for him. He’s the most dangerous of all killers I’ve ever investigated, Saphira, and you know his vile nature better than anyone. What changed? Why do you try to redirect me to your father Gunnar and his group of bastards? Why aren’t you vehement against the Marquis anymore?”

“Jeremy, please listen to me.” My jaw hurts from his grip and I speak with difficulty. He notices and lets go. I rub my cheek to sooth the pain as I talk. “The Marquis isn’t the evil creature you and I believed him to be. He talked to me, he told me things . . . Listen, Jeremy,” I take a deep breath and say the next sentence with a heavy heart. “I have reason to believe that my father is Ivan Basarab, the faceless Slayer. This is your chance to find out so much, Jeremy.”

“No, Gunnar is not the Slayer,” Mum reacts as if from a dream. She’s still pale from shock,  but apparently she’s coming back to herself. “But I’ve heard that name many times from him. Even a few days ago he talked on the phone with this Ivan Basarab.”

I’m completely surprised, and Jeremy too. His small dark eyes narrow. “Okay, all right. I’ll have a word with your father, even though I don’t believe this is the right time.”

“Wonderful. And then please let me return to the Marquis’ manor.”

He grins. “No, can’t do, Saphira. You’ll be interested to hear we found witnesses of the Marquis’ murder on Vladimir Pukov. His manor is surrounded, and we’ll arrest him on sight. You and the Marquis will never come together again.”

Another flash of despair goes through my heart. “But . . . There were no witnesses to what happened with Pukov. You must have ‘produced’ them.”

Jeremy’s eyes narrow into bitter slits. “Just a short while ago you were ready to testify against the Marquis yourself. Come on tell me, Saphira, what swayed you? Was it his declarations of love? Was it his hypnotic powers? Or did you actually fall for him?”

My lips freeze, but the truth must be clear in my eyes, which Jeremy stares into closely.

“If you switched sides, things will end up badly for you, Saphira,” are his last words before he looks me up and down in disgust. He opens the door, inviting both Mum and me out of the van. I’d like to resent him for his abusive attitude, but I can’t. It’s not every day you discover your father was a rapist and maybe even a killer, so he has mitigating circumstances.

My heart drums in anxiety as we head toward the house, and I’m sure so does Mum’s. The hand that squeezes mine is sweaty, and a look at her reveals wide scared eyes and stiff features. She’s still in shock, which is probably why she didn’t react to Jeremy’s treatment of me in the van. I feel lonely, naked and lost, and I long for the Marquis’ protective arms around me, for the reassuring sound of his rich voice in my ear. It’s incredible how my tormentor of yore has become my only haven.

The house looms bigger before us as we approach it. With its grey walls damp from bad weather it resembles a huge beast rising from the ocean, spreading out its jaws to swallow me. My throat clogs with panic. I don’t want to go in there, and I don’t want to face the monster who fathered me.

The door screeches open like the entrance to an abandoned, haunted house, but inside the dim corridor everything is in place, just like the last time I saw it. The stairs leading to the upper floor and the attic, the entrance to the drawing room on the right and the one to Gunnar’s study on the left, all appear imbued with an air of morbidity.

I look around, unable to move as I hear the door closing behind me. I’m trapped inside with Mum and Jeremy, and a knot moves up my throat. I’m growing sick.

“Please announce your husband you’re back, along with Saphira, and tell him I’d like a word,” Jeremy commands Mum.

She swallows and proceeds towards the study hunchbacked, her hands trembling on the knobs as she pushes the doors open. She stiffens in place, and her mouth falls open.

“Mrs Lothar,” Jeremy nudges her, at first only verbally, and then physically as he approaches. But as he raises his gaze from Mum to whatever greets them from that study, he bursts inside. Alarmed, I follow. A second after my eyes fall on Gunnar I scream until the veins in my neck swell.

He hangs from a rope tied to the chandelier, his feet dangling over a fallen stool. His shirt is open to reveal his hairless white stomach, and his mouth sticks thick and black out of his mouth. His fleshy cheeks are bluish-yellow, and he’s already started to smell. I breathe in the stench of death and scream long and hard until I fall exhausted on the floor.

 

***

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Bad Blood – Ep. 22 of “The Marquis”

“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.

***

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Full Moon and the Serpent – Ep. 12 of The Marquis

Saphira doesn’t fully trust the Marquis, yet she can’t resist his pull. She finds herself giving in to his advances, but this is no ordinary night in which they can just be together. Full moon sheds light on another one of the Marquis’ secrets, which proves perilous for the young woman.

***

The Marquis’ mouth closes on mine, soft and warm, while his arm curls around my waist, pressing me gently to him. His body feels stone hard under his shirt, and he smells young and manly and alluring. I turn to jelly in his arms, allowing him to stretch me on the bed under him with no resistance. His kiss makes me dizzy, and small stars seem to circle my head.

This feels very different from what happened last night, even though his passion grows in the same possessive way. His hands explore my body greedily as his tongue consumes me in deep kisses. My mind empties and I part my legs, ready to accept him, but he breaks the intimacy, bridging to distance with thirsty pecks on my lips.

He pulls away and stands, yet the expression in his face shows it’s not easy. His neckline is open, his hair a bit ruffled and his face so youthful and handsome that it hurts. He retreats as I scramble out of bed and advance toward him, wanting him so badly that I lose control and all sense of shame.

“Please,” I beg, losing my bra and letting my panties fall to the floor. I now stand completely naked before him, smeared with soot, my hair a messy blonde broom, hoping that I look depraved enough to stir the animal in him. I want him inside of me so much I barely refrain from touching myself.

His dark, hypnotic eyes wander all over me with a hunger that makes me moisten and lose a sigh.

“Please,” I repeat, but manage to keep in place.

“It can’t be, Saphira, not now,” he says, his voice low and husky. “Not tonight.”

“Why?”

“I can’t explain.” He retreats further, his white hand now on the doorknob. I see the skin patching into alligator leather, then fading into white human flesh, then pulsing into faint spots of leather again, and I realize he’s fighting to keep back the serpent.

My eyes find his just in time to see them narrowing, his black irises turning to slits. He makes a pained grimace and pulls the door open. The fight between human and serpent makes him bare his teeth, a pointy tongue slithering out and licking his upper lip. When he speaks, his slivery voice makes my hair stand on end.

“Trust me, Saphira. Please, trust me,” he hisses and throws the door open, lunging into the obscurity.

For moments I stand there, naked, stunned and with my heart pounding until Zed appears in the doorframe. His stony features are locked in urgency. He can’t help looking me up and down –I’m a naked person dirty with soot. I snatch the duvet from the bed and wrap it fast around me.

“What’s with the Marquis?” I inquire.

“It’s a bad night,” Zed says and throws a glance out the window. I do the same.

“Full moon? But, is that –”

“It has nothing to do with the occult or cheesy magic,” Zed explains in an even tone. “The moon has power on the inner workings of the Serpent as it does over the tide.”

He turns to leave, but then turns to me again on a second thought. “We have strong reason to believe your friend Vivien Grant is alive. The Marquis ordered us to find her and protect her. For your sake. Believe it or not, you’re high up on his list of priorities, and in a good way. You have every reason to trust him.”

“Have you been eavesdropping?” I breathe, getting the goosebumps at his words.

He looks me up and down coldly, but not without interest – more like curiosity – and he leaves without replying.

***

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The Mysterious Man – Ep. 11 of The Marquis

Forced to face the dangerous Marquis in the dark tower, fear took hold of Saphira. But it turned out the Marquis wasn’t there to hurt her, but to disclaim any fault in her best friend’s supposed death. And he doesn’t stop there. He has truths for Saphira that will shake everything she thought she knew, including information about a mysterious enemy.

***

 

I measure him up and down. Tall and strong, dark eyes intense and sovereign in his ivory face, he looks honest and confident, and even a shade respectable. I decide to at least assume he’s telling the truth.

“Say I take that for a fact. What do you suppose the ‘mysterious man’ was after? Why did he need to get inside the asylum?”

“The sewers underneath the asylum link to the catacombs under this manor. He wanted access to those sewers and therefore to me. He wants my head.”

A revelation hits me. “You think the mysterious man is Ivan Basarab. The Slayer.”

The Marquis snorts as if insulted. “The Slayer. Undeserved distinction for a coward who fights from the shadow. He’s afraid to face me for real.”

“You think he succeeded in breaching the sewers?”

“If he did, it’s irrelevant. I secured them from halfway to here. But I do have something more on Basarab’s true identity. I think he’s a Northville local.”

A shock. “Say what?”

The Marquis continues. “Your friend Vivien Grant clearly knew him. Her mother too. I also think that he was a member of the group that raped and killed Catherine, and that gave me over to the people who turned me into what I am today.”

The pathos with which he speaks the words, the fearlessness in “rape” and “kill” and “what I am today” emphasize his entitlement to revenge. I surprise myself indulging him. And accepting his theory. Tension dissolves from my body as I begin to understand things. I let go of my knees.

“When you proved to be stronger and deadlier than the other serpents, you became dangerous to your makers,” I draw the conclusion. “Then you went independent. That’s when they must’ve activated Basarab, the Slayer. He’s always been one of them.”

The Marquis smiles a disturbingly charming smile. “You’re very bright, Saphira.”

“So Ivan Basarab is a false name for a man we already know.” I attempt to ignore how his praise makes me feel.

“That’s right.”

He looks hard at me with those impossibly black eyes that seem to hypnotize me, only that this time I’m sure he’s not trying. Silence settles between us for moments in which I just stare, unable to rip my eyes from him.

“What are you thinking?” He whispers, lowering himself so close that his bitter-sweet breath touches my face, the mattress and the pillows giving in under his weight as he leans on his hands. I feel lost.

“I’m wondering why I find it so easy to take your word for everything,” I whisper.

His expression deepens, his eyes now flooding mine. It’s hard to breathe, they seem to weigh on me.

“Because I may be a villain, but I’m the only person without a reason to lie to you. All you ever got from me was the truth. You’re beginning to trust me.”

I let my gaze wander all over his marble face.

“I must be really stupid.”

“By no means. You’re one of the smartest people I’ve ever met, actually. And I wish to win  your complete trust.”

“What use do you have for it?”

“It’s the key to your affection.”

My heart flutters. “You desire my affection?”

“Ardently,” he says, his eyes lowering to my lips.

 

***

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Truth – Ep. 10 of The Marquis

Engaged with the Marquis against her will, Saphira tried to escape, but has been intercepted and witnessed her best friend’s house burning. After a talk with the girl’s mother she’s drawn the conclusion that her best friend’s fate was the Marquis’ work – as a warning to her, among other things – and now, once again in the Marquis’ power, she must face him. But this meeting will reveal another side to the story that Saphira didn’t expect.

***

From fire-fighter to cop to nurse I get transferred back to Zed’s hands, who drives me back to the Marquis’ manor in silence. I’m dizzy and coughing and convinced that the man Mrs Grant referred to is the Marquis, and that Vivien had discovered his secrets, which put her in death’s way.

I’m shaking as Zed escorts me to my chamber in the tower and seals the door behind me, pulling three heavy locks from the outside. In a fit I take off my soot-smeared clothes and brace myself, rubbing my arms up and down nervously and chewing on my lower lip until I taste blood with ash. Curling between the cold pillows on the bed, feeling dirty and drained, I stare at the ragged canopy hanging over me as my mind spins around Vivien. My head snaps to the door the moment it creaks open, and the Marquis enters the chamber.

I retreat to the bedhead and brace my knees, but lose control of my shaking as he approaches. My lips are dry and cracked, yet the tip of my nose drips sweat. Those black eyes, demonic in his pale face, scare me to death, but for the first time he doesn’t try to numb me with his hypnotic powers. His neckline is open, revealing part of his marble-like pectorals, lean but strong and smooth like serpent muscle.

“You really believed you could elude me, Saphira?” His voice is calm and slithery. I can’t bring myself to speak. My vocal cords seem stuck, and my arms lock painfully around my knees. I wouldn’t be able to let go if I wanted to, I’m so afraid.

“There’s no way out of this for you but the one I provide,” he says and stops still, staring hard at me. For moments he looks a statue of marble with eyes of coal, a deceivingly handsome monster.

“What will you do with me?” The question comes out of my throat in a hoarse whisper. I think I recognize a shade of hurt in his eyes.

“Why Jeremy Simmons of all people?” He demands.

“He –” I cough and lock my fingers into my wrists. The marks left by the cuffs hurt, distracting my attention from the fear and restoring my ability to speak. “He was the only one who offered an alternative.”

“And did you consider the consequences in case his alternative went wrong?”

I ponder. “I didn’t.”

“You didn’t.”

He walks around the bed and stops by my side. I sink my fingers deeper into my wrists, but can’t keep down the fear anymore. He’s too close now. I expect him to grab my hair and pull my head back, then push his serpent tongue deep through my mouth to my inner organs and rip out my stomach like he did Pukov’s, but what he does is sit by me, a humid coldness emanating from his body. I know he’s warm in his human form, so he must be in an intermediary state between man and serpent. I shudder with horror.

“A few weeks ago, your friend Vivien Grant began seeing a myserious man,” he says, his voice dazzling my senses. “They met only at night. Always around the lunatic asylum, according to what the police discovered by now, but he kept cloaked and hooded, and no one other than Vivien ever saw his face. Last time they saw each other they also entered the asylum. The place is as fortified as a high-security prison, as you sure know, so Vivien must’ve used her good relations to some of the personnel – which is what the mysterious man needed her for. After he got what he wanted he tried to dispose of her and any proof of their relationship, and caused the fire. The girl’s mother was probably supposed to die in it as well, but managed to escape.”

He looks into my eyes, the blackness of his gaze chilling. I can’t imagine how I could ever accept his closeness while “sober” of his hypnotic powers, he’s such a perfect blend between man and beast, so unnatural. His beauty is of a rather fantastic than human nature, and it’s hard to put up with for a normal person. “He has you mesmerized,”He has you all fooled,” Mrs Grant’s words come back to me. He must wield immense power over the psyche.

“Mrs Grant says Vivien didn’t trust the ‘mysterious man’. So she couldn’t have helped him,” I manage.

“He must’ve found some way to persuade her. Blackmail maybe?”

“No way. Vivien is – was – as clean as an angel.”

“Then maybe threats? Against her family, her friends?”

“You should know,” I hiss between my teeth.

“Saphira, I never lied to you. I don’t have to, you see, because I’m in a position of power. So believe me when I tell you – I’m not the mysterious man.”

***

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Blood Trails – Ep. 9 of The Marquis

Forced by the dark and dangerous Marquis into an engagement that serves his purposes of revenge, young artist Saphira finds herself at a crossroads of emotions – dread and attraction, which she blames on the Marquis’ mysterious hypnotic powers. She yet decided to try and escape him. She left with Inspector Jeremy Simmons, but the Marquis’ head of security, Zed, intercepted them. Behind Zed Saphira saw something burning, and when she identified what it was despair packed her.

***

Jeremy throws open the door on his side, pulls out his gun and points it at Zed over the upper frame.

“Stop right there,” he calls out, and Zed does as told. Yet nothing in the security guard’s face changes. His eyes remain steely, as if Jeremy’s action doesn’t catch him off guard, but he chooses not to react. I know how fast and deadly Zed can be, I’ve seen him on the night the Marquis killed Pukov. I know that, if he decides to, he’s quicker with that gun than Jeremy can imagine. But right now nothing of all this matters.

I throw my door open, scramble out of the car and start running, stumbling and falling and getting back up, losing my shoes and calling out Vivien’s name. Her house is burning a few streets up, and the smoke grows thicker as I approach. People run in all directions, yelling and coughing in scarves and handkerchiefs they hold at their mouths. I’m dirty and coughing by the time I reach the corner closest to Vivien’s house, where I’m forced to stop.

Through thick smoke I see fire fighters in red-and-white jackets and helmets hold bulky hoses, calling out urgent commands at each other. The tension sends a clear message – they’re doing everything they can, but they’re not optimistic. Flames surge with a roar from the window on the first floor where I know Vivien’s room is, and a woman yells somewhere close.

Even though I can’t see her right, by some mysterious mechanism in my brain I recognize her as Vivien’s Mum, and feel my way to her, keeping contact with a wall through the thickening smoke. The woman is being held back by two people, one a fire fighter by the jacket and helmet, the other civilian. I wrap my arms around her waist, making her turn around and burst into even more violent crying. Noticing she knows and accepts me, the fire fighter and the other man let go.

“Saphira!” Her arms now go around my neck and squeeze me so hard it adds to the clogging of the smoke. Despair and adrenaline feed her strength, and she doesn’t even attempt to control it until she decides she needs to face me. By what I can guess through my teary eyes her own are red, her dark hair messy like a witch’s and her voice that of a woman gone mad with pain.

“That monster –” she coughs – “He wanted to destroy all proof and he destroyed my girl in stride. He destroyed her, Saphira!”

It takes a few moments of her coughing and hysterically repeating, “He destroyed her,” until I gather myself enough to make sense of what she’s saying.

“Who? Who destroyed her, what are you talking about?”

“She wanted to unmask him, and he disposed of her. I warned her to stop the chase, I knew he was dangerous. I’ve been married to a monster like him for decades.”

That Mrs Grant would think of her husband and Vivien’s father in those terms is completely new to me, and I’m taken aback. The memory of Vivien opening her arms to stop me as I hurried to the stairs that led to the dungeons last night flashes in my mind as my lungs constrict and spit out the soot in violent coughs of my own. “Saph, we need to talk.”

“Who are you talking about, Mrs Grant?” I manage in a bruised voice.

Mrs Grant’s lips move, but a burst of flames from the house covers the sound. I wince and stagger, yet find balance again and repeat the, “who,” which for some reason Mrs Grant takes as a refusal to believe the name from my part rather than a genuine question.

“He has you mesmerized,” she admonishes. “He has you all fooled. But her he couldn’t charm, she discovered his true rot.”

“Everyone clear the street,” a fire-fighter calls, running toward us with arms spread wide as if to protect us.

“Run!” another one calls in the distance just before a huge explosion deafens me and sends my head spinning. I can’t hear anything but the buzz in my ears, and see people moving in slow motion as Mrs Grant pulls me to the ground and glass shards fly over us.

***

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Stay tuned for a nee chapter of The Executioner Part I on Thursday.