The Painter-Witch – Ep.41 of “The Marquis”

 

It’s happening. Tonight. Serpent-men are crawling on and under the fields, slithering among rocks, shrubbery and through the underground tunnels. The Black Monks began moving forward, bringing the final battle closer with the synchronized rustle of their marsh. The town people haven’t reached the property’s borders yet, but they’ll sure be here in no time, along with Jeremy’s special forces and the Elite’s mercenaries. The serpents are greatly outnumbered, and I’m their only true chance, which leans heavy on my shoulders.

I sit on the floor in the dark tower, facing a semicircle of sketches representing almost three dozens serpent-men like mirrors. I’m dishevelled and exhausted, holding the paintbrush and pencils loosely but ready to intervene if pictures start cracking with the bubonic plague. My eyes are puffy and tired, but wander relentlessly along the canvases.

I glimpse a patch that begins expanding on the cheek of Lugo’s picture on my far right. The first curse has struck, and I hurry to repair it. The plague doesn’t appear on Lugo again, but it pops up like stains of paint on different faces at very short intervals. With every repaired piece energy leaves my body, and in a matter of minutes I’m desperate. There’s no way I can keep up with the Monks’ curses, I’m overwhelmed, and the stains keep spreading.

While I rush to fix a face, the bubonic plague wastes another one within seconds. A few serpents must’ve ended up in the Black Monks’ direct line of fire, since the curses riddle them as fast as a machine gun. My hands can’t move quickly enough, and I cry out in despair. Faces practically combust before my eyes with the disease, blackening, crumpling and disappearing under the curses’ power.

There’s nothing more I can do. I fall to my knees, crying out in frustration as the night’s rustles, shrieks, groans and hisses reach me through the open window.

The Marquis, my love, might soon be lost to me. I raise my eyes to the picture I made of him all those months ago, splendid and vivid, hanging on the wall behind and above the others. His ivory features are flawless and unscathed – yet. I must pull myself together, I must save him or die trying. I get up and start toward the painting, but a pitchy, nasal, unwelcome voice makes me freeze in my tracks.

“He is indeed exquisite.”

It’s Lauren. Though I can’t bring myself to turn and face her – what happened between us last time left me with a trauma – I know she’s standing in the doorstep. Her shoes make a clicking sound on the tiles as she approaches, her eyes surely on Kieran’s picture as she speaks.

“So heartbreakingly handsome, so compelling. I would’ve turned from Basarab and betrayed his plans to the Marquis, that’s how much I desired him. But he refused me.” She’s now close behind me. “He was madly in love with you already, whether he wanted to accept it or not. He couldn’t help but be loyal to you. Well, what can I say, now you can both die loyal to each other.” There’s poison in her voice.

“Lauren, please believe me,” I manage, “I did not know what Gunnar was doing to you. He never touched me when I was a kid. Please, believe me.”

She snorts and starts walking around me, checking me out from head to toes. She clearly has the higher ground. I’m only shrouded in a stained gown, barefoot and vulnerable, while she’s dressed all in black leather resembling a character of older action movies, wearing high metal stilettos, and she holds a knife in each hand. Her blood-red hair is tightly bound on top of her head, emphasizing her sharp, angular features that might not be exactly beautiful for a skinny woman, but darn bad-girl sexy. The hostility in her turbid, cat-like greenish eyes is so intense, it can easily pass for malice, and I admit – I’m afraid of her. I keep silent, which gives her room to spit more venom at me.

“Too bad Jeremy wasn’t capable of such loyalty. He didn’t love you enough to resist me.”

“And isn’t that satisfying enough for you?”

“Enough to let you live? No.”

“Why not? You took life from me once, I was completely broken after I found you and Jeremy in bed together. And in the end, he preferred you – you’re still sleeping with each other, aren’t you? But he asked you to keep it a secret.”

Lauren’s eyes narrow. For a moment there she’s fazed, and I grab the chance. Somewhere in the background another picture crumples and dies, making rage swell inside my chest.

“You think Jeremy is Ivan Basarab, don’t you Lauren?”

She’s shocked. “You know?”

“Yes, I do. You don’t.”

“What the hell do you mean?” She grows alert, takes a step back and flashes a knife at my throat to stop my advancing. Another canvas dies, and rage grows inside of me at a scary pace. I can’t control myself anymore, and my instinct of conservation fails. I keep forcing her back, and when the tip of the knife touches my throat I brush her arm out of my way.

“Here’s a truth you might not like: Jeremy never betrayed me.”

“What the hell –”

“You’ve been fooled all along, Lauren. Ivan Basarab has a very special power – he can switch bodies. Jeremy is not the real Basarab.”

Lauren stares at me perplexed, and I know I should take it easy on her. But time is way too precious, and there’s none for “taking easy.”

“You never slept with Jeremy Simmons, Lauren, you slept with someone else. Someone who’s been hopelessly in love with you for years – Billy Dean, the Notary.”

“What? Are you mad?”

“Billy possessed Jeremy, because he knew you were into him. You slept with Jeremy’s body, but inside was Billy.”

“You’re insane.”

“Do you remember when Mr. and Mrs. Dean first adopted Billy? Where did they adopt him from? Let me refresh your memory – from a Monastery in Romania.” I glance at the window and point to it with my finger. “The Black Monks out there, where do you think they come from? It doesn’t take a brain surgeon to see the connection. The science behind what the Monks do and Billy’s own abilities is another story, but I’m sure you see where I’m getting at. Billy – by his true Romanian name Ivan Basarab – took care to always remain just a ‘face in the crowd’ so that he could implement his plans from the shadow. A face in the crowd, that’s all he ever was in Northville, even in the stories of our lives. Think about it – if you were to tell your story, how often would you mention him?”

I’m now so close to her that our noses would touch if she weren’t much taller than me on her stilettos, and I weren’t looking up at her. “When Jeremy was first swayed by your advances, just months before our wedding, Billy had taken over his body. Billy possessed Jeremy like a demon. Whenever Jeremy is himself, he still wants me. He’s not aware of what’s happening to him, which ensures that he’d never betray Billy – he thinks he was drunk the night he cheated on me with you, that’s why he never denied; but he doesn’t actually remember it. Moreover, Billy may have allowed Lord Barkley to get close to you, he even used you to get the old prick to do what he wanted, but when it came to the intimate part, he possessed the old man. The only one you actually ever slept with was Billy, always Billy.”

She blinks and drops on a box by the far wall, where I’d pushed her to as I talked. She looks around as if she’s looking for her scattered thoughts, then looks at me, then at the window.

“They all fucking used me. Gunnar used me. Billy and Jeremy used me. Everybody used me.”

I hunker down before her and take the chance to remove the knives from her hands as she gazes teary-eyed at me. I place them slowly on the floor and take her hands in mine.

“Not everybody. Lauren, you and I, we loved each other like sisters once. They say emotions never change or disappear, they are buried somewhere deep from where they will always find their way back to light, even if it’s a neurotic, sometimes even hostile way.”

Overwhelmed by melancholia, I kiss her pointy knuckles. “I want you back, Lauren. I still love you.”

She bursts out crying as if something inside her breaks loose from chains, and throws her arms around me. “After everything I’ve done to you, you can still say these words? Forgive me, Saph. Oh, God, please forgive me!”

I stroke her nape with one hand and hold her tightly with the other arm. As we let go I realize it’s still outside, calm and even suspiciously serene. Lauren and I approach the window, looking out into the night. A light goes on in the distance, then another and then another. I recognize the serpent men standing on the fields, here and there dead Black Monks. And as a whole line of torches becomes visible from behind rocks, my smile broadens.

“The town people turned against the Black Monks! Instead of going after Kieran they helped him.” As the torches approach I distinguish faces and voices, and I have a strong feeling the town people made the decision themselves, and Kieran’s influence wasn’t even necessary. They understood who the real enemy was. But Lauren isn’t as relieved as I am.

“But what about Basarab?” She says. “With the powers you told me about, he could take over extremely strong creatures to defeat the Marquis. And if he doesn’t defeat him using one body, he can try over and over again using hundreds.”

My smile might’ve just turned cunning, maybe even a shade bad. “There’s a limited number of people that Billy can possess, it only works with the weakest personalities – or with his closest friends, like Jeremy. But now even that possibility is out of his reach. I have some talents of my own, and I went creative with them.”

I turn around and point to the picture by the door, as anonymous as the man it represents – the picture of Billy Dean, in which his soul is now anchored. “Billy will never be able to leave his body again.”

 

***

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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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The Magic in Our Blood – Ep. 37 of “The Marquis”

Vivien is much too weak to move. But she’s back to herself, she’s cold, and dependant on me to cover her nakedness with thick duvets, and to arrange her pillow.

“How could that possibly help?” I inquire, still unsure of what I heard.

“Please, just trust me Saph,” she says weakly.

“But I –”

“Their voices,” she continues, her eyes wide and fixed on a spot on the ceiling as if reliving the horrors of her recent past, “their voices seemed to ooze from under their hoods when they spoke, like the scraping song of devils. They kept me in chains, hanging from a rod like an animal to be roasted, that’s how they transported me back here. They thought I was out, but I was aware. Aware, but so afraid, that I seemed feverish and unconscious. They talked about the portrait you made of the Marquis, and what it meant. You must do the same for Zed Saphira, I beg of you, and you must do it fast.”

My eyes dart from her to Joyous, who slowly approached us again, and now listens intently. I can see in his eyes that he understands more than I do.

“But of, course,” he whispers as he wraps his mind around whatever Vivien means, then exclaims, “Of course!”

He clasps my shoulders and asks me what I need in order to paint, since my tools aren’t at the manor. I look around to gather my thoughts, but the only things I can think of on the spot are clay or anything pasty, even toothpaste and sauce. At Joyous’ signal the young butler flings the double doors open and speeds out into the corridor.

Joyous’ unsettling honey eyes inspect me from head to toes like those of a man who’s just had a revelation that he can’t get enough of.

“I still don’t understand, Joyous,” I mutter. “Even if this whole undertaking is supposed to help Zed in some way, I doubt it’ll work if I don’t know what I’m doing.”

“You didn’t know what you were doing when you painted Kieran either,” he replies like a Wiseman his disciple.

“Yes, but with Kieran I –” It hits me. “Of course . . . ”

In an instant all the sense in the world swirls and settles in my mind. I’d put what I felt for Kieran into the portrait I’d made of him, I’d used my bare hands on it, I tried so hard to feel him and understand him because, even though I wasn’t yet aware of it, I was in love with him despite the fear and the disapproval I felt of and for the persona he displayed.

I walk slowly to the window at the far end, the ragged rim of the asylum-patient gown I’m still wearing trailing after me on the floor, growing heavier with every step like cumbersome cloak. The huge responsibility starts weighing on my shoulders. I feel their presence out there, the presence of the Black Monks who stand ready to cast their curses against us, spitting out their plague like snakes their venom, and the realization that our small resistance group is just placing all their bets on me has me petrify with fear.

Neither Vivien nor Joyous say another word, but I can sense their eyes on my back. A wave of self-pity washes over me – they expect far too much. We’re all doomed, if all this depends on me. I crash on the floor, bracing myself and crying desperately. My eyeballs hurt, that’s how hard I press them against my knees.

“Saphira, there’s no time to lose,” Joyous says.

Indeed, no time to lose. I slowly gather myself off the floor, wiping my nose with the sleeve.

Joyous stands by the stove where a bed sheet now hangs from the mantelpiece, the sides of it spread and hooked around the side posts. It looks like a small cinema screen. This is the canvas I’m supposed to use, along with the sauce and toothpaste and crayons and other improvised tools that the young butler managed to find, and place at my disposal on a platter by the improvised canvas.

The young butler now also stares at me with wide hopeful eyes, while Joyous does the same in a more self-controlled way. As for Vivien, she’s lying behind me on the divan, but I feel the pressure of her expecting gaze.

With a trembling, dirty hand I take one of the crayons – soft tip, thick black lead; very good quality, who would’ve thought. Focusing on such details helps me mentally leave the surroundings, and ignore the pressure.

The crayon’s black lead tip touches the sheet, leaving a dusty trail behind as it slides downwards in what’s the first line of Zed’s stony cheek. It began, and it must be finished.

The next line is more confident, and the ones that follow slide from a softer hand, one that loses span and allows reflex and flowing moves to take over. There’s more tension in one side of Zed’s face – the one I drew with more controlled, reason-guided strokes in the beginning – but the other half loses the stony aspect, and reveals some of the softness of character I sensed beyond it during all the time I’ve known him. I immerse myself in his confession about how he met Kieran, feeling his loyalty, but also his vulnerability.

The scar Kieran had left on his face the night Zed attacked me was already only a fading white trail the last time I saw him, but I draw it nonetheless, making the portrait more human. I mix the materials the butler prepared, and use the pasty composition to build Zed’s features and the shades of a real-life face using my bare hands, just like I had with the picture of Kieran Slate.

And just like with that picture, I’m now fully drenched with the thick liquid of Zed’s vital energy. It seems to flow from my fingertips, smearing the face now looking at me from the white sheet.

With the last touch to his eyes he seems to come to life. I take a few steps back, marvelling at a mere sketch expressing the essence of the man so strongly. But soon a bubonic blister appears on the side of his forehead, looking as if someone were burning the sheet with a cigarette at first, and then spreading down his nose like a trail of popping black warts that take over all of the picture within moments. I climb up from the trance-like state I’ve been in, and can’t believe my own eyes.

“This is extraordinary,” Joyous whispers as he walks to my side, looking at the picture with a stricken expression of his ever-present grin. “The portrait absorbs the curse from the flesh. Everything that harmed Zed now passes over to the picture.”

“It worked!” Vivien manages with as much enthusiasm as she can muster, while the young butler inspects the blackening picture closely with an open mouth and trembling fingers seeking to touch it, but not quite daring to.

“It’s amazing, Saphira,” Joyous says. “You have the power to make . . . Oh my God . . .”

“Voodoo portraits,” the young butler finishes the sentence for him.

***

To be continued on Friday.

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Stay tuned for a new chapter of The Executioner on Tuesday! Until then, enjoy the previous episodes here. If you don’t feel like waiting for the episodes, buy the whole book here, and enjoy a ride of suspense, mystery and love. Looking forward to reading from you! Love, Ana.

 

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Superpowers – Ep. 36 of The Marquis

Zed is on his knees, head bent, still cradling Vivien on his thighs. There’s blood on her arm. I can’t tell if it’s hers or his, but the man looking closely at Zed’s wounds springs back as if burnt with red iron.

“Shit, it’s expanding!”

Kieran hurries over, still holding my hand and therefore pulling me after him. Some kind of pestilence seems to be crawling from under Zed’s black turtleneck up his throat and square jawbone to his stony cheeks, reaching up to his eyes like the dark fingers of a malicious curse. His entire body quivers, his eyeballs roll, and he loses conscience with one single moan.

“It was the Black Monks!” Men call. They’re restless, and their voices rise with alarm.

I drop to my knees by Vivien, grabbing both her arms and straining to get her away from Zed, afraid the pestilence might leak to her as well.

“No, don’t!” Kieran hunkers down by me. I look at him, at that beautiful marble face that I’d do anything for.

“What if it spreads to her?” I urge.

“It won’t. This is a curse of the Black Monks, technically a shot of the same plague they carry around as punishment for their so-called powers. Since the curse was meant at Zed it can’t expand to Vivien, but his fingers clawed into her flesh at the impact, and we can only separate them very gently. It’s practically surgery, which we need to do ASAP, but we can’t do it here.” He jumps to his feet to help his men balance Zed and Vivien on their joined arms, and we start down the catacombs toward the manor.

A number of Kieran’s men fall behind with torches that cast heat and orange light up the chilly, humid walls of the tunnels. They’re probably making sure no one breached through to chase us. Kieran glances back at me often, but I know he’s worried sick about Zed.

They drop the cargo in the middle of the manor’s entrance hall, on the cold granite floor. Kieran and his men are all over Zed and Vivien like a squad of surgeons indeed, and occasionally one of them runs down the echoing hallway and returns with scissors, chopsticks and other instruments, the use of which they must improvise.

I approach with small steps and manage to catch a glimpse of Kieran’s marble hands expertly extracting one of Zed’s blackened skeleton fingers from Vivien’s flesh. It goes slowly and painfully for her – her blood-smeared thigh shivers in the process, but she’s too drained to scream. It must be true torture. The sound is both crackly and clammy, sending a shudder through me, but I have to be there for Vivien, so I keep my ground.

As soon as they’ve separated Zed and Vivien like mother from newborn, the young butler I met a while ago lifts Vivien in his arms and, following Kieran’s command, starts towards a warm room. Kieran presses a surprise-kiss on my lips and, before I know what hit me, he turns and leads the men carrying Zed down the hall, his sleeves rolled up and his hands bloody, ready to go on working to save Zed.

I follow the young butler to a bedroom on the first floor, where he lays Vivien on a divan by the window. He runs to fetch the one person that can help fast – Joyous – while I use the scissors on the grey sack covering Virgin Vivien’s emaciated body to wash her wounds. I also begin to feel the aftershocks of chase and strain myself. The pain in my ankle is a pulsing nag as Vivien’s pale, skinny, but still beautiful shape reveals itself naked before me. The signs of hurt on her sting my heart.

The spots where Zed had sunken his fingers in her flesh are black, suppurating holes. They smell rancid but sweet at the same time. She begins moving her head from one side to the other, moaning in growing pain as her flesh starts to tremble. I’m looking around desperately for something when the doors open, and Joyous enters the room.

I get out of his way as he approaches Vivien’s divan, thanking God that he exists – by whatever miracle. He looks down at her with those eerie eyes the colour of honey, his decadent ringlets framing his unnaturally bony face like magical tentacles.

He puts his hands on her thighs. Her flesh dips as he massages upward toward her hips and ribs and breasts. It looks erotic, but the vibe between them exudes nothing of the kind. There’s an aura of blending between them as Joyous’ strength appears to flow into Vivien, and regulate her chemicals and vital functions.

Which is exactly what happens, as he explains when he’s done, lifting his hands from Vivien’s now still body. There’s an expression of heavenly relief on her face as she lets out quiet sighs, her round breasts rising and falling as she breathes with ease.

“My body chemicals act like magnets,” Joyous tells me. “Have you heard about Mesmer?”

“Yes, one of the first hypnotists, very famous. That’s where the word ‘mesmerizing’ comes from.”

“That’s right. He used to have the same effect on people, but mainstream medicine struck down his talents and gave other explanations for what happened. But there was something very powerful to what he did that they failed to understand. I for one can sense where the imbalance lies in someone’s body, I sense the deficits. Practically I sense the diagnosis. Then I use my abilities to restore balance.”

“Thank you, Joyous. For what you did for her, and for me back at the asylum, we both owe you big time.” I sit by Vivien on the divan and swiftly cover her nakedness with the remains of her sack-like gown, trying to refrain from asking the question that burns in my head, but it flies out of my mouth.

“Was it the oligarch? The one who forced your abilities on you?” I keep my eyes and hands busy with Vivien. Joyous has already reached the door, but he stops and turns – I hear the swish of his soles on the granite floor as he spins round.

“Yes,” he replies quietly. “He enhanced my born predispositions.”

His story runs through my head, the story of his having been subjected to such painful experiments that they punched a permanent grimace of pain on his face, a grimace that gets mistaken for a grin. Zed and the Marquis saved him. Zed! I turn quickly to face the healer.

“Then you can surely save Zed!”

Joyous dips his head, his ringlets dangling down his forehead.

“I’m afraid there’s nothing I can do for him. What the Black Monks do is no wounding I can heal and no disease that I can cure. Ivan Basarab’s armies are well prepared to withstand or counteract all our lot’s abilities, so they’re well prepared against mine.”

“But the abilities you guys have are special, not of this world! If you can’t face up to Basarb’s minions, I don’t want to think about what chances normal people stand against them, the poor people of this town!”

“Better chances than you imagine, actually. From us Basarab knows what to expect, but not from normal people whose talents have yet to be uncovered and polished.”

“What are you talking about, Joyous?”

“All people can become as powerful as us if they unlock their potential. Everyone is born with talents that can be, let’s say, ‘engineered’ into superpowers. We could actually use fresh additions to our ranks, since Ivan Basarab knows all of our talents, and is well equipped against them.”

A faint voice reaches us, “But not against Saphira’s. Paint him, Saph.”

Vivien’s regained consciousness! I stroke the tendrils off her forehead enthusiastically. “Viv, thank God! How are you feeling?”

She squeezes my hand weakly and whispers, “Hurry, Saph, before it’s too late. Paint him.”

“Whom?”

“Zed.”

***

To be continued on Friday.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Stay tuned for a new chapter of The Executioner on Tuesday! Until then, enjoy the previous episodes here. If you don’t feel like waiting for the episodes, buy the whole book here, and enjoy a ride of suspense, mystery and love. Looking forward to reading from you! Love, Ana.

 

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Miracles – Ep. 34 of The Marquis

„I have to tell Kieran right away!“ Again I try to get up, but the pain in my ribs knocks me back down. I groan, and this time it takes Yvette an eternity to muffle the pain with shots of God knows what. Only after I’ve calmed down she tells me it’s morphine. I’m seriously dizzy and sick.

“You shouldn’t have, I need a clear head,” I manage.

“Without the morphine you’d be squirming in pain. You wouldn’t be able to think straight, trust me. We’ve been keeping you on it since you got here.”

“Why should I be in so much pain to need morphine?”

“The jets of water broke several of your ribs and a hip.”

Everything in my head turns foggy, and I feel a bit high. “I need to get to Kieran.”

Yvette keeps her hands on my body, arranging everything from the duvets to the cables that spring from my fingertips, and I understand she’s nervous.

I fall asleep soon, and wake up at a certain point to see Joyous’ big-boned head in a fuzz above mine. He’s holding my hand, his eerie sunken eyes the colour of honey intent on my face, his ruffled decadent ringlets framing the unusual sight of him. He seems very focused, like some shaman at work. There are hushed voices around, but I don’t understand what they’re saying and soon I fall asleep again, this time feeling light and relaxed in a natural way, like someone who’s taken in a lot of oxygen in the woods.

When I come back to awareness I feel so strong I could take on the world, but before I even think of sitting up the voices in the room become clear. I lift my head to see Yvette standing at the foot of the bed facing none other than Zed Stone Mask and, to my huge surprise, he’s holding her hands in his. The shock must play a part in my remaining still enough for them not to notice that I’m awake and to continue their conversation.

“Only a few of the others returned from the South where they played the bodyguards for Vivien Grant,” Zed says. “Basarab’s Black Monks ambushed them, got Vivien, then followed the few survivors here. We’re greatly outnumbered.” His voice is no longer flat and inflection-free like I know it, but nuanced and worried.

“Saphira said she knew Basarab’s true identity. But the meds knocked her out before she could tell me.”

“Joyous fixed her. She’ll come back to herself soon, and she’ll tell the Marquis directly. We’ll smuggle her through the catacombs and get her to him.”

“I knew Joyous had Healer talents, but watching him at work was utterly fascinating. Three special men – you, Joyous and The Marquis – each with their unique gifts.” Yvette lifts her hand and strokes Zed’s cheek with an expression that makes me think both of a caring nurse and a lover at the same time. She looks at him as if he’s hurt, and I remember the scar Kieran left on the Head of Security’s cheek a while ago. “The Marquis is making it very difficult on you lately, isn’t he?”

Zed cuddles into her palm like a kitten, and once again I marvel at the tenderness of this scene. I would’ve never imagined Stone Mask even capable of such expression of feeling. To be honest, I always thought him emotionally crippled. He goes even further and kisses the heel of her palm before he replies.

“He’s mad with pain. Joyous and I barely managed to keep him back the other night, when he found out what happened to her. He howled for hours in his study. We all had to come together and seal the place to prevent him from leaving, while also guarding against Basarab’s Monks. It was dramatic.”

Kieran is in pain! Zed’s words tear like knives through my heart.

“You said Saphira told the Marquis she had a plan that night,” Yvette says. “What was that plan?”

“She said she’d manage to get to Lynn Grant, Vivien’s mother, who knew Basarab’s identity. How very different things turned out . . .”

Indeed, how very different. Nothing went according to that plan. As soon as I’d gotten inside the asylum I’d seen poor Vivien – surely brought back by Basarab’s Black Monks that ambushed Kieran’s men in the South – writhing in pain during electroshocks. Her mother was already dead. And I almost made it in a plastic bag myself. I can’t keep back anymore.

“Zed.”

Both he and Yvette turn to face me. His features regain the stony aspect I know in a second, and his eyes sharpen into steel blue, while Yvette’s red-lipped mouth opens in surprise. Her full-moon face is bright and wrinkle-free, and yet the age difference between the two of them is glaring. He’s a tall bodyguard in his early thirties, German-style stony face, while she seems a middle-aged – however chic – career woman who comes home from work to a glass of wine and a Shepherd dog in the evening. So Zed’s the reason why Yvette is so devoted to our cause.

“You’re awake, Saphira darling,” she says, drops Zed’s hands as if she still hopes I haven’t noticed, and hurries to my side, checking my forehead and the machines.

It’s easy for me to sit up, but still, I’m careful. I’m pain-free and I feel strong, but you never know. I look straight into Zed’s eyes.

“Come closer, please. The walls might yet have years.”

He doesn’t look surprised at my being fully restored – he clearly had complete trust in Joyous’ miraculous skill that I’m extremely curious about, but other matters are more pressing now.

Zed approaches and bends to me. Yvette wants to give us privacy, but I grab her hand and signal that she do the same as Zed. As our heads come so close together that they form the tip of a triangle, the name of the villain leaves my lips in the faintest whisper. I can barely hear myself, but by the way they blink, staring at me and then at each other, there’s no doubt they got it.

“Are you sure about this?” Zed inquires.

“Positive. Things can’t wait any longer, Zed. Please take this information to Kieran right away, he said it’ll help a lot against Basarab.”

“Yes, it will. But you can tell him yourself. You’re no longer frail, you’re fit enough to take the chill and the damp of the catacombs. I’ll carry you.” He takes my hand and takes some distance to allow me to get off the bed. I smile and squeeze his hand as a sign of friendship, but I must refuse.

“I can’t leave here without Vivien, Zed. If we abandon her, she’ll die. Seems the life expectancy of whoever knows Basarab’s true name is dropping by the minute.”

Zed shakes his head vehemently. “I can’t let you do that. It’s extremely dangerous.”

“Then come with me. Help me free her.”

“That’s easier said than done, Saphira,” Yvette intervenes. “This place is heavily guarded by Inspector Simmons’ officers. It already took effort to get Zed and Joyous in here unnoticed. The bigger the party, the slimmer the chances that you’ll make it out.”

“I understand, Yvette, but I can’t just leave Vivien behind knowing that it would mean certain death for her.” An idea hits me. “Look, let’s do it like this: You tell me where to find her, and I go alone. You and Zed wait here, without exposing yourselves.”

“No way,” Zed reacts. “It’s too dangerous, and if anything happens to you, Kieran would face the Black Monks bare-chested and seeking his own death.”

Those words crush my heart, but this is not about me. I search Zed’s steely eyes that show so much emotion this moment. “You care about him a whole lot, don’t you? It’s not just loyalty and respect.”

Zed hesitates for a moment or two but then, to my great surprise, he decides to speak – more than he ever did before.

“Kieran and I first met when our makers teamed us up against a very dangerous oligarch – a man that commanded not only great riches, but also influence to move an army in his own personal interests, and who also had genetically enhanced physical abilities. Taking him down required combat skill, sharp brains and subversive methods. The Marquis was the best of us serpent-killers, and the highest ranked. He was famous among us, and before I met him in person I thought he’d be arrogant and just plain cruel, but he turned out to be very different. The oligarch got me, and Kieran saved my life. He risked his own to do it. He got Joyous out of the bastard’s lab, where Joyous was kept in a steel cage – he’d been bred there, and given the name because during the experiments they did on him, which were highly painful, his grimace resembled a grin. Kieran’s other men have their own reasons to respect and . . . yes, love him. He was the only person who ever showed us consideration.”

He looks down as if in a short moment of meditation, and when he looks at me again emotion shows vivid in his otherwise unreadable face, as if his own story inspired him.

“I’ll go with you to get Vivien Grant. Then I’ll see you, Yvette and Vivien out of here unscathed, cost what it may.”

To be continued on Friday.

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The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 4

The Marquis shields me from the other serpents. I can’t bring myself to stand, tasting mud in my mouth, my fingers clawing the pasty earth, the rain battering my back.

I try to tell myself this isn’t real, but every bit of my body feels the reality. Serpents squirm, some tangling with each other and building a slimy circle around the Marquis and me. They look like him, the torsos of men with monster faces, and serpent tails.

Suddenly, one of them launches toward the Marquis, whose long claws shoot out from his fingertips and slash the creature while it’s still in the air. It falls to the ground, writhing and whistling, but only a second later another one swings forward.

The Marquis’ tail coils around my body, his dragon scales wet and slippery as it slides on my skin, tightening until it immobilizes my arms along my torso. He lifts me in the air, away from the snakes. I close my eyes tightly to reduce the vertigo as the tail’s jerks scramble my brains.

When I manage to open them again the Marquis is high on the curve of his tail, holding me even higher. I panic as I watch his claws slash at incoming offensives. Snakes fall left and right, and the ground begins to spin away from me as the Marquis pirouettes and drives me higher up in the air. Gravity seems to pull at my stomach, it feels like a falling rock.

The Marquis turns his face to me from beneath, his blister-like eyes apparently bleeding, as well as his black lips. One of the attackers takes advantage of this break in the Marquis’ focus and jumps at him, thrusting its teeth in the muscle between his neck and his shoulder.

His whistle stabs my eardrums, but even though his pain is obvious his tail doesn’t slacken off me. His sways are jerky as he retreats with me towards the manor that I’ve tried so hard to escape, while his torso dashes forward. He bites the snakes again and again, swift like a huge cobra. He’s stronger and faster than them, so fast that his attacks add to my vertigo.

Once we’re inside the chilly manor, the doors thud closed. The Marquis sets me gently on the cold floor, his tail unwinding from my body, but my skin still crawls after its touch. I remain lying on my back on the granite, my eyes open and my head spinning with the vaulted ceiling above.

“Why, Saphira?” The Marquis heaves. “Why did you do something so reckless?”

I roll on the side to look at him. He’s on the floor too, supporting his weight on his palms, his flesh now transparent and his veins visible through it. He’s becoming a man again, his body gaining heat, and his face morphing from a monster to a beautiful human.

“I couldn’t resist the temptation,” I murmur. The sight of him transforming fascinates me, and my mouth remains open after I’ve spoken.

“Temptation?” He looks at me with a frown, blood dripping from his shoulder.

“You’re hurt.”

“No, don’t change the subject.” He shakes his head slowly, strands of damp hair falling over his forehead. “What were you tempted by?”

“Freedom.”

He bends his head and hunches, baring his teeth in pain while his tail begins to split like a snake tongue. With a cry he throws his head back and spans like a bow. My breath catches. His tail splits into legs, ripping and bleeding until human sinews replace the serpent muscle. In a matter of seconds, the wounds close as thighs and calves take shape.

“Oh my God,” I whisper, staring in awe.

Panting hard, the Marquis drops naked on the floor, looking like a marble sculpture. His flawless skin, his lean muscles and his youthful profile stand in contrast with the monster from only moments before, but they also prove he’s not a simple man. No human can be this beautiful. The wound between his head and his shoulder now yawns wider, bloody, looking painful. My heart clenches.

“We need to get that cleaned up ASAP,” I say. “And drain the venom out.”

“The venom won’t do anything to me.” He breathes with difficulty and tries to stand, but he drops right back on his palms. He spits blood, and I panic.

“It doesn’t look like it. It looks like you’re going to die.”

“If I died, would you care?” With his head still hanging he turns his face to me, revealing the ghost of a grin. His pitch black eyes show exhaustion and pain.

I scramble up, grab his arm and swing it around my neck, winding my other arm around his waist. He puts a foot down, the muscles in his thigh flexing strong as he stands, which is great help, because he seems to weigh a ton. But that’s the last display of strength the Marquis can offer.

Blood drips on the floor as we begin to move down the hall. The Marquis limps, and I notice a wound in his hip. The corridor turns darker with every step, and a glance through the windows lining the outer wall shows heavy clouds placing the moon in shadow. The storm roars outside, and for a moment I visualize all those snakes from before flooding the manor.

“They’ll eventually crawl their way inside.” Panic’s sharp in my words.

“My study,” the Marquis mutters. “We’ll be safe there, no cracks, no openings. We’ll start the fire to block the chimney.”

We increase our pace toward the high double doors as the slimy sound of serpent slither begins to close in on us.

***

We make it to the study, the Marquis leaning on the pillar by the entrance as I push the doors shut. I help him to the couch, and hurry to the outline of the fireplace.

“Where’s the firewood?” I spin in place, the semi-obscurity making it hard on my eyes.

“No wood. A lever in the centre of the mantelpiece, it looks like a candle. Feels like one too if you can’t see well.”

I grope, find it and pull. What must be wood logs rolls into the fireplace from somewhere inside it, the sound followed by a splash and a sizzle. Fire bounces to life, making me take a few steps back. I’m amazed the Marquis should use technology in so vintage a place as this study. The warmth hits my numb cheeks, making blood prickle through them again.

I turn to look at the Marquis’ naked figure, his arms spread on the rest of the leather couch, displaying the marble beauty of his body. He resembles a work of art in the firelight, marred by trails of blood that trickle from his shoulder down his chest and from his hip down his sculpted thigh.

I rip my eyes from him and scan the place for anything I can use for his wounds. I identify the corner liquor cabinet, grab the vodka and soak a starched white napkin with it. I hurry to the couch with the napkin in one hand and the bottle in the other, and curl one leg under me as I sit facing the Marquis and pressing the napkin on the wound on his shoulder. He winces and squeezes his eyelids.

My gaze glides over his profile. His eyes are hooded as he relaxes his head back on the rest of the couch, now that the sting of alcohol is more bearable.

“You saved me,” I whisper.

He squints at me, as if he only just remembered. “Why did you run, Saphira?”

My eyes wandering all over his face, I realize the pain he goes through in his transformation. A revelation hits me – The Marquis may be a monster, but Kieran Slate is a victim. Emotion swells in my chest as my gaze lingers on his white, bloodless lips, then on his tormented black eyes.

“You weren’t exactly nice to me,” I whisper.

He looks sad at me, maybe hurt. “But why try to elope with Inspector Boy?”

“I . . .”

I move the soaked napkin to the wound on his hip. He winces and hisses, the sinews in his body tightening.

“I wasn’t eloping with him. He offered an alternative. But I’d like you to leave him alone, please,” I dare.

“You still have feelings for him?” He grimaces again at the touch of more alcohol on his wound.

“No, not like that, not anymore. He and I go way back though, he’s . . . say a childhood friend to me.”

Uncomfortable silence settles between us. The fire rustle fills the room, but I’m not sure the burn in my cheeks is because of the heat or because of the awkwardness.

I walk to the corner liquor cabinet again and grab more starched napkins and a bottle of water. My ears perk up, scanning the silence for serpent slither outside. My skin crawls at the memory of it, sending a shudder all through me.

“Are you sure they can’t get in?” I inquire after I’ve returned by the Marquis. Despite his exhaustion, this spot right by his side feels safe.

“Positive. This room is as good as a vault. But returning to the subject of Jeremy Simmons. How come you trusted him, Saphira? He cheated on you in the past, and you’re not one to forgive easily, as far as I know.”

“Uhm, er –” I busy myself soaking another napkin – with water this time – as a pretext to keep my eyes down to what I’m doing and not look into the Marquis’ face. “My situation was desperate, and I’ve known Jeremy all my life. I needed someone, and he was the next best thing.”

“Next best thing to what? Or to whom?”

My heart clenches as I remember that my father, the man I should trust most, is a deranged killer, and my mother a poor soul who keeps her intuition numb with liquor and too many cigarettes.

I force my mind away from the subject and shrug. “Jeanie and Vivien, my best friends, I guess. But I didn’t want to drag them into this horror. Jeremy was already in it.”

“How about your mother? Why isn’t she the one who enjoys your trust most?” The Marquis asks softly. My eyes shoot up at his, and the truth stumbles out of my mouth.

“She’s distant. She always did what she thought was best for me, but somehow she was actually never . . . there.” I look down again to hide the tears that start to well in my eyes. “I now understand why. She always sensed something was mighty off with Dad, and it consumed her emotionally. It still does.”

This is hardly the time for confessions, and thoughts of the serpents remind me of that. I fire a glance to the door. “Are you sure they can’t come in here? It seems so still out there it gives me the creeps.”

“Relax, this room is completely safe. Besides, it’s past midnight. The effect of the moon on the inner serpent is lessening, we’re more controlled now.”

The kindness in his voice sends warmth through me, and I’m wondering if he’s using his powers on me again. If he is, he does it in a wholly different way than before. We search each other’s faces for moments until I kick the conversation back on track, starting to dab the blood off his chest.

“How come this place is crawling with serpent-men? I thought you were the only one.”

“They are my staff.”

My hand freezes mid-dab. “Say what?”

“When I decided to stop working as a hit man for my makers, many of my peers decided to follow,” he explains. “I couldn’t trust people who didn’t share my curse or my secret, I’m sure you understand. As for tonight, full moon lends unbound power to the serpent inside the man. It’s next to impossible to fight the inner monster under the shine of full moon, and we can’t resist transformation.”

Now I understand why Zed left the door to my tower chamber unlocked – the inner demon tormented him, and he needed to get out fast, which unbalanced his otherwise steely focus.

“But they are your men. How come they attacked you?”

“I protected what would’ve been their prey – you –, so I stood their enemy. Tonight they’re slaves to their instincts and don’t acknowledge any other master.”

He protected me. At the risk of his own life. Gratitude fills my heart.

“Thank you so much, Kieran. So much.” I squeeze his hand, searching his beautiful face and hoping to convey the feeling that overwhelms me. A tired smile draws the corner of his sweet mouth, his eyes closing as if to let him take in a pleasant sensation.

“It’s been a while since I’ve heard that name. I cherish it, you know? It’s my only bridge to the human I once was.”

“I cherish it too,” I whisper. “And I won’t use it without your permission.”

“Oh, you have all permission in the world. I like the way it sounds from your mouth.”

He sets his dark eyes on me, soft and kind and intimate. He was cold and even cruel to me before, but somehow I always sensed the good in him. The way he looks at me fills me with affection, and my heart beats in my throat.

***

The study is warm and cosy, the firelight casting a beautiful glow on Kieran’s face. We sit facing each other on the couch.

“But still, I wouldn’t thank me,” he says. “It’s my fault the serpent-men are here in the first place.”

I shake my head. “No, that’s not true. This place was a nest of vipers all along, with my father and his group having raped and killed Catherine. It’s their fault you are here.” I grab his hand with both of mine. “Kieran, this town was a place of morbid mystery until you came along and brought that crime to light. My mother and I, we always sensed something was wrong. To silence that nagging inner voice, she lost herself to liquor, and I – to avoid the same fate – turned to watercolours, oil and canvas. Through painting I searched for something I sensed but couldn’t identify no matter how hard I tried.”

“Is that what you did?” He probes softly.

I bite my lower lip, searching for an example that would best help him understand.

“Remember the painting of the Dark Castle? The one you walked straight to when you first entered my parents’ attic? You said it mirrored my soul. You were right. I’ve been digging in it, portraying it in detail hoping to find something that I now realize didn’t even lie within but without. I was trying to uncover what it was that I sensed.”

“You do have special insight into souls,” he says, his voice low and creamy. “That’s why I had the portrait you made of me brought here and locked in the tower. It made me feel bared.”

I search the depths of his eyes. “You said that portrait was a confession.”

“And that it was. A confession that there was a battered stable boy behind the powerful Marquis. That I wasn’t invincible.”

Scenes of him in his huge serpent form slashing and biting his attackers fill my mind’s eye.

“Not invincible, but incredibly strong. You fought all those creatures by yourself.”

He makes a bitter grimace. “The reason why my makers held me in special regard. And why the mighty Slayer avoids direct confrontation.”

“Speaking of the Slayer,” I latch on the topic, trying to mask the shudder that goes through me as I realize how powerful he actually is. “Ivan Basarab. My best bet is Ronald Lord Barkley, especially since he and Vivien used to meet around the asylum. Vivien’s mother knows for a fact who it is – she told me, but an explosion muffled the sound. All we have to do is ask her to get confirmation. I would’ve told you before, when you came to my room, but I was too scared.”

He smiles a gentle smile, putting his hand over mine. “You’re not scared anymore, I hope. I don’t want you to be afraid of me.”

I smile back. My cheeks prickle with emotion, which I identify as infatuation and a trace of fear. “It’s getting better.”

“Good, because I want us to become real, Saphira. I want . . . I want a true relationship.”

I drop my gaze like a maiden from the past century, embarrassed by my blush. I fight the girlish stupidity with all I have. “You’ve hurt me, Kieran, badly. You used me in terrible ways.”

The couch dips as he changes position and bends to me. My heart races, and I watch my own chest rising and falling as I try to control my breathing. He touches my chin with a soft finger, lifting my gaze to meet his again.

“Is that a no?”

“It is.”

His face draws. Desolation falls over his features, giving me an impulse to allow hope.

“At least for now,” I add quickly. “I need time.”

“And will time help?” He slurs.

I desperately need to change the subject. I take to washing the blood off his muscular thigh, the rhythm of my heart alert. He’s completely naked right in front of me. “What do you think about Ronald Lord Barkley being the true Ivan Basarab? Ivan Basarab sounds East European to me, and I remember he used to help couples adopt children from that area, so this speaks in favour of this theory too.”

“Hm.”

I look up at him. “You don’t think so?”

“If Vivien had anything going with Lord Barkley, she wouldn’t have needed to sneak at night into the lunatic asylum, would she? Basarab wanted access to the sewers so he could get to this manor underground. So it can’t be Barkley, he has access to the sewers anytime. But another person who’s manifested interest in the asylum and its sewers was your father, Gunnar Lothar, right after I bought the manor from him – he argued to Lord Barkley that the place needed expensive restorations anyway, and maybe it would be better to sell. He said that the old building had historical value, and the sewers could be turned into a tourist attraction. He wanted to explore the catacombs, allegedly to assess their potential, but Barkley hated the idea, and the relationship with Gunnar turned cold. So Basarab must’ve turned to threats to force Vivien Grant to help him, especially since she seemed to be on to him.”

I swallow hard. “You’re saying your suspect is my father?”

“He’s my best bet.”

I’m stunned, and I don’t even know what to feel. I look around, gathering my memories of my conversation with Mrs Grant. “Vivien’s mother said the mysterious man had everyone fooled except Vivien. That Vivien ‘discovered his true rot.’ These were her exact words. But my father, we know already how rotten he is.”

“I know, his so-called ‘friends’ know, and now you, but not the rest of Northville. To them, he’s the respectable family and business man.” He lies down on the couch with a grimace of pain, one leg curled in front of me, the other one on the floor.

I can’t help admiring the marble sinews of his naked body. His wounds are now disinfected and clean, but they still need tending to. The sight of them makes me cringe.

“Is there anywhere I can get bandages?” I ask.

“Not in this room, and you can’t go out. The serpents are calmer, but still. They’re wounded and furious.”

“Then we’ll have to improvise.”

I get up from the couch, walk to his desk and open drawers until one object builds team with my imagination – duct tape. I grab a few clean starched napkins from the liquor cabinet and go back to Kieran, who watches me with an amused expression.

“What’s so funny?” I inquire, drawing tape from the roll. It makes a pitchy sound that rips through the rustle of the fire.

“You’re inventive,” he says. “A life-saver in hardship.”

But the moment I bend to place a folded napkin on his shoulder wound, I notice it’s closing. Slowly like a snail, but visibly. I shriek and jump back. When I look into Kieran’s face, he’s smiling.

“There’s something about my kind of reptile,” he says. “Unless you cut off our head, we tend to regenerate.”

***

“Then why –”

“Why I let you take care of me?” His black gaze takes on a special glint in the firelight. “I wanted to feel your hands on me, of your own will. But my wounds didn’t need care. They’ll hurt for another few hours while they’re closing, but by morning I’ll be as good as new.”

“Kieran, you scared the life out of me.” I slap the napkins on the coffee table to mark my discontent at having been fooled. I stay soft-spoken though, not wanting to come across a drama queen jumping at the first opportunity to act hysterical.

“I scared the life out of you many times before, and for that please accept my apologies.” He props himself on his elbow with some difficulty, stretching out his other hand in an invitation.

“Come, lay here with me.”

The sound of his voice, dark and soft, seems to seep in through my pores. I square my shoulders, fighting the urge to obey.

“This needs to stop. You can’t go on numbing my will and playing with my head. If we’re to ever have a chance at a relationship, you’ll want me as myself.”

The haze of hypnotic obedience that made my lids heavy starts retreating, but Kieran’s intense black eyes still dazzle me without the input from his powers. The firelight sends a golden glow on his youthful features. He has the most beautiful face I’ve ever seen. I busy myself with arranging objects on the coffee table in an attempt to hide my weakness and hold my ground.

“Very well then,” he says and sets his other elbow on the couch, now sustaining his weight on both of them and displaying his naked body. He’s most certainly aware of his beauty.

“Shame must be a foreign word to you,” I whisper.

“If the sight offends you, feel free to cover me. There’s a long coat hanging on the peg by the door.”

He may be regenerating, but he’s exhausted, and so am I. I walk to the peg and take the coat. It’s so heavy it disturbs my balance, exhaustion rendering my limbs weak. When I reach the couch Kieran’s eyes are closed. The last thing he expects is what I’m going to do, I’m sure.

I sit by his side. “Will you make room for me, please?”

His eyes snap open in surprise. He draws to the rest of the couch, moving onto his side so that half the couch becomes available and enough for me if I lie on my side as well. I lower myself slowly and nestle my head at his chest, pulling the coat over us both. My heart races as my cheek touches him, his skin like silk over a hard-muscled body.

“I thought you said –” he whispers.

“I asked you to stop influencing me, determining my actions,” I interrupt softly. The heat grows between us. “I asked you to let me exercise my free will. And this is what I do with my free will.”

He kisses my temple, his lips dry and warm. “You were always resilient to my influence.”

“Really? It didn’t feel that way to me.”

“How did it feel then?”

“You often made a zombie out of me.”

“And yet you always retained the ability of defying me.”

“It was a struggle, like moving my legs out of quicksand. But sometimes I chose to sink in, because that way it was easier to put up with the things you did with me.” My voice breaks on the last words.

Kieran pushes one arm under my body, the other one curling around me from above. He presses me to him in a tight embrace and kisses the top of my head.

“I’m so sorry, Saphira. I deserve all snakes’ bites and much more for what I did to you. I beg for your forgiveness, and I’ll do anything to get it.”

“It’s not easy, Kieran. It will take time.”

“As long as you need. I have centuries, and I place them at your feet.”

A sad smile pulls the corner of my mouth. It’s fascinating how exhaustion makes you feel accepting of anything. “A terrible waste, all those centuries scattered by my grave. Unlike you, I’m fully human, my time is limited.”

The fire rustles in the silence as Kieran’s first tear drips on my temple.

***

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

Previously

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 1.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 2.

The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

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!

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 2

I lie in the bubbles, staring at the dark vaulted ceiling, then at my own hair undulating in the water over my breasts. Dark golden tresses mingle with thin streams of the dead bastard’s blood that plague me with fear, a fear that subsides when the Marquis’s presence fills my head like an opiate.

I look up at him, looming tall and elegant and arrogant over me. His pitch black eyes make a demonic contrast to his clear-boned, ivory face, and his lips stir me in a way they should not. Rich dark hair frames the head I’ve painted so often with my bare hands, eager to feel him, to understand him. Now I’m half-successful at hating him.

He inspects me up and down, and I think there’s hunger in his gaze. A rough kind of desire that hurts more than pleases me. It seems to be an effort for him to turn and place the lonely rose he carries on the edge of the sink where my hand has been just minutes ago.

“Forgive me,” he says in his deceiving, luring voice, and makes to leave.

“Please,” I stop him, my voice a rasp. Tears well in my eyes. “Don’t have me do this again.”

He keeps his back to me.

“He wasn’t a victim, Saphira. He was a dirt bag who’s raped and killed. You did it for a good cause.”

“That doesn’t change the fact that you enjoyed watching.”

Pause. “I did not enjoy it.”

“You sound almost sincere.”

“Have I not always been sincere?”

Yes he has. More so than everyone else.

“Just tell me it’s going to stop. Tell me it will have an end some day.”

“When they’re all bleeding in the gutter, Saphira.”

“How many were they?” I sound desperate.

“You’ll find out soon.” His voice almost cracks. As I realize the implications for me, disgust makes me weak at the stomach again.

“Please, don’t,” I whisper through quivering lips, close to breaking.

“I told you, Saphira. I’ll make my revenge epic.”

***

The Marquis approaches from the darkness of the tunnel, a tall and looming shadow. My heart drums with anxiety that he might’ve known all along I was down here with Jeremy, that he might know exactly what was said between us. Showers of ice seem to roll down my back.

His steps pat the floor, bringing him closer, the rhythm of my heart going crazy. He draws nearer, now I can make out the ivory skin stretching on his perfect cheekbones and jaw, those haunting black eyes glinting in the weak light of the dungeons as he stops before me. He has the nose of a cunning predator and the lips of a sensual devil, lips my eyes keep locked on.

“What are you doing here, Saphira?” He switches on his hypnotic powers, only that this time he doesn’t use them to make me comfortable. The lower vibrations in his voice drive the fear deeper into my bones, paired with the chill of the dungeons, making it impossible to lie.

“I needed to escape the party. I needed away from the fakery.” My voice is shaky despite my telling a truth, only not the truth about why I’m here. I pray the strategy works.

The Marquis takes a couple of steps closer. His suit jacket is open and the upper buttons of his shirt loosened, his hands in the pockets of his pants. He’s sexy as vice.

“There is danger lurking in these catacombs,” he says.

His face lowers close to mine, the contrast between the ivory of his skin and the black gems of his eyes knocking me back. He winds an arm around my waist, slowly and flowingly like the snake he is, pulling me close to him. His flat abdomen is stone hard under his shirt that smells clean and fresh, mingling with the bittersweet scent of his skin. It gives me sensations I have no chance to repress. His power over me grows, and I lose a faint sigh. I feel my lids fall heavy to hood my eyes, unable to look away from his lips. Ashamed of my reaction, I struggle to speak up.

“There isn’t any danger greater than you, Marquis.” I’m tempted to say his name, Kieran, but that would expose my new access to information. I bite the craving to call him by his name off my lips, and sense his desire grow like thickening lava as he watches me do it. He presses me harder to him, my breasts swelling almost completely out of the corset and coming into contact with the fabric of his shirt.

“Then why do you take risks? You were down here with a man, wacky tongues murmur up in the ballroom.” His voice is an eerie whisper, his mouth touching my ear as he speaks. There’s threat slinking in his words.

I can’t speak, intoxicated with his touch and his scent. His free hand brushes my locks aside, his lips trailing down to the curve of my neck, touching my skin only so lightly as he talks.

“Was it Jeremy Simmons? Are you still into your ex?”

“No.” My voice is hoarse.

“Are you into me?” His breath tickles, and after that last word I feel his tongue warm and wet on my bare shoulder, licking it in one pressed stroke like a predator licks the blood off his kill. I shudder and wonder if it’s still human, or if it’s the split serpent tongue that had pulled out Vladimir Pukov’s stomach. His power on my senses increases, making my brain swim in a fuzz.

“Yes,” I whisper and moan as his lips close on my skin, both his hands now caressing my arms downward. The sharp sound of drawing metal penetrates through the blood thumping in my ears. I look down to see a curved dagger in his hand, his jacket and the lower part of his shirt now tucked behind a leather holster at the side of his waist. I should be afraid, but his power keeps me in a haze.

His arms go around me, and I feel the tug of the blade as it slits open the laces of my corset and more material further down my dress that pools at me feet. Slowly, his black eyes wandering hungry on my face, the Marquis guides me backwards into a cell that’s carved into the dungeon wall.

I only stop when my naked back bumps into what feels like chipped stone, bits of iron pushing into my flesh – a chain, I soon realize by the feel of it.

The Marquis’ eyes seek mine, compelling me to look into them. I’m an obedient slave as he stretches my arms to the sides and closes rusty iron cuffs around my wrists, the clang echoing in the dungeon. The cuffs are loose, but the iron bites into the heels of my hands when I let my arms slump. A fight out of them would surely leave me bloody.

He looks down at my bare breasts, my nipples hard in the chill. Once again I find myself before him in stockings and high heels, only that I’m hanging in chains, and only retain enough wit to feel ashamed for my goose bumps.

But they don’t seem to bother the Marquis. Licking his lips he looks hungrily at my body and begins unbuttoning his shirt, which he then removes in a shuffle. He stands bare-chested before me, the leather sheath of his dagger strapped close to his hips. He seems made of marble with perfectly defined sinews, his skin glinting hairless and shadowed only by the contours of his athletic muscles. He’s broad-shouldered and obviously strong.

His eyes seem to devour me as he unfastens the holster, drops it on the floor and undoes his pants. Every last inch of his revealed body is beautiful, and I hear myself sigh with desire as his fingers stroke the sides of my torso. He presses his lips on mine and parts them in a full, rich kiss. He enjoys it, I can tell by the way his body pushes into me, a low purr escaping into my mouth as he crushes me between his chest and the wall.

I can’t keep from manifesting my delight, arching and sighing and moaning as he covers me with kisses.

“Do you ever miss Jeremy Simmons’ body, Saphira?”

“I only want you,” I reply immediatly, unable to keep back the pure truth.

His eyes burn like coal. I cry out as he enters me, reaching deep, the pain mixing with pleasure.

“And you’ll have me.” He groans as he grinds powerfully into me, making my feet lift off the ground and my toes curl. “You turn me on so bad, Saphira, it’s insane.”

I fight myself, trying to keep the reply on the inside of my mouth, but I lose the battle. “You’re divine!”

The Marquis takes me vigorously, thrusting hard, groaning and kissing me wildly as he finds release. I climax at the same time, my legs flexing, my hands gripping to the chains. As soon as his mouth frees mine I can’t hold back and say his name like a prayer. Kieran.

When I look into his eyes they’re serpent slits.

“Where did you hear that name?”

I’m so, so, so busted, and yet the first thing that takes clear shape in my mind as my breath evens out is whether his passion has been for me or for the memory of Catherine Lancaster.

***

“Who told you?” the Marquis demands to know.

“It was . . .” I wish I could brace myself and hide. I stand naked and with my hands cuffed to the sides before the Marquis, the stockings and high heels making me feel like a prostitute. He shuffles his shirt back on, buttons up his pants and tightens his belt, his pitch black eyes striking on his ivory face. He’s taken me like a master his slave, and now he interrogates me like an inquisitor.

“It was Jeremy Simmons, wasn’t it?”

“Up in the ballroom,” I attempt a lie, but the grin crooking on his face tells me he’s not buying it. He pulls me hard to him. The chains holding my hands rattle, and my breasts crush into his chest, him being dressed and me naked making me feel vulnerable and worthless. His eyes are now close, defiant and even angrier than before.

“You were down here with him, weren’t you, Saphira? Did he give you my name along with the sob story of Catherine Lancaster and the stable boy?”

“Is that sob story not why you seek revenge?” I whisper.

He bares his white teeth in a grin that’s as threatening as the split serpent tongue that now moves between them.

“If you ever see Jeremy Simmons alone again,” he hisses, “I’ll make his head a trophy on my wall.”

I hear the jealousy in his words, and my heart flutters. I know this is sick, but I’m no less jealous of Catherine Lancaster.

“Jeremy is an Inspector. His murder would have the police all over you.”

“The police are already all over me, Saphira. But they have nothing except stories, like your ex, the Inspector boy.”

His serpent tongue slithers out of his mouth, making the finest hairs stand on my arms as it licks my cheek in a cold, wet stroke. He takes distance again, his black eyes nailing me in place. A patch of skin on his face seems to peel off like burning paper, revealing thick serpent scales the colour of ash as he lifts my chin with two fingers.

“Don’t betray me, Saphira,” he warns, his voice now deep but silvery, like a monster’s. “Or you’ll know a new measure of my wrath.”

I’m afraid of antagonizing him. He presses me harder to his body and lets out a sharp, piping sound that makes my ears buzz and my eyes scrunch, reverberating through the dungeons. In  response many steps march down the catacombs.

The Marquis holds me crushed to his chest, covering my nakedness but not our intimacy as his men appear, wearing dark suits and grim attitudes. It’s clear to everyone what happened between us, and it’s especially humiliating since my arms are still spread open, and in cuffs.

“A new dress,” he orders. “A comfortable one.”

One of his men hurries to carry out the command, while the Marquis frees my hands. I fall in his arms, my legs weak and my will numb. The hard sinews beneath his shirt feel like steel on my flesh, his glinting black gaze making me all too aware of the power he has over me. I’m stripped of clothes and of options.

A mighty awkward while later the man who went away returns with a simple dark-red strap dress, which the Marquis takes from him, then dismisses the entire team. I hear them whisper and murmur at the end of the aisle while I get dressed, the Marquis watching me from the gate of the cell. For a brief moment I think I read something more than jealousy in his gaze.

His white hand covers mine in a possessive gesture as I hook it around his elbow – at his invitation. Some of his men look puzzled when they see us, one of them raising a questioning eyebrow, as if he’s never expected such display despite our engagement. I recognize him as Stone Mask, one of the Marquis’ personal bodyguards. I still wonder why he needs security; it’s not like anyone in Northville stands a chance against him, and I doubt even Jeremy with his steroid-pumped muscles would really pose a challenge. Then I think of Ivan Basarab, the Slayer. But then again, Basarab doesn’t dare take on the Marquis head-on either . . .

We ascend back to the ground floor and soon we’re in front of the ballroom. The Marquis makes a show of our entrance, the pool of men in black suits behind us, our slow walk among the crowd attracting stares and whispers. The golden locks I managed to arrange my hair in before the party are now dishevelled, and my make-up surely patched and smeared, which makes me want to crawl away from sight, but the Marquis presents me like the trophy most worthy of having.

I identify Jeremy looking hard at us from amidst a group, his eyes furious, his overdone muscles clearly tense under his suit. I glance at the Marquis and notice the two have locked glares. I realize Jeremy has been hidden in the dungeons all along, heard and maybe witnessed what happened between the Marquis and me. The challenging grin on the Marquis’ face confirms, and I wish the earth would split and swallow me.

Nevertheless, what the Marquis does as he becomes ever more aware of my embarrassment is take me on a slow round of small talk with respectable families, one possessive hand on the small of my back, and pressing his cheek to mine all too often. His displays of affection – if fake or not – make me feel halfway good, but the measuring of the men from head to toes and the envious daggers the women shoot me add to my unease. Some of the men even prove unable to refrain from remarks such as,

“Yours is sure a fiery love story,” – accompanied by lecherous ogling when they think the Marquis and I are not looking – or, “Now, here’s a couple that can’t keep their hands off each other.”

I don’t believe there’s anyone at the engagement ball that can’t tell the Marquis and I have unleashed our passion recently, and probably also picture us ravishing each other in some hidden corner behind heavy velvet curtains. Luckily for me, the Marquis soon decides he’s shown off enough and ends my mandatory attendance.

“This was necessary,” he explains, and I almost take it as an apology until he reprimands through his teeth, “because they saw you follow Simmons out earlier, which made me look bad. Real bad. But the show just now should’ve made matters right.”

He leads me up the spiralling stairs to my chamber in the tower, and my heart drums wondering if he’ll take me again.

The heavy black door that starkly resembles the door to a medieval jail opens into the tower chamber with its few and rather gothic amenities. I walk in but the Marquis doesn’t follow me inside. When I realize this I turn to see him standing in the door, hand on the knob, looking at me as if he wants to eat me alive. We stare at each other for moments until he resolves to speak.

“Change of plans,” he says. “You’re no longer required to do . . . any of the things you’ve been required to do before.”

“You’ll no longer use me in your revenge?”

“I don’t know yet. But if I do, it’ll be in a different way.”

“Does this mean the engagement is off?”

“Wouldn’t you like that? But I’m afraid the engagement is still on –” an uncertain pause “– I still need you.”

“For what?”

“For now all you need to know is this – I won’t hear of you being alone with a man again, or I’ll have him skinned and roasted like a rabbit.” He stares hard at me to make his point. I catch roots in the ground.

“And you will not leave this place unencumbered,” he concludes. “Anything you need, Zed and his boys are at your disposal.” He motions at Stone Mask, and for a moment there I’m actually glad the Marquis has finally attached a name to the expressionless, steely-eyed face. I don’t know what to say, my heart beating like a rock in my chest, but soon after the heavy door falls shut my wit springs to life with a shot of despair – How am I supposed to meet Jeremy tomorrow?

***

The men keep around me, marching down the corridors and halls like a badass squad escorting a V.I.P., which annoys me more with each step. Truly “encumbering,” like the Marquis had put it, suffocating and strenuous, since not for one second can I forget myself and act normal. I have to keep the film of dignity I retained after they saw me hanging from chains in the dungeons, subject to the Marquis’ lust. I keep my back straighter than ever, my chin up and my attitude contained.

But when one of the men pushes the heavy double doors to the Marquis’ study, revealing my fiancé in conversation with Pretty Lauren, I can no longer keep back. Fury shows in my face for sure, and I can’t even remember if the man knocked first or not.

“Well, well, well,” I say and stalk to them in an aggressive catwalk prance that escapes my control. “Isn’t this an interesting visit?”

I stop by the Marquis, looking straight into his black eyes that make my legs feel weak. Still, the anger gives me a weird kind of nerve. I curl an arm around his lower back, the fabric of his suit caressing my palm as I brush over it, and raise my chin to invite him for a kiss. This can end badly, very badly, I realize. He doesn’t look like he intends to lower his handsome face and kiss me, which would make me stand a fool in Lauren’s eyes, but after a few seconds’ hesitation I realize it was just the stun. His lips press warm and soft on mine, making a buzz start in my lower belly, his bittersweet scent acting on me like a drug.

A bit dizzy and really nervous I peel my lips off his, staring up into his hypnotic black eyes, hoping to read his feelings and having forgotten why I just did what I did. Lauren clears her throat, thus reminding of her presence and my reasons. With narrowed eyes I look at her sitting with her legs crossed and arms on the chair arms. She glares a misty green glare at me, her make-up flawless, the dark red dress that matches her hair too short. A pair of high designer shoes seem to dangle from her white feet. Her skinny legs are naked to mid-thigh, her silk dress draped over her pointy-boned hips. She’s always been skinny but sexy nonetheless, and jealousy would eat at my jugular in a mighty way for finding her with the Marquis if it weren’t busy eating at Lauren’s. The jealousy in her pretty greenish eyes is the exact kind of balm I need right now. I give her an almost involuntary satisfied smile.

“And to what do we owe the pleasure?” I inquire sweetly, nestling my cheek at my fiancé’s chest. My fiancé. The idea and the feel of him make my heart flutter, and I must admit this situation has just turned into something rather pleasant.

“Miss Lauren was just telling me about a property her father has for sale,” the Marquis answers in her place, his voice a ripple of chocolate to my senses. My lids feel a bit heavy, and I know he’s unleashing his opium-like powers on me, but I make every effort to resist.

“Oh, and he sent his daughter to discuss the deal. I didn’t know you were real estate savvy, Lauren,” I address her.

The Marquis’ hand goes around my middle, and now we’re standing cradling each other’s lower backs, leaning on his desk. He doesn’t intervene to save Lauren from replying despite her glancing at him repeatedly before doing so, and seems to enjoy my defending his position as my man.

“Nice banquet yesterday. Hopefully the wedding turns out just as good,” Lauren changes the subject and stands in one rather jerky move. She pulls nervously at the rim of her dress as if she’s embarrassed, and grabs her purse form the corner of the desk. For a moment there I think she acts like a mistress who’d just been caught by the wife. I remember her envious stares last night while the Marquis took me on exhibiting rounds among the crowd to save his image in front of the guests after I’d been seen leaving with Jeremy. Speaking of Jeremy . . .

“You seem to have a weakness for my fiancés, but not all of them fall for red.” I measure her with a despising attitude, and feel like a bitchy idiot only a moment later.

“Saphira,” the Marquis pulls the brakes in a serious tone, but I try my best not to let it intimidate me. My body wants to keep glued to his hard torso, but my mind tells me to act, and I do, even if only to prove that I still have a will of my own.

“I need to go to town,” I say in a breath, turning to him as if Lauren weren’t even there. He shouldn’t have any reason to refuse the brilliant lie that I came up with. “I need to see Vivien for some floral arrangements for the wedding. Zed and his boys can escort me, if you feel more in control that way.” – I intend to make the visit to Billy the Notary only a “convenient stop on the way.”

The Marquis must like my thinking so seriously of the wedding, since his beautiful marble lips draw in a smile like none I’ve seen on his face before.

“Wonderful then,” he says, and looks at Lauren with a sharpness that stands in contrast with the warm smile he’s given me. “Miss Vivien’s house is exactly where Miss Lauren was going right now too.”

I freeze. I glance repeatedly from the Marquis to Lauren, and I realize this was a command she knows she has to follow. She is to act as his spy and, unlike the Marquis’ men, she can follow me even to the toilet. Whether she’s bound to him because they’re sleeping together or because he agreed to buy her father’s property, I don’t know. But I know that jealousy is showing its big ugly snout again, and this time darn close.

***

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

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

Next: The Marquis and Saphira – Their Story – Part 3.

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

 

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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Revelations – Ep. 33 of The Marquis

“I should’ve stayed with her,” I keep saying. I’m aware of the soothing hand on my forehead, and soon also of the warmth of a bed and thick duvets that slowly brings my body back to life, but other than that I’m stuck on Lauren’s story inside my head. It’s a while until I can lift my eyelids, and even longer until I come back to myself completely.

“I need to talk to her,” I say to whomever is there to listen. “She has to forgive me.” I try to get up, but a stabbing pain in my ribs knocks me back down. I groan, but luckily someone rushes to my side and does something to take the pain away – I don’t know what.

“Don’t strain yourself.” It’s Yvette’s smoker-deep voice. “You’ve been seriously abused, and you’re still weak.”

Little by little I get used to the waking state again, and Yvette rustles the curtains aside to let light in. I’m still at the asylum – I recognize the bleak gardens outside, even though I can’t see very well – but in a much cozier room. I manage to sit up on the bed eventually, grimacing at the discomfort, and tangling in all the cables that are clipped to my fingertips. Wow, I must be doing shitty.

“How did you manage to get me here?” My vocal cords sound so rusty I must’ve been out for days.

“You’re pretty lucid, I see,” Yvette says with a smile as she heads back to the bed. She checks the IV lines and the machines around me like a dexterous nurse, only that she’s wearing black instead of white. A Morticia-Adams-dress that’s too tight on her plump shape. I can’t help but marvel at how generous her bust is, and at the fact that she doesn’t try to hide it like most women her age. The cleavage, red lipstick and wrinkle-free full-moon face make me wonder whether she grooms this appearance for some much younger lover. Can’t believe where my mind strays . . .

“How much do you remember?” She inquires, hands and eyes up on the machines.

“Everything. I remember that Lauren almost got me killed, and that she ordered I be treated so badly that I eventually die. Which is why I’m surprised to wake up being tended to.”

I catch a glimpse of myself in the screen of a machine, and I cringe. I’m compelled to return my gaze to the image – one eye is swollen and reddish-purple, same as my upper lip that’s crisscrossed by cuts.

Yvette leans down to me with a motherly smile, and caresses my forehead. The scent of aromatic cigarettes is welcome and homely – I must be really damaged to find it pleasant; I always hated the smell of cigarettes.

“You were very lucky, Saphira. It may look bad now, but it’ll all go away. There will be no scars or permanent damage. There’s a God up there who loves you.”

“Yes, I believe so,” I whisper, still terrified by my own image. I try not to look at it again, and pray that Kieran doesn’t get to see me like this. “How did you manage to save my arse?”

“Let’s say I restored the balance of power. Lauren Morris has been sleeping with Lord Barkley for years – this was Barkley’s secret, and how certain people in this town kept him doing what they said. Now, since Miss Morris opened her big slutty mouth in front of me, he must do what I say. I blackmailed him.”

“She’s been sleeping with Ronald Lord Barkley . . .” My stomach knots. I can’t help imagining Pretty Lauren’s skinny model legs in high heels wrapped around Barkley’s pruned hips. Gunnar’s abuse of her when she was a child drilled into her mind severely deep, making her sink in traumatic experiences until she became as dangerous as her abusers.

“This is all my fault . . .” I shake my head, and get a terrible ache.

“No, Saphira.” Yvette cups my face and makes me look into her eyes. “We are all responsible for our own actions, and so is Lauren for hers.”

“That’s not true,” I manage among tears. “It’s a simplistic way of putting things in order to get the burden off the shoulders where it belongs. You can’t tell a raped child that they’re responsible for what they become.”

Yvette searches my eyes. “As I said, you’re pretty darn lucid.”

“Thank God. Don’t try cheap lines on me again, because they don’t soothe me – they enrage me.” I sound angrier than good Yvette deserves. Poor woman is just trying to help, but I can’t bring myself to apologize.

“Okay, then look this truth in the face,” she retorts. “What happened to Lauren Morris was not your fault. You were only a child yourself. Even if you had known what Gunnar was capable of, you couldn’t have confronted or challenged him.”

“No, but I could’ve hindered him. I would’ve never left her side, I would’ve . . .”

“Not knowing what he was capable of kept you alive and unscathed, Saphira! That bastard cared about his image more than anything – his immaculate image of a family man – and had you compromised that, he would’ve gotten rid of you. He may have done with you what he did with Catherine Lancaster!”

Chills go through me and shake me to the bones. The man I’d known as my father . . . I can’t think it to the end. It’s unbearable.

“And raping his neighbors’ daughter didn’t threaten his image, you think?” I grumble, trying to move yet further away from that feeling.

“Lauren Morris’ dad used to work for yours. He kissed Gunnar’s ass big time. So Gunnar sent him and his wife on business trips almost constantly, if you remember, and kept the girl at your house.”

I nod slowly in recollection. That’s how Lauren and I became best friends in the first place. Loose ends come together, and things start to make sense. I look slowly up at Yvette and narrow my eyes – well, my one good eye.

She frowns down at a syringe that she then dips into my belly. “So that your blood doesn’t coagulate,” she explains.

I don’t even wince at the sting – at least one welcome by-product of being subjected to great violence; you become really hard to frighten or sway, not to mention almost immune to pain.

“How long have you been working for Barkley?”

The smile that crosses Yvette’s face is that of a patient wise woman. It fits her better than the tight black dress, I think. “For many years, Saphira.”

“But how come we never met? Are you originally from Northville?”

“Oh yes, I was born here. And you and I met before, a number of times actually. Not that I expected you to remember, you’re high society, crème de la crème, I’m working class – the well-paid and well-connected layer of it, I admit, but still just a face in the crowd.”

A face in the crowd . . .

“I’ve even been at your graduation party – a big one your mother threw there, wow,” she continues. “I was at the Manor on the Night of Venice as the Marquis presented you as his girlfriend, and at the Christmas party at your house as your father announced your engagement to the Marquis. I attended your engagement banquet at the Manor too.” She gives me a meaningful, naughty look. “You and the Marquis came to greet us after you came back from your . . . “

That night flashes through my memory. Kieran doing it to me down in the dungeons, then displaying me all over the banquet hall, my arm hooked around his. It was surely clear to everyone that we’d just ravished each other, and Kieran made a point of it. And then it hits me.

Images and events rush through my mind one after the other – the Opera House. Lauren. Billy singing on the stage, his voice angelic; Jeremy befriending Billy, the boys in the catacombs; Lauren following; Vivien and I keeping back, scared. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan.

Jeremy was the most popular boy in town back when we were teenagers. He’d give me those cocky grins that made me melt. He kissed me by the thick oak tree in his back yard. The first thing I saw when I opened my eyes again was Lauren right by our side, her eyes jealous and her cheeks red. Billy – a thin mouse-faced boy with spectacles and hormone-caused pimples by now – gazed long at Lauren from somewhere behind her. Little Jeanie watching us from up in her room, nose and little chubby palms stuck to the window. Ronald Lord Barkley visiting all our families very often. A face in the crowd. Basarab, Ivan. Again, the Opera House.

Years later, I walked in and saw Jeremy in bed with Lauren. Just months before Jeremy and I were supposed to be married. She said she did it for revenge, but in truth, who was using whom? Billy worked as a notary, sunken in his work in his smoke-filled, cluttered office; still Jeremy’s best friend, and still hopelessly in love with Lauren; it seemed easy for her to manipulate him. He helped with adoptions a lot. Lord Barkley still visited all our families. Vivien on the table, her body arching under electroshocks, her eyes on a face in the crowd. A face in the crowd. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.

The big hooded man walking away from Lauren in the rain the night Kieran and I wanted to elope together. Powerful, giving her orders. Lauren Morris, raped by Gunnar years ago. She’d slept with my fiancé, as well as with the family friend Ronald Lord Barkley who should’ve loved her like a father, and who knows with whom else. A face in the crowd, always there, never noticed. The Opera House. Basarab, Ivan.

“Saphira!” Yvette’s voice drills through to me. “What is it girl? You look as if you saw a ghost.”

I stare up at her. “I know who he is, Yvette. I just realized who Ivan Basarab truly is.”

 

To be continued on Friday.

***

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

 

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Why Wild Roses Kill – Ep. 32 of The Marquis

Pretty Lauren laughs as the jets of water hit me, then stop, then hit me again. Through the blur I see Yvette grabbing her arm, and Lauren shaking herself from the woman’s grasp. But Yvette becomes more physical and aggressive as her hands claw Lauren’s fiery locks and start wiping the floor with the evil witch, so Lauren is left with no option but yelling at the men to drop the hoses and get Plump Morticia off her.

Just like Jeremy, Lauren too seems possessed with hatred and rage. As the male nurses take Yvette away, leaving me sprawled on the tiled floor in a pool of icy water, Lauren tries to get up, eyes red and boring into mine like two mad Eyes of Sauron. She skids, falls flat, then crawls on all fours to me and grabs my drenched hair.

I shriek as I realize she’ll disfigure me. She smashes my face into the floor, and now I’m darn thankful for the water that allows my hands to glide under my face quickly enough to protect me. Lauren tries to slam my head into the ground over and over again, screaming and throwing her entire weight on my back. I don’t know how much longer I can keep her from reaching her goal, I’m weak and giving up. At least I’m frozen and can’t feel the pain.

The last time Lauren lifts my head and prepares to crash it into the ground I give up completely. There’s no point in fighting it, I’m bound to lose.

“Why, Lauren?” My voice comes out bruised and weak.

I don’t actually expect her to answer, yet to my surprise she pauses. She bends down to my ear, and I go alert. I can’t believe she’s really about to crack.

“I might ask you the same thing, Saphira. Why?”

“I don’t understand.” Talking is difficult, but it’s imperative that I exploit the moment. It may be my last.

“I begged you to stay, why didn’t you?”

“What are you talking about, Lauren?”

“You were like a sister to me. I clung to you, but you left me there for that monster to fondle with me on the highest notes.”

The first flash hits me. The Opera House, fifteen years ago. Norman and Sylvie Dean had just adopted Billy – now the Notary – from Romania. The boy had the face of a grey mouse but the voice of an angel, so they put him in the choir – this was his premiere, and we were in a private loge. Lauren and I were ten. With her parents away on vacation, she was staying with us.  I remember thick man fingers trickling up Lauren’s legs that tried to keep tight together in their white knitted stockings. Her green eyes widened, searching mine in a silent but desperate call for help. That was the last day she looked at me with the eyes of a friend. All the years afterwards she only pretended, and if I’m honest, I always knew it.

“Lauren, please,” I breathe.

“Please, yes, that’s what I said that night when he sent you to fetch opera glasses from downstairs. Please, don’t go.”

‘Please, don’t go, Saph,’ little Lauren’s voice rings in my memory. My eyes darted between her wide scared gaze and Gunnar’s commanding frown. Back then testosterone still filled his flesh, even though he wasn’t exactly young anymore. Brown hair and stern features, he had a way of driving awkwardness and wariness into my bones. ‘Go, Saphira.’ With a heavy heart, I did what he said. I repressed the memory and nothing stirred it since.

Lauren tries to push my head towards the floor again, but I hold up my face with newfound strength. She must understand. “I was afraid of him, Lauren! I was a only a child too.”

“Bullshit! You grew up under his roof, and you survived it. You must’ve known he was a devil and how to deal with him, but you didn’t want to help me.”

“I swear I had no idea what a monster he was! I found out only a few months ago, from the Marquis.”

“You’re lying!” She throws her entire weight on my head, and this time it goes down, thudding against my hands that I keep together under my forehead to damp down the blow. There’s red in the water under my face, so I must be bleeding from Lauren’s scratches, but I’m numb from the cold too, which keeps me capable to endure and speak.

“Forgive me, Lauren, forgive me,” I call out with all I got. She gets off me, turns me around, and slaps me hard across the face with every few words that leave her mouth.

“Let. Me. Tell. You. Bitch. He defiled me with his fingers at the Opera, and then every night while I stayed at your place he took me in his study.”

I want to say she should’ve told me, but blood gurgles in my mouth. She takes my face between her hands and brings her angry green eyes inches from mine.

“I was a little girl, looking more like a boy actually. I even had short hair, if you remember. For a while I thought that’s what turned him on as he bent me over his desk, and told me he’d cut me down there if I ever told anyone. I’m sure you already imagine how powerful such a threat can be on a young mind – you seem to still be under that threat yourself.”

She refuses to believe that Gunnar never touched me. She thinks I’m in denial or something, and maybe it’s better this way. But then why doesn’t she empathize?

She slaps me again. “You felt good as you imagined how he hurt me, isn’t it? You were happy that you weren’t the only one. That’s why I never told you for a fact, Saphira, I didn’t want to give you satisfaction. I swore to myself I’d hurt you badly in return, very badly. Oh, how very satisfying it was when you opened the door and found Jeremy’s naked buttocks bouncing between my legs in your own bed only months before your wedding.” She grins a large, sick grin. “I planned that one well, in the tiniest detail. Had I gotten the Marquis to do the same in his study the day you found us there my revenge would’ve been perfect. I know you well, Saphira, I know you’re madly in love with him, like never before, and you would’ve gone insane with jealousy. He’s absolutely crazy in love with you too, which is what sealed your fate. Had he fucked me before your eyes, you probably wouldn’t be finding your end here and now.”

She looks greedily into my face to assess and relish in my horror. I’m so finished that speaking is next to impossible, but I see great opportunity here – opportunity to stay alive – so I make a superhuman effort.

“Do it. Anything is better than rotting in this prison.”

Indeed, a glint of cruelty crosses her gaze. She can’t resist the temptation of hurting me yet more. My heart aches for her so bad it gives me chest pain. Gunnar sucked the soul out of my dearest childhood friend, mutilated her mind, and turned her into a monster. She’s a wild rose with deadly thorns. So many horrors happened in Northville, it must be truly an outpost of hell that should go down at the hands of leper monks and the muzzles of beasts.

“No,” Lauren says after moments of pause in which she must’ve pictured all the suffering she can put me through if she keeps me in this place longer. “I won’t kill you today. But know that Death is polishing its scythe for you every ticking second.”

To be honest, I don’t think I’ll survive another day, but we humans would do anything to draw just another breath. I know I’m just buying a little bit of time, but I’m clinging desperately to every moment of it.

Lauren gets off me, and a rock seems to lift off my chest, allowing me to pull in a noisy breath. She calls for the male nurses who return and drag me back the way we came, my feet leaving trails of water and blood behind. Yet despite all of it, with every inch they put between Pretty Lauren and me my spirits lift.

They take me to a cell very similar to the last one, but this one has a cot – I can’t believe my luck. When they bang the locks shut I manage to crawl onto the cot and close my eyes. It feels so very comfortable that I immediately drift into deep sleep. I dream of little Lauren and her innocent smile. She dares me to explore the catacombs under the manor with her, and she runs ahead of me with her white cape flapping in the wind, her skinny boyish legs clad in knitted white stockings, her short hair glowing like fire. I truly do deserve this. I should’ve stayed with her that night at the Opera House when she begged me not to leave.

To be continued on Friday.

***

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No Escape – Ep. 31 of “The Marquis”

„Her mother had to leave the asylum,“ Ronald Lord Barkley croaks in my ear. “In a plastic bag.”

The doctor gives the signal, and Vivien arches again on the metal table as electroshock courses through her and the news of her mother’s death through me. She screams, and I do as well, unable to move my eyes from her skeletal frame that twists, her restrained fists so tight that they turn white.

Someone shoves me forward and drags me deeper into the asylum, past doors with grated viewers that mad eyes stare at me through. Female voices fill the corridors from the cells, the screams of doomed minds abandoned to their insanity – or whatever it is that got them locked in here, like rich ex-husbands in no mood for custody fights.

I’m pushed inside a small room with dirty cushioned walls – so that I don’t kill myself by banging my head against them for sure – and a small grated window high above. There’s no chance for me to ever reach it, let alone make it through back to freedom. It’s Jeremy Simmons who closes the door with a vindictive frown, while Ronald Lord Barkley’s long gaunt face seems rather scared and powerless behind him. I understand he’s just a tool in more powerful hands, and I wonder what it is that the elite have on him to secure his complicity.

But that’s about all the thinking I’m able to do before I curl on the floor exhausted from the hurt, the emotional drain and the consequences of long-term rainfall on my virtually naked body. Every bit of my flesh hurts as if I’ve been beaten with rods, I’m cold and my eyes sting. I shiver like a chicken plucked of its feathers, yet manage to fall asleep. I keep waking up from the cold though. Eventually a sensation of warmth and then growing heat takes over me, making me claw my corset and try to rip it off until I’m so finished that I give in gratefully to complete and comfortable blackness. I’m strangely disappointed when it turns out it’s not definitive.

I’m sprawled on the floor as the door opens with a loud, sharp metallic sound. I can only see the lower part of it as if through fog, legs in white pants and white shoes coming at me. White arms grab me and drag me out of the room. My nape hurts, I can’t hold up my head and feel mighty humiliated as my hair hangs like rags around my face as they take me God knows where.

It’s a “treatment room,” a special one. It’s small and it has a lot of pipes. Before a clear idea can form in my mind a jet of water hits me and hurtles me to the wall, and once I’m pinned there its pressure decreases enough for me to feel its temperature – cold as ice.

I scream and gasp, my heart threatening to stop from the arctic liquid that makes me stiffen and ache. I’m fully awake and afraid for my life. I’ve sure gotten myself in really deep shit.

But to my great luck the loud whoosh of water stops abruptly, and as my screams die down I hear a female voice – deep, maybe belonging to a middle-aged respect inspiring lady – rising at the male nurses who’ve just put me through the worst torture yet.

“Are you mad? You’ll put her in hypothermia, you’ll kill her!”

My vision is blurred, but I recognize Lord Barkley’s secretary, the “witch” from last night – or God knows how many nights ago – who helped me get inside the pub incognito. Impaired as I am, I know she’s on my side. And Kieran’s, or at least Joyous’.

It’s funny that I only take a good look at her now – by the way I feel and what she just said, she might be the last friendly face I ever see. Beyond the sour expression that seems to be natural to her, she’s rather attractive with her intelligent dark eyes and round, white face. The red lipstick makes a good contrast to her white skin, black bun – clearly dyed – and elegant black blouse, and it must be the main detail that gives her the overall image of a harpy. She’s a sturdy, full-busted version of Morticia Adams.

“Lord Barkley said –” one of the men begins, but “Plump Morticia” interrupts as she tries to help me up. I’m so frozen I don’t even feel her touch.

“I’m sure he didn’t say put her in hypothermia. This woman should’ve gotten a warm blanket and a hot tea as soon as she was brought in, not be kept wet and technically naked all night.”

“It’s only been a few hours.”

The woman turns her face to the speaker. “Are you stupid, or are you just pretending?”

The man looks down. “I’m sorry, Miss Danes.”

“Give me your jacket.” She stretches her arm. The man hesitates. “Come on now!”

He takes off his white uniform jacket and hands it to the woman. She’s now looking at me again. I’ve practically trickled along the tiled wall to the floor, and I’m looking up at her. She covers me and strokes the wet hairs off my forehead.

“I’m Yvette Danes, Saphira. If they ever lay hands on you again and I happen not to be around – which won’t be happening a lot anymore – use my name to stay them.”

A young and ill-wishing female voice intervenes. “Not if my name can set those hands in motion again.”

Both Yvette and I look in the direction of the voice. Pretty Lauren leans on the doorframe in jeans and a red leather jacket, her skinny arms folded across her chest, her hair falling in fiery locks to her shoulders. She grins, and I feel like a stray dog at her mercy, looking at her from the level of her feet.

“Grab your hoses, boys,” she says.

“Wait, you can’t do this!” Yvette gets up and steps in. But the men have already followed Lauren’s command as if spoken by Lord Barkley himself.

“Yes, I can, lady,” Lauren retorts. “Lord Barkley is, say, indisposed, and I’m his Deputy.”

“But this is outrageous! You’re a tart with no studies or experience!” Yvette bursts. Lauren grins her wicked grin.

“We tarts have our methods. Now get out of the way unless you want to join little Miss Lothar in a refreshing bath.”

It’s clear that Lauren is in a position of power. The nurses obey her as the higher in command. I’m completely in her hands, and already half-dead. I close my eyes as the jets of water hit me so hard they seem to break my bones.

 

To be continued on Friday.

***

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I will find you again – Ep. 27 of “The Marquis”

The oldest inn in the old city. A gas lamp burns low on the table by the window where the Marquis stands, parting the curtains with his fingers and watching the entrance. I walk in drying my hair with a towel, the floorboards gritting under my feet until I drop on the bed. We haven’t had time to change clothes, so I’m still wearing the torn fishnet stockings and the pink corset with black lace, which is humid and uncomfortable. I stare at the Marquis, and I’m sure he feels it, but he keeps looking out the window into the night.

“That was surely Ivan Basarab, Saphira, why didn’t you let me chase him? There would have been no one truly dangerous left to chase me and my kind, and we could’ve lived in peace forever.”

“What if you failed to catch him?” I keep my voice low and soft, cautious not to instigate him in any way. “He would’ve known we’d try to get his real identity out of Lauren, and he would’ve killed her like he did Gunnar.”

“I would’ve caught him.” His voice is controlled, but I know better. The way he stands there in his wet clothes that cling to his spanned body, the profile of his face resembling that of a ruthless prince, they tell me how much he wants to get out there into the storm and hunt down the Slayer.

“You don’t know that, Kieran. You know nothing about the real Ivan Basarab, he could be some engineered creature himself as far that goes.”

“I’ve fought engineered creatures before. My makers sent me for the lives of many, and I have yet to meet my match – I hope that doesn’t sound arrogant. It’s a truth I’m not even proud of.”

“But this is The Slayer, Kieran. He’s specialized in taking down assassins like you.”

“And yet he works from the shadow because he’s afraid of me.”

He twists a chair through the air and brings it into place before me by the bed, then he straddles it with smooth feral moves The memories make me lean back, but he gathers my hands in his and comes so close that his bittersweet scent infiltrates through my nostrils and lures me back into calmness.

“Saphira, I meant it when I asked you to run away with me. I crave it, but Basarab’s presence here will bring death and destruction over Northville even with me gone. When Basarab doesn’t need Lauren Morris anymore he’ll kill her, and he’ll probably end Inspector Jeremy Simmons too. Not to mention what he’ll do to poor Mrs Grant who’s trapped at the asylum. Hell will break loose over this town, Saphira.”

I look down as I process his words, in order to keep my true thoughts hidden until the right moment. Until I’ve truly understood his. “Why didn’t you think about all this before you asked me to elope with you?”

“I did, but I – ” He hesitates for a moment, then his voice drops to a soft, chocolate slur. “Truth is that moment I didn’t care, Saphira. All I cared about was being with you.”

“And what changed?”

He presses my hands to his wet chest and moves by my side on the bed, making the mattress wobble. I can feel he searches my face, but I keep looking down to hide my tears. My heart slams into my chest and pumps an embarrassing flush to my cheeks.

“I’ll tell you what changed when I first met you, Saphira. The boy I used to be, Kieran Slate, I thought he found his end under the punches and knives of Pukov’s men. What my makers brought back to life was a ghost who, fuelled by anger and hatred, grew to be the best of their monsters. I crawled in the sewers underneath London and left them only to bring death upon rich bastards that my makers wanted removed from their way. I did unspeakable things to them, Saphira, and I enjoyed it. I came to Northville determined to do unspeakable things to Catherine’s tormentors. And to do terrible things to you. The night at the Royale, when I turned around and saw you staring at me I couldn’t believe my wicked luck. My luck that you’d walk right into my claws.”

Tears drip on my thighs that are criss-crossed by fishnet stockings like a hooker’s. I feel bad, and he makes it even worse as he lifts my head and looks directly into my tears-filled eyes.

“But the next instant it hit me how unlike your father you were,” he says. “Your face . . .” He strokes a tear off my cheek, looking at me as if I’m a vision. “These stunning golden eyes, they ripped straight through me. I became instantly aware that I’d been blinded by my hatred, and that I shouldn’t make a victim of you. Still, I took such second thoughts as weakness from my part, vestiges of the human I once was. Yet by the time I found you back in the banquet hall I’d changed all my plans, making them easier on you . . .”

“Nothing of what you did to me was ever easy on me, Kieran,” I whisper. I should feel anger, and yet I’m overwhelmed by pain as if a knife cuts me with every one of his words. He takes me in his arms and presses me to his wet, hard chest, his voice vibrating in my skull.

“I swear that hurts me more than it hurts you. Saphira, I fell in love with you, I fell fast and madly and relentlessly. You have no idea how it tormented me, how I suffered when I realized that I wanted you to myself more than anything . . . But I can’t just take you away and leave destruction behind, leave innocent people in the claws of the evil that I brought upon them. We’d never find happiness like this.”

“When?”

“When what?” He holds me tight, and I can barely breathe anymore.

“When did you realize you felt something for me?” I manage.

He caresses my hair and my face like a worshipper. “I first admitted to myself that you meant something to me on your date with Pukov – jealousy made killing him so much more pleasant, as horrible as that sounds. Soon I stopped fighting my feelings for you because they were too intense, and I realized everything I repressed was coming back with a vengeance. Now I surrendered completely to this madness, to this love. But if we leave Northville, Saphira, and we build our happiness on the demise of these people, it will haunt both of us forever.”

push him gently with my palms and look up into his face with all the emotion I feel inside. With all my being I return the passion that I feel coming from him, but I must assume the responsibility that goes with it.

“Talk to your men, Kieran, ask them to save this town. They’ll fight for you, they’re loyal – proof that the vestiges of your good nature were there long before you met me. And leave discovering Basarab’s true identity to me.”

He looks at me puzzled. “Why are you . . . What is – ”

“Please, listen.Your men are strong, bred to kill and experienced fighters, the only protection this town has.” I swallow. “Jeremy is biased by his hatred for you, so he and his policemen won’t oppose Basarab, who will surely wipe out the whole place once he’s done with it, just like you said. You and your men are Northville’s only chance.”

“I’ve been meaning to offer a very similar solution, but I don’t agree to you having any part in this – ”

“It would be easier for you to take Basarab down if you knew his true identity, right?”

“Of course, but –”

“Kieran, I have a plan.”

The door flies open, and Jeanie and Joyous storm in. Jeanie’s curls and red dress are heavy with rainwater and her eyes alarmed, while Joyous – for the first time without a smile in place – looms lank behind her, his prominent boned head that is almost a circus curiosity high above her rosy cheeked-face. His stare is as creepy as ever, and I still doubt his mental sanity by the look of it, but he’s indeed compelling, attractive maybe in a weird way.

“You need to get out of here, fast, the police are already close,” Jeanie urges, heaving with palms on her knees.

Kieran jumps to his feet and grabs my hand, but I yank it away.

“Go, Kieran!”

“I don’t like this.” He reaches for me again, but I leap from the bed and hurry to the table, drawing a chair and taking a seat. I can already hear the calls of the squad outside. “Please trust me. And whatever happens with me – do not intervene.”

“What? No way, I can’t do that!” His face is dead-white as he approaches me. I grow desperate as the fight-mongering calls from outside take up. Steps are already rapping up the stairs, but Kieran still won’t move, his eyes flashing into slits and his hands elongating into claws. Jeanie yelps and stumbles backwards, retreating in horror.

“I’m begging you, Kieran,” I cry.

Joyous takes two long strides to the window, throws it open and grabs Kieran’s arm.

“Let’s go. It’s the best thing to do right now.”

Kieran keeps in place. “I will find you again, Saphira, even if I have to turn this whole God forsaken town upside down.”

“You do that.” I get up and press my lips on his, which takes him by surprise. I try to imprint the smooth, rich feel of them into my memory in case this goes wrong. The plan is clear in my head, and it takes only a moment to whisper the most important part in Kieran’s ear. It’s supposed to make him feel more in control, and it does.

His eyes take human shape again. He stares hard at me, and only follows Joyous out the window when the policemen’s steps almost reach the door. I sit back down and take Jeanie’s hand. It helps me keep from shaking.

Without even trying a knock Jeremy breaks down the door and steps over the threshold with an angry frown, his men pouring in like cockroaches from behind him.

To be continued tomorrow.

***

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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.

 

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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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