The Executioner – Ep. IV -A shady past

Previous episodes here: Prologue, Episode I, Episode II, Episode III.

***

“Elaborate,” I said, frowning to focus.

Ruxandra crossed her arms, searching for the way to put it. She spoke fast, under her breath, her eyes darting left and right to ensure privacy.

“A few weeks ago, George and I went out to the Bourbon Pub on what was supposed to be a romantic date. Imagine my surprise to see Novac and Svetlana there, talking closely over drinks – she had scotch, he had water. Not exactly love-birds-style, but I was still worried they might be out on a date themselves, so I dragged George into it. No need to say that spoiled my boyfriend’s romantic mood.

“George felt awkward and pretended to need the men’s room, while I drew a chair and sat at their table without asking for permission. I did ask, however, if they were enjoying their night – my very presence ensuring they weren’t. But Svetlana didn’t actually look all that bothered. With a foxy grin she told me she needed Novac’s help with some research on a certain Cezare Lupan, a dangerous figure who a certain Marius Iordache had written about ten years before in an article, and on whom the R.I.S. had a classified file. She had the article in her purse, she said, that was her first source. I wondered why she’d need Novac’s help, she’s in Journalism, he’s in Med School, but she argued he knew people with information, since he delivered booze to the clubs underground thugs got wasted in. She implied he even had connections to corrupt officials who might know a lot. Anyway, I was soon sure she only used all this as a pretext to get close to him.

“Novac looked uncomfortable, but vertical. Now it occurs to me, Svetlana might’ve been past the pretexts and in the blackmailing stage, since she only stopped talking and her hand froze mid-way inside her purse to take out the article when Novac interrupted her, bluntly, coldly, and promised he’d meet her again the next evening. Her mouth sealed in a second and she grinned like a satisfied cat.”

“What would Svetlana blackmail him for?”

She shrugged and replied plainly, “Sex.”

“Oh, come on, Rux,” I laughed. “Why would someone like her need to blackmail a guy?”

“Because she’s fuckin’ obsessed with him, Alice, that’s why. And he does not want her.”

I bit hard into my lip. “And then? What happened?”

“Then Novac stood up and left. No kisses, no good-byes, not even handshakes. When I asked Svetlana if they were a couple, she grinned and said not yet. That exact second George came back and Svetlana stood, slung her purse on her shoulder, gave us a self-satisfied good-bye and pranced away on her high heels. But by then it was all clear to me.” Here Ruxandra began stressing her words. “Clear that Novac wasn’t interested in her. He was cold as ice. I didn’t tell you, because I thought it a strategy Svetlana used to spend time with him. And I didn’t tell you because I knew you’d back off if you learned how aggressively Svetlana was chasing him. And you shouldn’t back off, not because of her. But maybe because of this – a classified file with the R.I.S.”

I stared at her, not sure how to take this. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. My dad suspects they have a file on him too, and he’s not a criminal or something.”

“Do you hear yourself, Alice? We’re talking about the fucking R.I.S.! Your dad is famous, powerful, and he was once an agent abroad, he’s someone worth keeping a file on. What’s Novac’s excuse? He’s supposed to be just a student in No Man’s Town in No Man’s country.”

She shuffled from one leg to the other, eager to go, while I stared at her, stunned. The others were still busy eating and gossiping, but they would soon burn off their material and eavesdrop for ours.

“Here’s the deal,” Ruxandra said, “We need to know what that article says exactly. There’s no way we’ll hear another word on it ever again unless we use this chance. Since Novac tries so hard to bury this thing, I’m sure it’s worth the dig.” Her eyes darted around once more. “He’ll take a while until he walks through that door, but Hector will be back any minute now. Just call ‘I need a quilt’ at the base of the stairs if he wants to come up.”

Before I could reply she rushed to the attic. A few moments of head-shaking later I decided to ignore her request and run after her, but I bumped into George on the corridor, who showed himself interested in just that – Ruxandra’s whereabouts. I was tempted to tell him and get him up there too, but I knew she would never forgive me. This was on our “treason” list.

I told him she’d gone out for some fresh air and baited him to the kitchen, saying that food grew scarce. This wasn’t far from the truth, since the little that had been salvaged from the train quickly vanished in grumbling bellies, ravaged by last night’s drinking.

George walked to the short, exfoliated fridge and battled for two small bags of chips. He threw me one, and only eating and turning Ruxandra’s words on all sides in my head did I realize how privileged I was with my little university life back in Constanta, sipping steaming coffee every morning and eating three meals a day, safe from shady men who posed as poor students but could be anything from serial killers to cold war spies. The more I thought of it, the more ridiculous the possibility seemed. So ridiculous, it made me nauseous.

Soon Svetlana emerged from the bedroom. She looked tired and sick, her face still white from shock. I got up, swallowed my resentment and played the compassionate part, asking if there was anything I could do to help. She sneered me away and soon forced herself to laugh and act jovially with the others. By the time Ruxandra came back, lifting a weight off my heart, Svetlana played center of attention again, keeping all eyes and ears off us.

“What did he say?” I whispered.

“Not much. He’s sober now and won’t talk easily. You have to buy me more time.”

“Forget it. I won’t aid you in exposing yourself to a potential rapist like that, for any reason.”

“He’s wound in rope, Alice, from neck to toe. He’s lying on muddy hay and needs to be baby-fed. He’s harmless.”

The door creaked open and Hector walked in, carrying firewood on a shoulder, and for a moment Ruxandra’s eyes glinted. Yes, he was much rougher than George and surely didn’t have his sense of humor, but he looked strong and grounded. I guessed Ruxandra grew from girl to woman, and her taste in men followed suit. I elbowed her and gave her the Moon-this-is-Houston-do-you-copy line, hoping to turn her away from the ridiculous investigation. But it only served to wake her from a moment’s reverie and switch her Sherlock ambitions back on.

“Just keep him off my trail. If he goes out again, watch him. If he comes back in, keep him talking,” she said, and turned on her heels.

In the afternoon the others went back to drinking and playing cards. Ruxandra mingled with them, fixed on gathering info, while I got close to the lady I’d shared a bunk with last night. I even asked her questions about Biker, since she was part of his group, but the woman and her companions only knew Biker from the train.

He’d given them a short version of his life – an investigations journalist indeed, divorced for a year. The woman seemed desperate to convince me that she knew nothing of his “practices” and “inner demons”, and told me that she’d assured my “brunette friend” of her full cooperation with the police when the time came, too.

She even gave me a worn book she said Biker had left lying around with his things. It was a brain-wrecking, battered-looking work by a Dr. Nathaniel Sinclair about genetics, even though the vocab didn’t quite fit. It seemed archaic, as if written by a brilliant mind way ahead of its time. I only managed the first five pages, since it sounded like nothing I’d ever learned from Dad.

When evening grayed the windows, the moment came. Hector walked out the door, and Ruxandra fired a glance at me. I decided to let her have her way – I didn’t stand a chance of persuading her otherwise anyway – and darted after him, right into the sharp wind outside that nailed me on the porch, while Hector hurried to a barn blurred by snowfall.

Night descended fast over the mountains. Our shelter stood so lonely in the wilderness, so cut off from the world, that only the thought of war felt more threatening than this isolation.

There was no sign of Damian, and fear punched a void into my chest. Anything could’ve happened to him. No, something must’ve happened to him. He was gone at least eight hours.

As I made out Hector’s frame walking heavily toward me, carrying more wood on his shoulder, I held out the door.

“What are you doing here, babe?” he said hoarsely.

Babe? As in sexy? I pulled a curtain in front of the flattered face my inner self made.

“I . . . I was thinking about Damian and the others. Weren’t they supposed to be back by now?”

He dropped the pile of wood in the hallway and put his hands on his waist, moving it in circles to relieve pain. He grimaced as he spoke, looking down at the pile.

“They shouldn’t have left in the first place. Damian knew the blizzard had only taken a short break.”

My heart jumped. “Shouldn’t we go searching for them or something?”

Hector stretched and looked up, to the ceiling.

“I admire your courage, babe, but you wouldn’t last an hour out there.”

“I wouldn’t be alone. I’d be with you,” I pushed.

Hector snorted and started toward the main room.

“If it’s Damian you’re worried about, don’t be,” he threw over his shoulder.

Shit, he knows I’m into him. Everyone does. I felt exposed, I could see them all watching my midnight fantasies alone in my room, laughing at me. Shame burned in my cheeks and I wanted to hide, but for some reason I grabbed Hector’s elbow. He turned and scowled at me.

“I’m worried about all of them. Why would I think especially of Damian?” I jeered.

“Well, maybe because he saved your life?”

Yes, of course. Anyone would inquire about their rescuer and feel obliged to return the favor. My secret was still safe and my lips glued together to avoid another stupid remark.

Hector’s tone softened as he continued. “For your peace of mind, Damian can take care of himself, and he’s good with winters. As for the other two, they couldn’t hope for better company, they’re safe.”

Good with winters – so Russian spy-like, theory might just hold, my inner self mocked. But Hector didn’t lose another word on the subject of Damian. I didn’t dig any deeper either, afraid that I’d expose my infatuation with him, so we moved on to discussing survival strategies based on Discovery Channel documentaries.

In order to keep informed of his actions and intentions, I helped him feed the stoves and got a number of splinters in my bookworm hands in the process. Then, right after we’d rekindled the fire in the bunkroom, his moving toward the stairs drew a signal of alarm. He intended to check on Biker.

“I need a quilt!” I yelped. Hector stared at me as if I were a mad cow.

“And you expect me to bring you one?”

I blinked and chuckled like a schoolgirl, adrenaline rushing to my fingertips, but his attention left me in just a second. Sudden turbulence and screaming in the main room made his head snap in its direction.

We rushed into the dim chamber where Svetlana acted “all epileptic,” according to George’s wide-eyed, clueless explanation. As Hector worked our way close to her through a mass of gathered people, the sight hit me – eyes rolling, body convulsing, her hair clinging to her sweaty forehead.

“Shit, man, the woman’s possessed!” a guy called, jerking away from Svetlana as Hector fell to his knees beside her and snatched something from the guy’s shaking hand.

***

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

Also, stay tuned for a new episode of The Marquis on Friday, it’ll be a special one! The title of the episode is “Why Wild Roses Kill,” and it will contain shocking revelations. Check out all previous episodes of The Marquis here.

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Beauty and the Beast – Ep. 29 of “The Marquis”

Jeremy’s fingers clench around my upper arm. He practically drags me down the stairs and out of the inn into the nightly rain. I’m scared and calling his name, begging him to release me, but he doesn’t stop even as I stumble and lose my shoes. He treats me like a worthless criminal, and I sense his jealousy, frustration and broken pride at having lost so much to Kieran. Hatred is driving him mad.

His men follow, and Jeanie calls after us from the rear of the flock, but Jeremy’s way too deep in his wrath to mind even his sister. He drags me down the street, taking the middle of the road and displaying me like a Salem witch, his policemen sloshing behind. I’m scared as heck to see the Black Monks so close, but they keep quiet on the sidewalks, their faces only black gaps under the hoods.

Lights go on here and there, and prying faces with tousled hair appear behind windows with lamps in their hands. But soon fear wins over curiosity and they close even the shutters, leaving the decaying historical buildings only shadows in the heavy rain. I’m soaked and freezing, my cheeks hurt from the cold, and I feel catapulted back into the darkest times of the Middle Ages.

Little by little the town goes silent like a graveyard, only our precession’s rhythmic slosh down the road cutting through it. I scramble and limp awkwardly as my foot soles go bloody, but the pain is insignificant. Thoughts of Kieran fill my head. These cratures are too many. Kieran and his men are at their mercy, and it’s all my fault.

As we reach the grey mausoleum that my parental home looks like my heartache for Kieran is almost unbearable. I’d give my life to be able to take back what I asked of him. I’m driving myself crazy and only let it go a bit as Jeremy throws me into the big armchair by the fireplace.

One side of my face is suddenly burning from the heat, but the other one feels like needles as it defrosts. I try to get up and talk to Jeremy, but he pushes me back into the now drenched – and ruined – cushioned antique. Someone tries to put a blanket around me, but he doesn’t let them. I go instantly angry, and I’m determined to say something, but people – most with white hair and reprimanding expressions, some even with expensive canes – trickle into the room, making me stop with my mouth open. They seem so well synchronized in their arrival timing, that I’m sure the gathering must’ve been prepared in advance. A meeting of the elite circle, of which Jeremy has been holding ever since Gunnar died.

My mother comes too, but she stops by the entrance, clutching her hands before her mouth, eyes swollen from crying. She looks at me like she’s doing something terrible that she’s yet convinced she must for my sake. Soon more women follow, some much younger than their male companions.

“The beast has managed to escape,” Jeremy begins like a master of ceremonies – or sectarian leader by the way he opens his arms and raises his voice. “But don’t be dismayed! We got Saphira back, and she’ll help us bait him to us.”

I’m beginning to see where this is going and jump up from my seat. “What? No!”

“Kieran Slate, a.k.a. the Marquis of Vandenesse is a killer and a monster.” He tries to cup my face in his hands. I slap them and jerk back, but it doesn’t throw him off balance at all.

“It’s safe for you to speak out the truth, Saphira,” he says. “The doors are closed and sealed, we’re among the most trustworthy friends of your father. They know all about Kieran Slate and his story, they know he’s an engineered serpent-man, and that he forced you to be with him.”

“His story, yes. I wonder how much the people here contributed to that story,” I spew angrily, my eyes sweeping over their affected, arrogant, despicable faces. I wonder how many of them had their way with Catherine before Gunnar finished her, and I shudder as the atrocity of that crime courses through me once again.

“Saphira, the Marquis killed important men from Northville,” Mum intervenes with a step forward. “He has the power to hypnotize people, and this is how he got you on his side, but –”

“No one got me on their side, mother,” I cut her off. “And I can’t believe you speak of important men as if Catherine Lancaster or any one of these monsters’ victims were something less.”

She shakes her head like someone trying to get rid of a too painful truth. “The Marquis kills in a horrendous way.”

“More horrendous than gang rape and torture? Do you have to feel it in your flesh to understand the gravity of that?” Blood floods my veins in a rush, my face must be on fire and I can’t believe what I just said to my mother. I go mute in a second.

“This is preposterous,” a male phony-face with nasal voice intervenes. “She’s on the beast’s side!”

“We can’t use her,” another guy cuts in. “She was engaged to the monster.”

“Against her will,” Mum exclaims. “He wanted to use her in his revenge, and he blackmailed her. He manipulated her mind, look what he turned her into!”

“Manipulated or not, she’s clearly in love with him,” a woman with huge implants and super pumped lips chimes in. Once again being good with faces comes in handy – I recognize her from the Night of Venice, when her attitude was very different. She drooled over Kieran and looked daggers at me as he said I was his girlfriend.

“She’s the devil’s mistress!” An angry old man shakes his cane.

“And she must enjoy his bed since she defends him with such force. She’s as rotten as he is.” – Pretty Lauren with an evil grin. She stands with her arms crossed in a corner.

Voices rise over each other, and once again I feel like one of Salem’s witches. Jeremy moves around energetically – things clearly aren’t going according to his plan. These people are more interested in exorcizing me than using me as bait or whatever else. But this is not about me or these bastards’ inquisition-worthy trial, it’s about Kieran Slate, the man I’ve fallen in love with madly, stronger than I ever thought possible. I look the truth in the face – I’d do anything for him. It’s now or never. I squeeze my eyes shut, pray, and as my eyelids snap open again I make the first move.

***

To be continued on Friday.

Next episode.

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“The Executioner” Snippet

Due to delays (it’s a first!) in the developments of the episodes, I’m not able to post a new episode of “The Marquis” today, but it will be completely ready for you tomorrow. Due to editor’s cut we had to make some small changes, but fear not! (Hehe) The night is not wasted – here is a snipped of “The Executioner,” of which I posted before here (Prologue) and here (Episode II). Please enjoy Episode III as follows:

***

Before he could speak again, Damian grabbed one of Biker’s arms and Hector another. I instinctively looked at Hector, hoping something in his face, his reaction, would betray some meaning to all this.

The bearded singer’s features shimmered in the light of the oil lamp he carried. He looked robust, his small eyes shadowed by bushy eyebrows and he had the nose of an eagle. His skin had the color of ripe olives, which made me think of a gypsy, the rich beard adding to the grim air. But his face betrayed nothing besides sternness, there was nothing I could read or interpret.

Biker tried to jerk from their grasp, but he didn’t stand a chance. I heard muffled bumps and cusses as they took him up the creaky stairs to the attic. I wanted to follow but my feet wouldn’t take a step, soft and unreliable, my ears thudding with anxiety.

Talking turned up volume, and soon there was a fuss about everything: How Svetlana felt – she got most of the attention again –, the two heroes’ injuries, Biker’s words. A few hours later, as dawn slowly drew a bloody horizon across the mountainous contour, everybody reached a consensus – the man and his companions had been complete strangers to us until yesterday, so no way Biker truly knew Damian or any of us. Completely drunk, he talked nonsense.

My tired mind accepted their conclusion easily. It made sense. The one question running around in my head right now was another, anyway – how come Damian hadn’t lost his temper when he’d learned Biker had tried to force himself on Svetlana? As much as I loathed myself for it, hope bloomed in my chest. Hope that he didn’t care about her, that there was yet nothing between them.

The sleep I got tormented by daylight, snoring from at least a dozen sources and bad breath from just as many mouths ended about noon, with a headache and a sensation of weakness all through my body. I barely carried myself to the kitchen, mind numb and lids swollen.

The voices around sounded painfully cheerful. They stabbed my brain, tempting me to skirt around the overpopulated room, but it contained the only sink where I could wash my face and teeth. Toothbrushes and as good as all items for personal hygiene had been abandoned on the train – unlike the booze – so I rubbed my teeth with my finger, bent over the rusty, enamel-peeled sink. The freezing water smacked me full awake.

Chattering gained meaning. People gossiped about last night and the story took thrilling turns for those who’d been too wasted to experience it live. Even in this lonely winter cottage where the truth shouldn’t have had trouble coming to light quickly enough, there were different versions for different clusters. Some versions even talked about Svetlana kicking Biker in the balls, and Damian punching him senseless. The reason why he and Hector hadn’t barged in along with the others was that they’d been in the attic, looking for lamps and other useful objects that might help us survive several days of isolation or the road to the nearest village or town. I didn’t know if it was any truer than the kick in the balls, but it was plausible.

Groggy and with throbbing temples, I looked for Ruxandra and eventually found her arranging sandwiches on a clay plate – a rarity.

“Wow, I didn’t know people still used these things.” I looked over her shoulder and reached for a bite. She slapped my hand off.

“This ain’t for you, sweetheart. Make your own.” She was stiff and frowning – so either preoccupied or nervous.

“Breakfast or clay plate?”

She glanced around, making sure no one listened.

“I’m taking this to the attic,” she whispered, and I instantly felt like a guilty accomplice.

“You’re most certainly not! If anyone feeds that animal, it should be someone who can tame him.”

“You mean Novac or Hector? Neither are here, and this is my chance.”

Suddenly Novac? What happed to Damian? “Why should you need a chance?”

“They won’t allow anyone up to the attic. But I need to talk to him, and I don’t know how much time I have until they’re back.”

“Where are they?”

“Novac went with two others to look for the nearest village or town, if they find one within a mile or two. They’ll bring back help and food. Hector stayed back as watchdog, but right now he’s cutting wood in the barn.”

“I’m coming with you.”

She shook her head. “No you’re not. Stay here, make sure no one comes up.”

“Why are you doing this, Rux? What can you possibly want with the guy?”

She looked aside through the window. It was the first time Ruxandra formulated sentences in her head before she spoke them to me, which drew serious alarm.

“Don’t think, Rux, talk! Do you know him?”

“I don’t, but Svetlana surely does.”

“Okay . . .” It did come as a surprise, but stayed so for only a moment. It actually made sense. I’d heard most rapists turned out to be from the victim’s close circle. “But what’s your business with him?”

“He has information I need.”

Shaking my head, puzzled and a bit annoyed, “All right, what do you know of the guy?”

“If I’m right, his name is Marius Iordache and he’s an investigation reporter with Adevarul.”

I tilted my head back, inspecting her. “And that is important because . . .”

“Because he wrote an article about a certain Cezare Lupan. Che-zuh-reh,” she stressed the pronunciation like Biker had as if to emphasize the connection to badass historical character Caesare Borgia, looking me hard in the face.

“And why is that important?”

“You still ask? You heard him call Novac by that name yesterday.”

I snorted. “So Damian’s the long-lost descendant of a badass cardinal.”

“Don’t mock. Cezare Lupan is the name of a file classified by the Romanian Intelligence Service, the R.I.S.,” she spat out fast. It came like a punch in my face.

***

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

Black Angels – Ep. 28 of “The Marquis”

“You were here with him,“ Jeremy growls through his teeth.

“Let us explain,” Jeanie steps in, but he shoves her to the side and stomps to me. He doesn’t even mind her yelp and the thud as she hits the floor. He scares the crap out of me, and I make to get up, but his big hand pushes me back in my chair, his other fist clenched on the table by the gas lamp.

“You thought you could fool me. Didn’t you imagine that my men would report immediately once they lost you?”

My pulse is high with fright, and my eyes must bulge like potatoes out of my face. I look around at his men devastating the room. Two of them climb out the window, following Kieran and Joyous’ route to the roof. Jeremy squeezes my shoulder, causing me a shriek of pain and forcing my full attention back to him. I can’t believe Jeremy Simmons is actually doing this to me.

“Don’t waste my time, woman, tell me the truth!” He’s beside himself with rage, and I’m even afraid he might hit me.

“Leave her alone, Jeremy, you’ll give her another seizure, and one of those almost killed her tonight,” Jeanie says, forcing herself back on her feet and trying to separate us. I cling to her arm, wanting nothing more than to take distance from her brother. I’m so grateful for Jeanie right now, for her presence of mind. I was right to trust her.

Jeremy retreats a couple of steps, looking at Jeanie and me as if he’s trying to see the big picture.

“What seizure, Jean? Saphira’s been seen with the Marquis of Vandenesse at the pub, technically doing it on the table, and in my book, that’s called fervour, not seizure.” He sounds crazy with jealousy.

“If you heard that, then you must’ve heard as well that as the Marquis tried to take her with him she started twitching and shrugging uncontrollably.”

Jeremy’s eyes fall on me again, slightly calmer. “Is that so? He tried to kidnap you?”

I clear my throat and gather my courage to start with my plan, but one of Jeremy’s men storms in breathlessly, his face alight with urgency. He’s dressed as a civilian, but I recognize him from the house. I’m good with faces.

“Inspector Simmons,” he stammers, “they’re here!”

“Who’s here?” Jeremy barks at him.

“The Black Angels. The Contractor’s fighters. But, Inspector, they’re many, and they’re not, they’re not . . . normal.” He looks terrified and he’s shaking, his fleshy round face glistening with sweat.

Jeremy obviously understands what the man means without further words. He strides to the window and looks out. When he turns to me, a wicked grin stretches on his square, unshaven face. As good looking as women find him for his muscles and testosterone-squared features, right now to me he’s downright ugly.

“Please, Saphira, have a look.”

Curiosity and worry compel me to the window. Under the street lamps and the rain black hooded figures flood the street from side-alleys, and I know on the spot they’re the back-up Ivan Basarab sent to Jeremy. Black Angels. The Contractor.

The one who seems their leader has stopped across from the entrance to the inn, and he apparently senses my staring at him. He lowers his hood and looks up, revealing a face which, even though it’s too far away to see in detail, is clearly disfigured by some terrible disease, covered in red and white blisters full of puss that makes me think of leprosy. I gasp in horror and draw backwards only to bump into Jeremy’s burly chest. His huge palms clasp my upper arms.

“Now the Marquis must face opponents his own size – monsters, like him.” He sounds mad, whether with hatred or sick ambition, I don’t know. Nor does it matter. I jerk away and turn to face him, looking straight into his face. His eyes are wild, like a madman’s.

“You’ve made a pact with the devil, Jeremy! These creatures came to finish the Marquis, but they won’t leave again, not without having finished you as well, and everybody who knows of their existence. They won’t risk their secret leaving Northville.”

He grabs me above my elbow and pulls me to a corner, whispering close to my face. “The borders of Northville have already been sealed. The rocky wasteland all around is now infested with these creatures. No one gets in or out of this cursed town. These creatures will help me end your lover the Marquis once and for all, and for that I’ll pay any price.”

 

To be continued on Tuesday.

***

Next episode.

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STAY TUNED for Quiz 4 – What kind of lover are You? tomorrow evening. I’m looking forward to your choices and interpretations:)

 

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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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Run away with me – Ep. 26 of “The Marquis”

“He’s got my bag,” a girl calls. “Someone get the police!”

The commotion in the entrance foyer of the pub becomes crushing, people pushing elbows into my ribs and my back, shoving me right into the witch-costumed hostess’ arms. One of the policemen makes it right behind me, but Jeanie gets a brilliant idea.

These guys are officers,” she calls out, ripping my “escort’s” jacket open. He cusses under his breath as his police-blue shirt and his gun become visible to the public.

People grab and steer him towards the screaming girl, and Jeanie rips open the other guy’s jacket while the hostess pulls me to her and talks so close to my ear that her spittle lands on it.

I staged the theft.” With that she pushes a mask in my hands, grabs my nape and hauls me inside the pub. Her cloaked back topped by a pointy hat shifts to cover the entrance and thereby shield me from being followed.

I gather myself quickly and make my way through the crowd to the heart of the pub. I manage to hustle through the line to the ladies’ room, but the girls I elbow in the process have been waiting for quite a while, and they’re irritable. They lose their manners too, shaking fists and cursing like wantons from the cheapest brothel.

“I just need to talk to someone who’s inside, I’m no competition for the toilet,” I try to defend myself.

It doesn’t help, they’re still aggressive. I’m scared, but I have to go through with it. In the end, I’ll get out of here dressed differently and wearing a mask, so I stand a good chance of getting away without a beating.

It’s full inside the ladies’ room, and I must take my clothes off right here, among giggling girls by the mirrors. They go “Oh,” and “WTF” as I proceed with my business like an exhibitionist. I’m embarrassed, but there’s no time for pudency.

The leather pants are sticky on my sweaty legs, and losing them doesn’t go as fast as I planned at home. I’m not as graceful as I imagined I’d be as I step out of them. I stumble and catch myself by holding on to one of the girls, who’s enthusiastic that under the pants I’m wearing torn fishnet stockings just like hers.

With a friendly “Hot,” she helps me back into my high heels and watches with an impressed grin as I tie the black sheen scarf around my hips. I shuffle off the silk shirt and reveal the pink corset with black lace above the breasts, and pin my hair up in a bun, which I cover with a black sheen cap. It’s not like I’m the only blonde in here, but better take too many precautions against being recognized than too few.

I can’t believe the exhilarating feeling I get as I fling the door open and hold up my mask in front of my face, walking out of there like Catwoman on Jimmy Choos. With every step I pray I don’t sprain my ankle and spill myself on the floor before all the open mouths that shook fists at me only minutes ago. If that happens, and my disguise is compromised, I’m pretty sure my own mother would have difficulty identifying me under all the bruises from the beating I’d get. But God hears my prayers.

I make it past the waiting line and work my way slowly among the masks, the back-slapping men and laughing women, but soon I attract more attention than I can use. The costume is too sexy. I chose it because it was easy to conceal from Jeremy, but now I realize it’s practically “begging” for attention.

The thought worries me, but before I can dwell on it I see him. The man in the Zorro mask strolling his way towards me. My heart drums as he gets closer.

I’d never fail to recognize the Marquis’ marble-like skin and defined features, they’re so handsome and youthful. I sigh as his arm goes around my middle and his bittersweet scent slithers through my nostrils. For a moment there I think he’s using his powers on me again, but then I admit to myself I’m just drunk-in-love with him, and I let go.

He gently leads me to sit at a corner table that seems reserved for us. He keeps his arm on the wall at the level of my head, trapping me in the small space, his other hand caressing its way up my thigh, his fingers sinking hungry into my flesh, tearing the stockings. I keep back the sounds of pleasure that threaten to leave my throat, since people stand crammed together close to the table, shielding us like a human curtain.

“It wasn’t me, Saphira,” Kieran’s voice ripples. It feels like chocolate to my senses. “I didn’t kill your – Gunnar.”

“I never doubted that.” I keep it low too, making sure my words drown in the chatter. “But Jeremy has the whole town instigated against you. You have to get out of Northville.”

“I can’t. Not without you.”

“As soon as all this calms down I’ll move to London, and I’m sure you have your ways of finding me there. We’ll just let things cool for a while.”

“It hurt like hell to be away from you even for a few days. You want me to put up with that torture for another while that might be months?”

Emotion swells inside me. Our surroundings seem to fade away. His dark shirt is open at the neck and down to the upper part of his chest, revealing the smooth skin beneath it that I long to explore. My fingers tremble at the silky feel of it, the feel of a creature half human, half serpent.

“I missed you so much, Kieran,” I whisper.

My words set him on fire. He kisses me with those beautiful lips that make me vibrate down to my core, a rich, full kiss. His tongue fills my mouth, and I give in under his tight embrace.

“I don’t want to be separated from you another minute,” I let out among heated pecks, my hands sinking in his glossy hair.

Kieran rests his forehead against mine, looking down at his hand that still kneads my thigh.

“Run away with me, Saphira,” he lures. “We’ll leave everything behind us, the past, the revenge, and till the end of time I’ll work on making it up to you for all the pain I’ve caused you.”

“You’d do that? You’d give up the very purpose that kept you going all these years for me?”

He looks straight into my eyes. “I’d do anything for you, Saphira. As for revenge – even if not by my hand, Gunnar Lothar is dead, and his circle of monsters broken. They’re running in all directions, scared. The arms of the law should take it from here. My job is done.”

I caress his face, wanting to take in the feel of him through the fine ridges in my palms. “There’s nothing I want more than to run away with you, Kieran, leave everything behind and start anew, start clean, just you and me. But that would fuel Jeremy’s hatred against you, he’d hunt you down with even more bile and determination.”

“I’m not afraid of Jeremy Simmons.” He cups my face with both his hands. “Come with me. I promise you the dark times are over. I promise you’ll be able to love me and feel good about it too – your words, your wish.”

His eyes search mine full of hope, and I understand that this is his tormented soul’s only chance at redemption. I either accept, or Kieran Slate will succumb to the serpent Marquis forever. I make a firm decision and take the hand he offers me as he stands.

I’ve never felt more certain of anything. It’s for the first time when I’m completely sure that I’m doing the right thing. I’m madly in love with this man, and I’m well aware that eloping with him through the back door means surrendering myself to him entirely. I make the choice full-heartedly. He grabs a short leather jacket from the pegs by the exit, flings it over my shoulders, and we plunge out into the night.

The streets are narrow, dark and chilly, only here and there an orange light flickering at a window, but Kieran’s arm around me and the warm proximity of his body is all the “safe” I need. I mentally say farewell to the buildings that stand dark and timeless on each side of the cobbled street like a tunnel – this is the old part of Northville, which miraculously escaped bombardment during the war. These houses are almost as old as the line of Kings and Queens, and their walls witnessed many of the Middle Ages’ terrors and horrors, including the black plague. There are still basements where community graves were found.

Just a few months ago I thought I could never leave this place, even though its mystery chilled me to the bones, but somehow I couldn’t stop probing it. Today I know the town was always a cruel place, and that all through my life it’s been an anonymous retreat for rich twisted devils and their dark practices. I’m glad it’s going down.

Rain begins to fall from the laden skies, the drops big and hard like gravel on my face. I put the jacket over my head, but my legs are wet and freezing. The rain shortly soaks Kieran’s shirt too, making it cling to his sinewy body, but he doesn’t seem bothered in the least.

“Don’t you –”

“I’ve been through far worse than a little angry water, Saphira,” he interrupts, increasing pace as we slosh through the puddles. “It’s you we need to get to warmth fast.” My feet practically swim in the cold water in my shoes.

“Where are we going?” My teeth clatter, and Kieran’s hold tightens.

“An inn. Joyous awaits us there with a car.”

But at the next street Kieran suddenly halts. He pulls me back behind the last corner we passed, and he does it so fast I get dizzy. I come to myself and follow his gaze around the gutter to realize that we’re looking at Virgin Vivien’s house – what’s left of it after the fire. Two figures in monk-like cloaks – one tall and broad, the other small and thin – go separate ways from it. They’ve obviously been in there together, but it turns out one of them – the one that heads our way – is a woman. I can’t see that far, especially through the heavy rain, but Kieran’s eyes turn to serpent slits, and he identifies her.

“You won’t believe this. It’s Pretty Lauren.”

Surprise kicks out my manners and language. “You gotta be shitting me.”

 

To be continued on Tuesday.

***

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

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

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

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

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

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

“No, I’m not going in there.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

***

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Bad Blood – Ep. 22 of “The Marquis”

“That’s enough, Saphira,” Jeremy cuts in. He walks to me and extends a hand, but the Marquis grabs and twists it behind his back. As big and muscular as Inspector Jeremy Simmons is, he groans and bares his teeth as he leans backwards into the Marquis’ clasp.

“If you ever try to touch her again, I’ll break every bone in your body,” the Marquis threatens. He’s taller and leaner than Jeremy, therefore more agile even without his engineered powers, but he’s also so much stronger. His ivory features are locked, and his black eyes angry coals.

“Please, Kieran, don’t hurt him,” I plead. “He’s innocent.”

The Marquis keeps his glare on Jeremy, his sweet lips drawing in a hiss. “I’m not so sure.”

“Better tell him the truth. That he should be on our side.”

“What the hell is this?” Jeremy groans and tries to struggle from the Marquis’ grip, but without success.

“Please, just listen to him, Jeremy.”

“Saphira, what is happening?” Mum is puzzled, her hand gently touching mine.

I look straight into her eyes and tell her the story in a few short sentences – that Catherine Lancaster, Lord Lancaster’s daughter, had been raped by a group of men from this town, and that my father, Gunnar Lothar, killed her in the end. Mum gasps and takes a few steps back, gripping the rest of the chair where she sat as we walked in.

“Your father was one of them too, Inspector Boy,” the Marquis hisses in Jeremy’s ear. “The lucky bastard died before I got my hands on him, so don’t give me reason to take it out on you, his son.”

Jeremy struggles like a wounded animal, kicking the air in front of him, but unable to release himself from the Marquis’ hold. “You fucking bastard!”

The Marquis is inhumanly strong, and Jeremy’s struggles don’t move him an inch. He turns his vicious black glare to Lord Barkley.

“What about you, filth bag? Could it be, that you were one of them as well?”

Lord Barkley is still sitting in his chair, the cigarette burning his fingers but he doesn’t seem aware of that. He looks stunned at Kieran, unable to utter one word.

Mum presses her fingers on her temples, shaking her head. “This can’t be. This can’t be happening.”

I approach her carefully, searching her gaze but she looks down, then sideways, then upwards, avoiding my gaze.

“It is, Mum,” I say gently. “If you’re honest to yourself, you’ve always known. But you’ve tried to silence your sixth sense.” As I did through compulsive painting, but this is not about me, so I keep the remark to myself. The Marquis’ voice cuts in, making me look at him and Jeremy again.

“And you, stupid shit,” he addresses Jeremy, “you find out all sorts of stuff but not the essential. You spoiled, superficial and incompetent brat. Didn’t you ever at least suspect of all the bastards in this cursed place? Or, what, are you covering their arses?”

“Wait a second,” Mum says, her voice faint, her eyes wide on the Marquis. “What happened with Catherine Lancaster was decades ago. What have you got to do with it?”

I clear my voice and hold her shoulders as I speak, so I can support her if she falls. “Kieran was Lord Lancaster’s stable boy, Mum. He and Catherine were secretly in love, and the night she was raped he was beaten almost to death by Vladimir Pukov’s people – Pukov was part of the group as well, and Dad wanted me to marry him even though he knew this.”

Mum looks stunned from me to the Marquis, then to Lord Barkley, who sits silent in his chair.

“But,” she whispers, “I knew Catherine. We were friends. We grew up together, just like you and Vivien, Lauren and Jeanie. Lord Lancaster said she had run away with the stable boy. It came as a shock to the rest of us, we knew nothing, I . . .”

“Lord Lancaster couldn’t take the pain, Mum,” I say. “He spread a story he could at least try to live with.”

Mum slumps into the chair behind her, and I support her by the shoulders as she does. Her eyes are fixed in awe on the Marquis. “But that means . . . How old are you?”

The Marquis looks at her, but doesn’t answer.

“My God,” she whispers. “And Saphira? What role did she play in your plot?”

Pain cuts through my chest, and I sink my head.

“At first I wanted to use her in my revenge on Catherine’s tormentors,” the Marquis explains. “I wanted to have her lure them to places where I could kill them right before her eyes, torment her mind and soul in the process, and in the end have her father find her mad from everything she’s witnessed in the same place Catherine was found. I considered it an act of kindness – to her, not Gunnar – not having her sleep with all those men too. I took the decision to go easier on her than initially planned after I got to know her. She made a painting of me, and she . . . I fell in love with your daughter, Mrs Lothar. It sounds impossible, coming from a monster like me, whose soul has been frozen for decades, but it’s the pure truth. I don’t expect you to give us your blessing, but I’d like you to know that for her sake I decided to drop all thoughts of revenge. But unfortunately, this town’s troubles won’t end with that.”

Jeremy has another fit of struggling, and this time he makes it out of the Marquis’ arms – or the Marquis let him go, since he doesn’t look surprised. He and Jeremy now face each other. The Marquis arranges the collar of his suit jacket, while Jeremy flexes and glares.

“This town’s biggest problem is you, devil,” Jeremy growls. The Marquis smiles at him like a prince at a powerless angry peasant.

“I’m not the one who set the Grants’ house on fire and tried to kill Vivien. That was Ivan Basarab – the Slayer – whose true name you should be busy finding out. He’s one of this town’s honourable citizens, killers, filth bags that you now have no more excuse to ignore.”

“You need proof for all these allegations, de Vandenesse and, right now, all I truly got is proof that you’re a killer. Guards!” Jeremy calls.

Quick steps stomp closer and louder from the corridor, and policemen burst in. They take out their guns and focus on Kieran as if they’ve been waiting for this command all along. I scream and want to run to Kieran, but one of the policemen stops me and keeps me away from the scene as more men pour in. This is indeed a trap they set up for Kieran.

Kieran looks left, right and relaxes. A smile pulls one corner of his sweet mouth, and that is the last sight I get of his human self before his skin starts losing it’s opaque consistence, turning into something jelly-like and transparent, then into increasingly metallic scales. His eyes spring into slits, and his serpent tongue shoots out of his mouth as he gives out a piping hiss that sends an unbearable buzz through all our ears.

I squeeze my eyes shut and press my hands to my ears, but the buzz still pierces through. Only when it stops I dare look up again to see all policemen scrambling up from the floor, the terrified looks in their eyes and the confusion as they grope around testimony that the Marquis had been right – nothing of the security here has anything on him.

The door is open, with no trace of the Marquis, while Jeremy is the only person standing, however stunned with a gun in his hand in the middle of his sprawled men.

Someone breathes hoarsely behind me. I turn to see Ronald Lord Barkley, and realize his knotty hands are clamped around my shoulders. He shakes and can’t take his eyes off the door.

“I didn’t have anything to do with it,” he whispers.

“Excuse me?” I try to get away from him, but his fingers sink into my shoulders, keeping me in place as a human shield.

“I didn’t have anything to do with their dark practices. I was part of their group of friends all those years ago, but I never participated in the terrible things they did.”

I shake myself from his grip and hurry to help my Mum up from the floor.

“What in all Saints’ names was that?” She exclaims, looking desperate and brushing invisible cockroaches off her body. She’s horrified, hysterical, making it hard to help her up. “He’s a monster! A monster!”

I struggle with her to help her calm down, and it’s a real fight until she manages to get a grip.

***

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Mysteries of the Asylum – Ep. 21 of “The Marquis”

The car stops, ending the magic moment Kieran and I share. Zed Stone Mask opens the door to the sight of the lunatic asylum, a grey desolate castle guarded by a black gate made of wrought iron. Its spires rise high and seem to pierce the clouds, thunder adding the final touch to a creepy landscape. After only a few steps my high heels slump into a puddle of mud, but Kieran catches me before I sprawl full-body onto the ground.

The yard is huge and barren but for the patches of yellowish grass, some of the lunatics strolling like ghosts here and there, accompanied by bulky nurses – their physique must be a hiring requirement for security reasons, surely.

At the grand entrance we realize the place is even heavier guarded. Men in “Security” jackets line the walls beyond the imposing entrance doors. I can see them when they open automatically to let out two policemen in uniforms. One of them places a hand on Zed’s chest to stop him.

“This is as far as you come, sir,” he tells Zed, who looks him up and down with his cold blue eyes. Then, as if asking for permission to break the guy’s bones, he looks at Kieran, whose arm is around me, more men in black – members of his staff – backing us.

“We’re here to see Mrs Grant,” Kieran addresses the man who stopped Zed, since he seems to be the one in charge.

“Ronald Lord Barkley would have to approve the visit,” the policeman says.

“Then let me see him and request approval.”

The policeman cranes his neck theatrically, making a show of what bothers him as his gaze sweeps over the men behind us.

“Mrs Grant is in both hospital and police custody, Monsieur le Marquis. She might be a target for whoever set fire to her house –” he stresses “whoever” to mark his suspicion of Kieran himself. “So we’ll allow only one or maximum two people at a time to see her, such as you and Miss Lothar. But we won’t allow a whole bunch of action heroes like your men by any means.” He looks at me, and for a moment I feel he wants to silently transmit me something.

“It’s quite generous of you to allow the Marquis and me to go in at the same time,” I respond. “But I think it would be best if I requested approval to see Mrs Grant alone.”

Kieran squeezes my arm, and whispers through his teeth, “What are you doing?”

“Excuse us,” I tell the policeman with a polite smile and draw Kieran aside. With well-rehearsed moves his men make a wall between the policemen and us, creating the necessary private sphere.

“There’s no way Mrs Grant will talk to anybody but a person she knows closely and trusts,” I whisper under my breath. “Plus that so much police and security could be a trap for you.”

“There’s no way I’m letting you inside this place on your own.”

“Why not? Mrs Grant knows me, she’ll open up to me much faster than if you’re there to monitor our conversation. Lord Barkley has also known me since I was a kid, he’ll take less time to give his approval.”

“Once they separate us on this threshold they might take you away from me.” He pulls me to his chest and locks me in his arms. “I don’t want a day to pass without knowing exactly where you are, Saphira, who’s around you and how they might influence you. I don’t want to lose you before I’ve even had a chance to make things right between us.”

My heart jumps as I realize just how important I am to Kieran. His insecurity is sexy, and it makes me feel powerful in a way I’m not entirely proud of, but I’ll deal with that later. I nod.

“All right.”

His men step aside to allow us to face the policeman again, who now pushes his chest forward, hands in his pockets, forbidding frown on his brow.

“We’d like to request approval from Lord Barkley to see Mrs Grant,” I say, drawing closer to Kieran with my arm around his, my chin up and my attitude worthy of a Marquis’ fiancé. “Together.”

“Wonderful,” the man responds without hesitation and leads us inside the asylum.

I’ve never been in here before, and the place gives me the creeps. When doors fall shut behind us with a thud, I wish at least Zed had come with us. I’ve grown to trust him in a strange way.

The two policemen lead us down a tiled corridor lined by security men to Ronald Lord Barkley’s office. By the moment the door opens to his secretary’s narrow antechamber I’ve got goose skin for all the bad reasons – the screams from the upper levels which probably come from people being subjected to electroshocks, the occasional door ajar allowing glimpses into greenish rooms with iron beds and chipped bathtubs. This is a place of shudder and gloom despite all the money that flows into it, and I can’t help increasing pace. I thank God with all I have that Kieran didn’t let me enter alone. His reliable presence and the warmth of his body help me act halfway decent, but when Lord Barkley’s full-moon-faced and red-lipped secretary opens the door to his office I’m about to lose composure.

The man sits at his desk, his livid cheeks slack and his mouth a hatched curve with the ends downward. He has drooping eyes and thinning hair, and his frame is long and skinny. He holds a cigarette between his knotty fingers that scream out his arthritis, and when the Marquis enters the room behind me, his face seems to draw even longer. But what strikes me most is something else.

Two people sit on either side of his desk. One of them – to his right – is my mother, also long and skinny, her face gaunt and haunted, her greying hair up in her usual bun. She too has a cigarette between her fingers, and tears well in her eyes as she sees me. She puts out the cigarette and stands up. My eyes fly to the other side of the desk.

Inspector Jeremy Simmons fixes me with his small dark eyes, but nothing in his expression betrays surprise. I realize immediately he’s here because he expected me. Or us. His bulky muscles fill the armchair he sits sprawled in, and his square jaw is covered by a three-day-beard that adds to his bad-boy demeanour. Tension is heavy in the room, the silence oppressive. Jeremy is the first to break it and speak.

“Isn’t this a pleasant surprise,” he says, making himself even broader by putting a big hand on the desk and resting an ankle over his knee. “Miss Saphira Lothar and Monsieur le Marquis de Vandenesse.”

Jealousy lurks in his words. My eyes fly from one person to the other. The Marquis is close behind me, but I can’t bring myself to look at him, as if taking my eyes off the three characters before me would somehow trigger their doing something terrible to us.

“This is exactly why I didn’t want to leave you alone,” the Marquis tells me loud enough for everybody else to hear it.

Jeremy stands up as if electroshocked himself and stomps to us. “Take your hands off her, you bastard!”

“Back off.” Kieran grows menacing, and I can’t help turning to look into his face. He resembles a marble statue, but the life in his black eyes is searing. I place a hand on his arm.

“Kieran, we’re here for approval to see Mrs Grant, that’s the only reason for our visit.” I bend to the side to look at Lord Barkley past Jeremy. “Lord Barkley, please. Allow us just a few minutes with Mrs Grant, it’s urgent.”

“I’m afraid that’s not possible, Saphira,” the man croaks.

“But, Lord Barkley –”

“Save it, Saphira,” the Marquis stops me. My head snaps to him, and I find his eyes still fixed on Jeremy. They watch each other like hawks. “Any information Mrs Grant had to give, these three people here already have it. And they surely don’t want us to know it too, otherwise they wouldn’t take all this trouble to block access to her.”

Mum steps forward, crying. “That’s not true! Lynn Grant refused to talk to anybody, even the police. We’re here because we expected Saphira would want to see Lynn, and you wouldn’t by any means let her come alone. You’ve been keeping Saphira locked in for weeks, and you didn’t allow her to see even us, her family. You sequestrated her, you’re sick!”

“That’s not the reason I didn’t come to see you,” I step in. “I didn’t return home because I don’t want to have anything to do with that monster you call my father anymore.”

Mum blinks as if slapped. She babbles until she finds back to herself and her words. “Where did that come from, Saphira?”

I walk towards my mother, pointing a finger at her. “Enough you’ve pretended, a whole lifetime. You always knew something was wrong with him, which is why you abandoned yourself to booze and cigarettes. You thought substances would numb you, but all they did was throw you deeper into depression. And that man I used to call ‘Father’ is not the only criminal. This town crawls with sick bastards like him, so don’t take out your frustration and fury on the Marquis, because he’s not the one you truly want to choke.”

“What on Earth do you mean?” Mum whispers, her hands shaking.

***

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I want to lose my head for you and feel good about it – Ep. 20 of “The Marquis”

A young butler brings in clothes. I take a bath and put on an elegant cream-colored two-piece suit and glossy high heels that he provides. My hair finds structure in a wound golden tail, but the make-up fails me. Last night took its toll, and no matter what I do, the eerie effect of the golden eyes reflecting in the mirror won’t lessen.

Zed and Joyous escort me to the curb, the latter holding the door as I get in the back of the car by Kieran’s side. He looks fresh in his suit, his marble face flawless and his smile dashing, his attitude very different from the man’s who used to drive icy fear into my bones with a mere glance. The knowledge that he still has that power, that he can hypnotize me into obedience or dread anytime, unsettles me.

“Is everything all right?” He takes my hand his. I look down at it, my heart beating in the rhythm of my crush.

“I’m still wary of you, Kieran.”

“Please, don’t. I’ll never hurt you again, I’ll die before I do.” He squeezes my hand, and I look up into his black eyes that show pain.

“Maybe you won’t hurt me by doing what you did before, but how can I be sure that you’ll never use your hypnotic powers on me again?”

“I promise that I’ll never influence you. Not anymore, not like that.”

I narrow my eyes. “What do you mean ‘not like that’?”

His gaze catches a shade of wisdom. I realize just how old he actually is. “I hope you’ll still allow me to try and convince you, just like any other person.”

“You’re not ‘Any Other Person.’ It’s unfair to demand Any Other Person’s privileges.”

“I’ve said it before, and I can’t resist saying it again – you’re a very special woman, Saphira.”

I’m not so sure, but I’m flattered nonetheless. I nestle at his chest, breathing in his bittersweet scent that stirs me in my crush. I try to get a grip on my feelings and keep a cool head.

“Kieran –” I lick my lips, searching for the right words to put this. “You say you’ll never hurt me again. But you came to Northville with the iron purpose of hurting my father. You planned an ‘epic revenge.’ Is that still your plan?”

Kieran holds my chin up and looks me in the face.

“Would you consider that I hurt you if I took revenge on your father? Even though I’d keep you very far from that revenge?”

I gulp down the knot in my throat. “I don’t know. How far can I be kept from it, considering that he’s my father.”

“He raped and killed women, Saphira. He tortured Catherine.”

My skin creases. “What do you intend to do with him?”

“First answer me this: Don’t you believe your father should pay for what he’s done?”

“I believe that’s better left in Providence’s hands. No evil deed has ever gone unpunished one or way or another.”

“Well, it’s been decades since Catherine, and your Providence hasn’t yet seen fit to punish your father.”

“No, not yet. But are you sure you want his blood on your hands? Blood is heavy, Kieran, no matter if it belongs to the just or the evil.”

He laughs a bad laugh, and it seems the dangerous Marquis is back. “Who are you telling about it? I have so much of that weight on my hands, Saphira, it should’ve pulled me to the core of the Earth until now. You know this.”

“I do. And it’s the very reason I’m worried and unsure. You and I, our connection . . . It’s happening fast, it’s relentless, and I want it badly, but I can’t live with the idea that you take lives.”

His gaze freezes on mine, and for a moment I fear this last point brought us to a dead end.

“You’re asking me to relinquish revenge on your father in exchange or for the sake of this closeness?”

“For the sake of it, of course. Listen, Kieran.” I squeeze his hand in both of mine and hold his gaze. “My father and his group committed terrible crimes, not only against Catherine for sure. We have the opportunity to unmask these monsters. You’re rich and powerful, I’m sure your means can beat theirs if they try to corrupt the press and the police. We can bring it all to light and nail them the right way.”

“Saphira, I survived being engineered into a monster and used as a killer only for the sake of this revenge. It’s what kept me going. You’re asking me to throw away my reason for breath.”

I caress his cheek. “want to be your reason for breath. But I’m realistic, and I know such fantasies are childish. But I’m asking you to relinquish revenge is because I believe you and I can have a fresh start. The past is the past, but we cannot be together if the poison of vengeance seeps into our present, continuing to shed blood and tears. I want to live out my love for you freely, smoothly, without hacks and hatches. I want to lose my head for you, and feel good about it too.”

Kieran stares at me as if I’m turning into gold with every word. When he kisses me, he’s thirsty and deep and passionate. I’m dizzy when he breaks the kiss and joins his forehead to mine, both his hands on my face.

“For this favour, dear Saphira, I’ll not only consider dropping revenge, but I’ll turn that childish fantasy into reality. I’ll make you my reason for breath.”

My heart jumps, but I don’t want to be stupid. “I’m not asking –”

“No, you’re not,” he interrupts. “Because you’re wild and idealistic, but also mature and reasonable, and I love that about you. But fantasy, Saphira, is not only for children. Fantasy wouldn’t be imaginable if it weren’t possible.”

I smile and stroke the back of his hands. “And you’re the living proof.”

 

***

Trailer Next Episode:

The car stops, interrupting the magic moment Kieran and I share. Zed Stone Mask opens the door to the sight of the lunatic asylum, a grey desolate castle guarded by a black gate made of black wrought iron. Its spires rise high and seem to pierce the leaden clouds, thunder adding the final touch to a creepy landscape. After only a few steps my high heels slump into a puddle of mud, and Kieran catches me before I sprawl full-body onto the ground.

Next episode.

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Mending Wounds – Ep. 19 of “The Marquis”

Daylight makes it through my eyelids, stubborn and stingy. I shield my eyes and squint around to realize I’m tucked under the long coat, alone on the couch. I sit up with a jolt, and my eyes find the Marquis.

He’s sitting at his desk, wearing a dark suit that compliments his athletic shoulders and arms. He’s as cool and composed as ever, but the moment he looks from his papers to me his gaze changes from that of a cold prince to that of a man who knows, who understands and who cares – the gaze of Kieran Slate. He smiles and stands.

“Good morning.”

I watch as he approaches, the events from last night replaying in my head like a movie on fast-forward until he squats by the couch, taking my hand and kissing it.

“I would’ve brought you to a cosier room, but I thought you’d freak out if you woke in a place where you didn’t feel safe.”

“Feel safe?”

“Last night I told you this study was the only place serpents couldn’t breach,” he reminds me.

“You’re dressed.”

“I had clothes and water brought here. I knew you’d be scared if you woke up alone, so I didn’t leave you for a second.”

Once again affection overwhelms me. “Your wounds?”

He unbuttons his jacket and his shirt, revealing his marble pectoral as the fabric falls off his shoulder. Only a thin scar even whiter than his skin reminds me of the gaping wound from last night. My eyes widen.

“Wow.”

“I told you by morning I’d be as good as new.”

“That’s mind-blowing.”

“What you did for me last night, Saphira,” Kieran says while his hand brushes through my hair as far as the tangles permit it, “it started mending other wounds too. Wounds that don’t show on my body.”

I search his beautiful face and I’d do it forever, but a knock on the door distracts both our attention. Kieran gives me another glance, assessing me up and down – probably to make sure I’m decent – before he permits the visitor to enter.

The double doors open to reveal the head of security Zed with his hands on the knobs. Our eyes meet. His features are as stony and controlled as ever, his ice-blue eyes as focused, but the scars on his face in the shape of scratches bring back a flash of memory – Kieran’s claws slashing the first attacker.

“It was you,” I whisper, remembering the way he writhed and hissed like a lunatic snake – which is exactly what he was, according to Kieran’s explanations. A pang of fear goes through me, but Kieran’s protective arm winding around my shoulder brings back a sense of safety.

“Zed only attacked you because of the moon’s influence, Saphira,” Kieran says. “His animal instincts controlled him, but not anymore.”

“You can rely on me to protect you as I did before, Milady,” Zed adds, bending his head, but his body keeps stiff and straight.

I look him up and down, fascinated by the difference between the animal and the man. “Milady” doesn’t go unnoticed either.

“Call me Saphira.”

He nods.

“I’m sorry for the misunderstanding between you and Kieran,” I say. “It was all my fault.”

“No apologies needed. You wouldn’t apologize to a wolf for having provoked him with your presence in the woods either. Plus that we regenerate fast, no permanent harm was done.”

“What do you have?” Kieran cuts in.

“Vivien Grant,” Zed replies, raising his head and squaring his shoulders like a soldier at his superior’s command. “We trailed her. She sought haven with relatives in the southern forests.”

“Vivien lives?” I yelp and spring up to my feet.

“She does,” Zed says. “But she’s so traumatized she can’t speak.”

“What?” I start walking to Zed, as if that can make things clearer. The man doesn’t move an inch, keeping as stiff and cold as a robot. “What she went through left her with a trauma. She’s shaky and mute and seemingly not in her own body.”

“I have to see her. Right away.”

“That’s impossible. We let her stay with her relatives and left guards behind, since bringing her here would put her life in danger. Her presence would attract Basarab and help our cause indeed, but I doubt you want your friend used as bait.”

Kieran clasps my shoulders and turns me to face him.

“Listen, Saphira. The men made sure Vivien is safe, but for the moment this is all we can do for her.” He turns to Zed. “We’ll discuss the details later. Now escort Saphira to the chamber – my chamber. It’s more comfortable.” He addresses me again. “I’d accompany you myself, but I have to prepare the plan.”

“Plan?” I frown in confusion.

“Zed will explain.” Kieran squares his shoulders, his hands dropping off me.

The head of security steps aside and motions me to walk before him. “I’ll tell you all about it, Milady. Saphira.”

Kieran is already on his way back to his desk. I stand in place and watch him until he faces me again.

“Thank you. Thank you so much,” I whisper. Our eyes lock, and emotion flows between us. I want to run into his arms and kiss him, but I remember my dirty skin, my crazy hair and the stained ripped dress I’m wearing. And the plan. I turn and let Zed close the doors behind me.

Two other men wait outside the study and lead Zed and me up the grand stairs, past the huge pointed arch on the first landing to what turns out to be Kieran’s majestic bedroom on the first floor. A huge arched window reveals a view of the rocky fields where serpents crawled and squirmed last night in the terrible fight that I survived only thanks to Kieran. There’s a king size bed, a fireplace and all the decorum of a palace, but it barely looks inhabited.

“He’s rarely here,” Zed says, as if reading my mind. The door is still open behind him. He avoids being alone with me, and I can understand that. I can only hope he’ll talk freely nonetheless.

“How come?”

“He mostly spends his nights as a serpent. But things might change now, since you and him . . .” He clears his throat and changes the subject. “Please, get ready. You and Kieran are going to the lunatic asylum today to talk to your friend’s mother.”

I’m baffled. “Why the asylum?”

“That’s where Mrs Grant has been since the events with her daughter and the burning of her house.”

The news strikes me like a punch. “Excuse me?”

“She was hysterical, impossible to control, they said.”

“They, who’s they?”

“The police, led by your friend Jeremy Simmons. They had to restrain her and turn her in for special care at the asylum.”

 

***

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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 Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, feel free to help yourself to The Executioner (Part I) : ) Enjoy!

 

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Repentance – Ep. 18 of “The Marquis”

“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.

 

***

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Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Tuesday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, feel free to help yourself to The Executioner (Part I) 🙂

 

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Secrets by the Fireplace – Ep. 17 of “The Marquis”

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.”

***

Next episode.

Previous episode.

All previous episodes.

Enjoyed this? Please let me know your thoughts in a comment. Stay tuned for a new episode on Friday and check out the prequel, Saphira, in the Christmas Story Book for Adults, available here and, if you’re in for a whole novel in the same genre, help yourself to The Executioner (Part I).

 

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